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The Inspiring Story Of The Athlete Refugee Team

In 2003, the Janjaweed, a militia operating in western Sudan that has played a major role in perpetuating the war in Darfur since 2003, arrived in Jamal Mohammed’s village. On that day, they killed 97 people, including his father. “It was the worst day of my life,” explains Jamal. 

Death and violence dogged Jamal and his family for many years to come. On one of his darker days, Jamal was forced to flee the Janjaweed with his nine-month-old sister in arms to avoid being detained and killed. Following his mother’s instructions, he tied his t-shirt to the branch of a tree to signal the spot where he would hide the baby. His mother would later recover her daughter, but Jamal was forced to hide in the bush with barely any food or water for six days.

While the genocidal conflict in Jamal’s home in Darfur continues to this day, following dangerous desert crossings, detention in Egypt, and months in holding camps, Jamal has finally found relative peace in exile in Israel as a refugee. 

On The Road To Tokyo

Today, Jamal is an Olympic contender and 10,000m runner for the Athlete Refugee Team. Formed in 2017, after the Athlete Refugee Team made its historic debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The current team, consisting of 31 athletes originally from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, represent the near-70 million refugees around the world. 

RUN: The Athlete Refugee Story, a new feature-length documentary produced by award-winning director Richard Bullock, expertly captures the unwavering human spirit as told by Jamal and his colleagues’ quest to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. Filmed over three years, RUN illustrates the powerful role sport can play in providing hope and a better future for athletes from all backgrounds.

The iconic leader of the Athlete Refugee Team, referred to as a ‘mother’ by her athletes, is the champion distance runner and peace ambassador, Tegla Loroupe. With the support of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the UN, amongst others, she led talent-spotting visits to the Kakuma refugee camp in the North-West of Kenya to recruit the current team members.

Competing Is Everything

RUN follows the everyday life and day-to-day training regime of the refugees scouted in Kakuma. Notable athletes include James Nyang, a 400m runner and one of the original members selected for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, whose father was killed during the Second Sudanese Civil War; Angelina Ladai, a 1,500m runner who was separated from her parents during the war;  and Rose Lokonyen, an 800m runner who fled Sudan with her family when she was just seven years old. 

For athletes like Jamal, now living in Tel Aviv, sports is more than a pastime or vocation. “Running is everything,” Jamal says, “sometimes after I study, I might feel tired. I put my shoes on and run two miles to the sea and come back, and my mind is clear. Everything is good.”

“Refugees have talent. They only need a chance to realise their dreams and their full potential,” says Tegla. “I want to tell the whole world: Let us not look at refugee people as a problem. Look upon them as people who we can learn from – their resilience and fight against hardship.”

Hurdles Along the Way

The documentary also explores team tensions resulting from the fleeing of some Athlete Refugee Team members while out at international meets. For Tegla, this has understandably been a hard pill to swallow. 

She has fought hard to ensure her athletes have rights in Kenya while providing some of the best training facilities for them. “Running away kills the opportunity for others. No one will trust you. It has created a lot of problems with foreign embassies,” she explains. “They are not like normal people. They are special people. They had travel documents; now they have nothing.”

Covid-19 And The Tokyo Olympics

On March 17th, 2020, when the entire team was due to fly to Doha for a training and qualification camp hosted by the IOC, documentary filming took an unexpected turn. With travel restrictions imposed around the world to halt the spread of COVID-19, the Athlete Refugee Team were blocked on their journey towards achieving their dreams.

While this would understandably be a devastating blow for any athlete hoping to make history at the Tokyo Olympics, the news was darkened with an even deeper shade of loss for the Athlete Refugee Team. Their training camp in Ngong was disbanded and most of the athletes had to return to Kakuma. They are still there today, where they continue to support their families and struggle to stay safe in difficult conditions – all while keeping up their training plans. 

Yet, as the documentary shows, the team once again showed the world their extraordinary resilience. Tegla confesses, “I’m very happy at the way the athletes handled the news. The hardship they have faced, from death and disease – I think they are immune to such difficult and stressful news – it is another thing they will overcome.” 

The Future   

For children and youth uprooted by war or persecution, sport is much more than a leisure activity. It’s an opportunity to be included and protected – a chance to heal, develop and grow. 

“For me, I see athletes who are going to be leaders for tomorrow. Because they are using their platform through sports to get more exposure. One thing they can be is a gold medalist or even a finalist, but they also have the opportunity to get an education, to get scholarships,” Tegla explains. “I see athletes that are going to be leaders. They will go back and make peace and give the knowledge they get from our training camp, from sports and education.”

Jamal shares such ambitions, “I want to be a coach one day – to help refugee children. We get [support], so we need to give back.” RUN premiered on June 20th, World Refugee Day, and can now be viewed at www.AthleteRefugeeTeam.com.

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