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Escape to victory: the refugees who will run at the Rio Olympics

Escaping South Sudan in 2005, Yiech and his family had to eat leaves to stave off hunger. Now, he's part of the first ever "Team Refugee".

It was in the middle of the night when Yiech Pur Biel fled the only home he had ever known as fast as his ten-year-old legs would carry him. There was no time to gather any belongings. His mother urged him and his two siblings to run for the bush. Later, peeking through the tall, dense grass and vegetation of South Sudan, Yiech saw the roaring flames and smelled the smoke engulfing his village.

Eleven years later, Yiech is in Kenya, training for a very different kind of run. He will be competing in the 800 metres race at the Olympic Games in Rio, as part of the first ever “Team Refugee”. The initiative, instigated and funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), is intended to raise awareness of the worldwide refugee crisis. Tegla Loroupe, Kenya’s former marathon world record-holder, is leading the team. She selected the Kenyan-based athletes from trials held at the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps and has spent nine months coaching them.

The team includes two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a marathon runner from Ethiopia, who had fled to countries such as Belgium, Germany, Brazil and Luxembourg. Half of the team is made up of middle-distance runners based in Kenya, all from South Sudan.

Yiech escaped from his country in 2005, the last year of the Second Sudanese Civil War, which had been raging since 1983. In the decade before he was born, more than 20,000 Sudanese boys and girls fled their homes in an effort to escape being killed or recruited as child soldiers. Though most of them were younger than ten, they walked thousands of miles. Half of them never made it, perishing on the journey from illness, snakebites, attacks by wild animals or malnutrition. Of those who survived, most never saw their family again.

As he sits recovering from an early-morning run in the leafy grounds of the athletes’ small training compound just outside Nairobi, Yiech recalls how his family spent days living in the bush while on the run. “There was no food, so we ate the fruits. But the fruits were not enough, so we even ate the leaves from the trees.” When they returned to their burned-out village, everything had been destroyed. “They even took the cows.”

Yiech’s mother decided to cross into Ethiopia to look for food, taking the two youngest children. “They left me with my neighbours, because I was the oldest,” he says. The family still hoped that Yiech’s father, who had been missing for two years after being forcibly recruited to fight, would return. He did not. A neighbour took Yiech with her to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which is still his home today.

For a ten-year-old living without his family, the main challenge was logistics. “You go to school, and afterwards you must come back and cook for yourself and fetch water,” he explains. He laughs suddenly as he remembers. “The first time I cooked – oh, I made food that you cannot eat!”

Yiech was encouraged to try out for the team by his friend James Nyang Chiengjiek, a 28-year-old 400 metres runner from South Sudan who captains the Olympic refugees. As a child, James would meet up with two of his friends to herd cattle and play on the banks of the River Nile, spending hours competing over who could catch the biggest fish. One day when he was 13, his friends didn’t turn up. Running home, he found that they had been recruited as child soldiers. He panicked. “Everyone knew that as soon as they recruit your friends, they will come for you, too, and take you by force,” James explains. “I thought to myself, ‘I cannot be killed.’”

James talked to his mother, who urged him to go into hiding. While wandering through the dense forests, he met Ndouk, a mother-of-two, who took him under her wing. “I was so afraid, but she shared corn and other food with me.” Ndouk said she was heading for a UN compound. James followed – a decision that probably saved his life.

The other refugee athletes have similar stories. Most haven’t seen their parents and siblings since they were children. Their experiences are still raw but they say they try not to talk about it too much. “It is very sad,” James admits. “We don’t go deep, because the emotion can overwhelm.” Instead, everyone is focused on the competition ahead.

“The Olympics are like God opening a door. Not just for me but for all refugees,” says James. “You see, when we are there, the most important thing we’ll be promoting is peacemaking.”

After the competition, James intends to carry on training and working with other refugees. “We have so many young people. We have to take them with us, train with us. That is very important. We’ve been helped by the IOC, UNHCR, Tegla – so if someone helped you, later on, you have to do something good for others.”

“I want to serve people wherever I go,” says Yiech, who intends to study international relations. “The world has the wrong idea about refugees. Now we have a chance to show the world that we are human beings like other people.”

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear