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 appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue