Olympic marathon runner and former refugee Yonas Kinde knows first-hand the power of sport to forge friendships, stay healthy and rebuild lives.
Yonas Kinde has been doing early morning runs in the forest near his home in Luxembourg City during the COVID-19 pandemic. © UNHCR/Colin Delfosse
“I can run immediately from my house to the forest,” he said. “Running is important for me to renew my mind and to be healthy physically and mentally.”
Five years after competing in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, Yonas now fits his training in around his other commitments – studying for a qualification in pharmaceutical logistics and working in a hospital pharmacy that is distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
But long-distance running remains his passion. He rarely goes a day without training and took a break last year only when he contracted COVID-19 and had to isolate indoors.
“It was a difficult moment …. I was really missing the training,” he recalled. “I was supported by my friends, by phone, by video calls. They said, ‘We are with you.’”
On World Refugee Day on 20 June, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is calling on communities and governments to include those forced to flee in health care, education and sport.
Giving refugees opportunities to get involved in sport can help them to gain confidence and feel welcomed and included in their new communities.
“Sport gave me a family, not just in Luxembourg, but around the world.”
Many of the friends who helped Yonas through his COVID isolation, and lockdown, were acquired through his love of sport.
“Thanks to sport, I met a lot of important people in my life,” he said. “Sport gave me a family, not just in Luxembourg, but around the world.”
Yonas began running as a teenager in Ethiopia as a way of saving his bus money for sweets and snacks.
“I was running to school. There and back it was 16 kilometres and I didn’t realize it was helpful for competition because I was running to arrive at school.”
A teacher encouraged him to start competing.
He fled his native Ethiopia and reached Europe in the winter of 2012 where he ended up in the small land-locked Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. After being granted asylum there in 2013, he became one of Luxembourg’s best marathon runners, winning titles in both France and Germany.
Learning that he had been selected by the International Olympic Committee to be part of the Refugee Team for Rio 2016 was, he said, “a really unforgettable moment.”
He competed in the men’s marathon and enjoyed hanging out with the other refugee athletes in the Olympic Village. “It was very special,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, Yonas has not participated in international competitions since he took part in the Tokyo Marathon in early March 2020, becoming the first refugee in the event’s history to compete as an elite runner.
“I am really missing my competitions,” he said. “I’m missing the cheers.”
Yonas now speaks Luxembourgish, as well as German, French and English. At the end of 2020, he became a citizen of Luxembourg, seven years after being granted asylum there.
“It’s a great thing for me, when I’m searching for jobs, and also to integrate more with people. I can also represent Luxembourg in sport,” he said.
“The Refugee Olympic Team is a symbol of hope.”
Now he is no longer a refugee he was not eligible to be part of the Refugee Olympic Team going to Tokyo this summer, but he will be rooting for the 29 athletes announced by the IOC last week as making up the team.
“The Refugee Olympic Team is a symbol of hope …. for refugee athletes, and also for refugees around the world,” he said. “My message for the Team is to use this second chance to get medals and to send a message for the world to stand with refugees.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, refugee doctors, nurses and pharmacy workers like Yonas have worked on the front-lines to contain the spread of the virus, treat patients and help people get vaccinated.
“In this difficult moment, it makes me happy that I can contribute, that I can do something for the COVID patients,” Yonas said.
Having the opportunity to further his education is allowing him to look to the future and learn the skills he needs to give back to the country that gave him refuge.
Someday, Yonas plans to offer training to newly arrived refugees in Luxembourg so they can experience the same benefits that he did.
“Running taught me to be stronger. Running helped me to integrate with people. And running helped me to find myself,” he said.
This World Refugee Day, Yonas will be running a special training programme while he thinks about refugees around the world, particularly children. “This is the time to think about those people,” he said. “It’s a very special day.”