Refugee athletes impress at Kenya Cross-Country Event

“I want to train hard and qualify for the 2020 Olympics,”

Refugee athletes from left, James Nyak, Anjelina Nadai, Dominic Lokolong and Clementina Ihure. The four competed in the 8km relay at second edition of cross country events in Kenya. © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

24-year-old Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, an Olympian and refugee from South Sudan, meticulously ties her shoe laces, her yellow sports shoes catching my attention. Her dark red socks warmly hug her feet, with a carefully matched pink running gear, a sign that the races are just about to kick off.  Anjelina briefly chats with other competitors in the mixed relay event, a careful blend of seasoned and upcoming athletes.

Anjelina Nadai participates in the 8km team relay in the second edition of cross-country race in Kenya. Cheering her on is the Kenyan coach, Thomas Mukhwana. © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

Before long, the line-up of teams for the relay is called up, a confident strides to the starting line, aware of the muddy and water-logged terrain in Sotik, in Western Kenya, at the second edition of the Athletics Kenya national cross-country series on 14 December 2019.  Anjelina was part of a group of nine refugee and Kenyan athletes under the UNHCR/Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation project that also signed up for six-kilometre junior women race and ten-kilometre senior men race.

“The race was the most difficult I have ever run in. The terrain was very challenging,” an energetic Angelina says.

Anjelina is happy that the team completed the 8km relay

Even though their names are not among the athletes with a podium finish, Anjelina is happy that the team completed the 8km relay.

Anjelina clocks 7.37 minutes, while her other team members, James Nyak, an Olympian, and Clementine Ihure, an upcoming athlete, complete the two-kilometer race in 6.52 minutes and 8.48 minutes respectively.

Athletes from Kenya and refugees line up at the start of the 6km junior women race. Among them is Anjelina Nadai, tagged 203 and Rose Ihisam, tagged 256. Close to 100 women participated in the race held in Sotik, Kenya. © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

Another line up for the six-kilometre junior women race is called up. Surprisingly, Anjelina signs up for the race, never mind that she has just completed a grueling two-kilometre one. She joins an upcoming athlete, 20-year-old Rose Ihisa, who usually competes in the 800m race, standing tall among her contemporaries. Rose quietly waits for the start of the race. As the race begins, she carefully takes long strides across the marked racing track to avoid falling on the unforgiving muddy and slippery terrain. Clearly, she comes out unscathed and completes the race in 27.29 minutes.

“I want to improve my time from the current 2:30 to 2:13 minutes, the set qualifying time for 800m,’ a determined Rose says. “I will train very hard, especially with major competitions happening in 2020.”

20-year-old Rose Ihisa, a secondary school student and one of the upcoming 1500 metre track athletes. She is among the seven female Kenyan athletes under the UNHCR/Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation project. © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

Rose, a secondary school student, is determined to balance successfully education and athletics.

She says, “I plan to be doing extra studies at night to catch up on my school work and join other athletes for morning runs at 5:00 am. I want to improve my time to 2:04 for 800m race, because I want to make a career out of running.”

Having completed the 6km race in 24.30 minutes, Anjelina is excited about her current physical form. Angelina is determined to regain her personal best time of 4:23 minutes, a feat she achieved at the 2017 London championships. She is currently ten seconds shy of her previous personal best, having made a comeback from a two-year hiatus.

I want to train hard and qualify for the 2020 Olympics

Angelina explains that during the holiday season, she will be camping and training at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation center in Ngong, in the outskirts of the Kenyan capital. She wants to be ready for the qualifiers for various national and international athletics competitions slated for January and February 2020.

“I want to train hard and qualify for the 2020 Olympics. My greatest desire is to compete with the 1,500-meter champions from Kenya,’ a jovial Anjelina says.

20-year-old Dominic Lokolong is a 1500 metres track athlete. He participated at the Under-20 World Athletics Championships in Tampere, Finland in 2018. © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

Among Anjelina’s relay team is an upcoming athlete, 20-year-old Dominic Lokolong. Selected to join the refugee athletics project in 2018 through trials held in Kakuma refugee camp, the soft-spoken 1500m track athlete also participated at the Under-20 World Athletics Championships in Tampere, Finland in 2018. At the Sotik race, his determination to achieve the best time possible in the races is evident. He posts a time of 6.29 minutes in the mixed relay clearly, setting a good pace for his team.

Having run his race in the mixed relay, Dominic keeps off the track, as senior men take up the 10km, one that Ukuk Uthoo, the refugees team captain, aptly describes as the most gruelling.

“This was my first time to run barefoot in any race because the shoe was sliding. Spiked shoes are the only ones that can make it in this kind of terrain.’


Ukuk Uthoo, the refugees team captain, takes a stride at the second edition of cross country event held in Sotik, Kenya © UNHCR/Caroline Opile


Runners at the 10km senior mens race that had 4 refugees and 3 Kenyans under the athletes' project participate in the run © UNHCR/Caroline Opile


Hosea Simoto, a Kenyan athlete runs head to head with Simon Ayong, a refugee athlete, both running under the UNHCR/TLPF project © UNHCR/Caroline Opile


Clementine, Dominic, James and Angelina quench their thirst at the completion of the 8km relay © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

Thomas Mukhwana, one of the coaches in the refugee athletics project stresses how good cross Country races are for endurance training.

“Athletes have made me proud in recent competitions and especially at today’s event. In early 2020, we embark on speed training as we prepare for regional cross-country championships.”

Bernard Rono, the UNHCR Refugee Athletes Project Coordinator agrees with the coach’s sentiments, pointing out that the refugee athletes have shown their determination and resolve to give their best in all races, however challenging.

A mix of refugee and Kenyan athletes that took part in the 10km senior men’s race at the cross country event in Kenya, with their coach, Thomas Mukhwana on the left. © UNHCR/Caroline Opile

“With one of the pledges at the Global Refugees Forum being to promote and facilitate equal access to and participation of refugees in sporting events and competitions at all levels, refugee athletes can look forward to a vibrant and active 2020 with support from UNHCR, World Athletics and other partners,” Rono says.