Refugee athletes shine at world championships in Finland

Competing against high-level athletes, refugee athletes step up to the challenge.

Dominic, 18 and Lydia, 17 are representing the Athlete Refugee Team at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Finland. © UNHCR/Pinja Naamaka

Among thousands of young athletes and participants from all over the world, Lydia, 17 and Dominic, 18 are not representing a country at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Finland; they are running under the flag of the Athlete Refugee Team, bringing attention to their talent, but also to the global refugee situation as a whole.

When 17-year-old Lydia Mamun takes to the starting line for the 800m event at the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, it’s a dream come true.

“I want to make my father very proud – and maybe I can help my brothers and sisters in the future,” she says. “My father has been very supportive of my drive for running, he even called to wish me good luck before I travelled to Finland.”

“One day I am going to be a doctor and I will help members of my community and family,” said Lydia Mamun. © UNHCR/Pinja Naamaka


Lydia and her six siblings fled from South Sudan in the aftermath of the civil war. Together with their father, they found safety at the expansive Dadaab refugee camp in North Eastern Kenya.

Lydia has always been a keen runner, but developing her skills as an athlete often proved to be a challenge; living in a camp makes it difficult to train professionally.

As part of an initiative supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, Lydia now lives on the outskirts of Nairobi with 25 other refugee athletes, where they get the opportunity to train, improve their running skills, and also attend school.

“One day I’m going to be a doctor and I’ll help members of my community and family,” Lydia declares before she takes off. Today she is running for the Athlete Refugee Team, an opportunity to be seen by a global audience alongside her new athlete friends from around the world. And of course, to bring her great athletic talent to the table- Lydia sets a new Personal Best time of 2:29.73 at the 800m event in Finland.

But Lydia is not alone in Tampere. Taking part in the 1500m event is Dominic Lokolong, an 18-year-old refugee from South Sudan who used to live in Kakuma camp with his brother. He believes that running will help him improve his life in the future.

“I’m hopeful that one day I’ll win a medal or even break a record. Then I can help my parents back in South Sudan and move my brother from the camp. Running is my life,” Dominic says, before he sets a Personal Best time of 3:59.63 in the 1500m race.

Apart from making a lot of new friends, and having a great time – both refugee athletes also set their personal best times at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Finland. © UNHCR/Pinja Naamaka


The IAAF World U20 Athletics Championships, which lasts for six days starting 10 July, has brought together more than 1400 young athletes from almost 150 countries competing in various disciplines. But for the first time ever, it has incorporated the Athlete Refugee Team.

“We’ve made so many new friends from all over the world. I am very happy,” said Dominic, thanking IAAF for the opportunity to take part in the World U20 Championships and many other competitions. He dreams of launching a career in sports management in the near future, and things are looking bright for him.

The coach, Joseph Domongole, has been with the team since 2013. He is impressed with the effort the athletes put in, and their work ethic.

“I’m very happy that both athletes have set Personal Best times, but the most important thing for me is the exposure. This experience will be a great boost for their confidence and it won’t be long before we see a medal,” he asserts proudly.

Coach Joseph Domongole preparing Dominic for his run. © UNHCR/Pinja Naamaka


Members of the Athlete Refugee Team, training under the world-renowned Kenyan marathoner Ambassador Tegla Loroupe, are involved in many events in Kenya and abroad. The project includes both educational support and athletic participation, giving the athletes the chance to fulfil their dreams in adulthood.

The Refugee Athletics Project was established in Kenya in 2013. In 2016, the International Olympic Committee invited athletes from the project to take part in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the first time ever.

The members of the Athlete Refugee Team are in the spotlight during the rest of their time in Tampere. Lots of supporters want to meet the refugee athletes, take selfies and send words of encouragement. So far, they’ve made friends with teams from Portugal, India, Latvia, Finland, Cuba, Uganda, Nigeria, Sweden, Bulgaria, France, Guam, Barbados, Jamaica and South Africa – and the tournament isn’t finished yet.

The Athlete Refugee Team left to Right: Eliza Lopilale (Team Chaperone); Dominic Lokolong (Refugee Athlete, 1500M men); Lydia Mamun (Refugee Athlete, 800M women); Joseph Domongole (Team Coach). © UNHCR/Pinja Naamaka


On the fourth day, Dominic and Lydia are having a typical Finnish breakfast with dark rye bread at the hotel in Tampere. They’re no longer competing, but still excited to get out of the hotel and meet their new friends again.

“I’ve had a great time so far and can’t wait for the next few days to learn more from the people of Finland and our fellow athletes,” Dominic says, as they hurry out of the hotel and head back to the Tampere stadium.