Three refugee athletes gain sports scholarships to Canada
Kenya-based middle-distance runners from South Sudan currently in Tokyo with the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in first intake of trailblazing athletic scholarship scheme.
Three members of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team from South Sudan currently preparing to compete in Tokyo will begin new lives training and studying in Canada after the Games, thanks to a unique athletic scholarship that offers young refugees a chance to settle in the country based on their sporting talent.
Middle-distance runners Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and James Nyang Chiengjiek were members of the first Refugee Olympic Team in Rio in 2016 before being selected to compete once again in Tokyo.
Having fled conflict in South Sudan, all three were living in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee settlement when their athletic prowess was first discovered. Since then, they have lived and trained in Kakuma and a training centre in Ngong near the capital Nairobi, before heading to Tokyo earlier this week to compete in their second Olympics.
Following the competition, later this year they will be sponsored to move to Canada and study at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. In doing so they will become the first refugees to move to Canada under a new “athletic pathway”, created through a partnership between UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Sheridan College and the World University Service Canada (WUSC). The three athletes will continue to receive their IOC scholarship.
Speaking in Japan just before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, where he will run in the 800-metre race, James Nyang Chiengjek said he was grateful for the opportunity and believed it would boost the morale of other refugees by giving them hope that their hard work can also pay off.
"They will know that there is a chance. When you are doing something, you should do it with all your heart and do it knowing that one day, the door will be open,” he said.
As a boy, Chiengjek was forced to flee his home in Bentiu, South Sudan, to avoid being kidnapped and forcibly recruited as a child soldier. Arriving in neighbouring Kenya in 2002, he settled in Kakuma and attended a school known for its runners, joining a group of older boys training for long-distance events.
Chiengjek’s athletic talent was spotted by scouts in the camp, and after several years of training in Kakuma and a specialist base in Ngong near the capital Nairobi, he went on to participate in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as part of the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team.
"We hope in the future many other refugees will get this kind of chance as well,” Chiengjek added.
Another athlete to emerge from Kakuma is Paulo Amotun Lokoro, who used to care for his family’s cattle back in South Sudan before fleeing the effects of war that had continued for most of his life in 2006, aged 14.
After joining his mother in Kakuma, Lokoro excelled in various sports as a high school student before focussing on the 1,500 metres, in which he competed for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio and will do so once again in Tokyo. He said he hoped his performances at the Olympics and winning the scholarship would encourage other young refugees to make the best of their gifts.
“It is our hope to prepare and promote the young talented people who are still there [in the refugee camps] and to give them support and also to give them morale and nurture their talent,” Lokoro said. “Their eyes are on us; they're looking to us.”
After fleeing conflict or persecution, despite finding safety many refugees face obstacles to studying, finding work or pursuing passions such as sport in their host countries. Resettlement to a third country is one possible solution, but typically less than 1 per cent of the world’s 26.4 million refugees will ever be resettled.
Creating so-called complementary pathways such as community sponsorship, family reunification, educational scholarships or labour mobility schemes creates opportunities for more refugees to find permanent solutions to rebuild their lives. It is hoped the athletic pathway now being pioneered will be extended in future to more countries and other skills such as the arts.
“This is an important moment,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “It is the first time sporting potential and athletic capability have been recognized as a route for refugees to access tertiary education.”
“It is fantastic news for the three refugee Olympic athletes concerned, and we hope this Canadian pilot will serve as an example to relevant actors in Canada and in other countries to encourage them to also offer opportunities to admit refugees for educational, sports, artistic and cultural reasons among so many others.”