Refugee athletes run to inspire at the Cross Country World Championships

Two young refugees competed with the Athlete Refugee Team for the first time in the Cross Country World Championships in Denmark.

© IAAF/Jiro Mochizuki

They’ve both fled their home countries, but last weekend they were running for fun, for hope and to win, competing for the Athlete Refugee Team in the IAAF Cross Country World Championships in Denmark.

For Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed and Otmane Nait Hammou, traveling to Denmark for the first time with the Athlete Refugee Team to compete alongside some of the world’s best runners – not to mention being cheered on by the crowd as they raced up the steep hills in the beautiful surroundings outside Aarhus – was proof that they’ve come a long way since they had to leave their homes and families behind.

Jamal was 8 years old when his father was killed during the war in Sudan, and was only a teenager when he made the difficult decision to flee his home in Darfur, leaving his mother and siblings behind. He managed to travel through Egypt and the Sinai Desert on foot, before reaching Israel, where he was granted refugee protection.

Now, at age 23, he never imagined that he’d be where he is today:

“I am so proud to be competing for the Refugee Team. I’ve had a hard life, but if you set your mind on something and you work hard, it’s possible, and you can do it,” Jamal says.

The path has certainly not been easy. Arriving alone in an unfamiliar country was tough, but things changed when the Alley Runners Club, a sports club in Tel Aviv providing opportunities to underprivileged athletes, took him under their wings.

“When I came to Israel, I was still so young and all alone. But the club became my family. I learnt Hebrew from them, and if I had challenges or problems in my life, they helped me,” says Jamal.

“Being on the Refugee Team, I’m here to give hope to all refugees and people in hard situations.”

His refugee teammate, Otmane, 24, also highlights the importance of training and running in his new life in Stockholm. He also fled his native country of Morocco alone, and after a few years in France, came to Sweden.

“Even if it’s hard, even if you get injuries, running makes me happy. I get to meet so many good people, and we take care of each other,” he says.

The refugee athletes agreed that the hilly track in Aarhus, with so many steep climbs, was quite a challenge. And yet, as they’ve trained at this competitive level for only a few years, both of them were happy with their results, finishing 85th and 124th out of 140 runners.

For Otmane, it’s not only about being on top:

“Being on the Refugee Team, I’m here to give hope to all refugees and people in hard situations. If you believe in yourself, you can do it. Don’t give up,” he says.

“Of course it’s nice to win, but I think the main purpose for me is to send a message, that even if people are refugees or immigrants they are also human beings with talents. It makes me sad to know that there are many talented young people without the same opportunities, they might not even have running shoes,” he adds.

“I am very proud that we can provide support for young athletes who have been forced to leave their home countries.”

He’s grateful to the IAAF, International Association of Athletics Federations, for including the Athlete Refugee Team in their competitions. And the positivity is returned by IAAF’s President Sebastian Coe:

“I am very proud that our sport can be a positive influence in the lives of people who are in need of hope and that we can provide support for young athletes who have been forced to leave their home countries” he says.

The Refugee Athletics Project was established in Kenya in 2013 with support from UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency – and in 2016, the International Olympic Committee invited athletes from the project to take part in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, welcoming refugee athletes for the first time ever.

Last year, it was announced that a refugee team will also be competing in Tokyo in 2020, which is the ultimate goal for Jamal:

“Tokyo 2020. That would be my dream come true.”

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Otmane and Jamal are ready for the Cross Country World Championships in Aarhus. © IAAF/Jiro Mochizuki

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23 year old Jamal fled Darfur as a teenager. He now lives in Israel, where he has been given refugee protection. © IAAF/Jiro Mochizuki

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“Of course it’s nice to win, but I think the main purpose for me is to send a message, that even if people are refugees or immigrants they are also human beings with talents," says 24 year old Otmane. © IAAF/Giancarlo Colombo

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“I am so proud to be competing for the Refugee Team. I’ve had a hard life, but if you set your mind on something and you work hard, it’s possible, and you can do it,” Jamal says. © IAAF/Jiro Mochizuki

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Sebastian Coe, the President of IAAF, with Jamal and Otmane, the refugee athletes. © IAAF/Jiro Mochizuki

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For both Otmane and Jamal, the World Championships in Aarhus was the first time they competed for The Athlete Refugee Team. © IAAF/Jiro Mochizuki