In August, all eyes watched as the first Refugee Olympic Team marched into the opening ceremonies in Rio—carrying with them the Olympic flag. The team was made up of 10 athletes from various nationalities who had left their war-torn countries and sought refuge elsewhere. Two track athletes, refugees from South Sudan, Rose Nathike and James Chiengjiek, were chosen to participate in this shining moment. Their paths to the Olympics, with support from The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), are what make their stories so inspiring.
Seeking shelter in Kakuma
Sudan has a troubling and complicated past, with several civil wars that have led to unrest in various parts of the state, sometimes lasting for years, and in many cases re-emerging at different times. Nathike and Chiengjiek were both young and living in a war-torn South Sudan when their families decided to seek refuge for them.
“We did not have a place to live, especially boys,” Chiengjiek said. “During the fighting, the army would come back and look for young boys who could join the army. At that time, I was very young, and it was difficult for me to stay in the village because the soldiers normally came looking for us.”
So began Chiengjiek’s journey to safety. Leaving his mother and family behind, he joined several other neighbors at the U.N. compound, where he stayed for two months. He eventually reached a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, that receives support from LWF, ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response.
Nathike’s experience was similar.
“In 2002, the war broke out between two of our communities. It started at night, and the community was attacking our houses and neighbors,” she said. “We tried to flee from that village with our parents. Eventually, the U.N. brought us into the refugee camp in Kakuma and gave us shelter.”
Both Nathike and Chiengjiek stayed in the refugee camp in Kakuma through their adolescence. It was there that they attended various schools that were connected to LWF. Eventually, Nathike’s leadership and passion for working with youth emerged, and she was selected by LWF to volunteer as a peer educator.
“Due to her active performance, she was promoted as a youth-sports supervisor,” said Millicent Diang’a, who works in youth protection and development for LWF. “She took advantage of her position to nurture her talents in sport, both as a footballer and athlete.”
Nathike said she used her position with LWF as an opportunity to be a role model to the young girls at the camp.
“I was a mobilizer dealing with girls. We discussed challenges that face girls as well as how they can play football—how it can impact their future. I wanted to be an inspiration to young girls who have had a similar experience as me.”
The road to Rio
Both Nathike and Chiengjiek were selected to participate on the Refugee Olympic Team after running in the team’s Olympic trial competition. Shortly after, they began intense training, with less than a year to prepare for the Olympic Games.
“The team came to the training camp in Nairobi. We trained from Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday we would rest. We trained twice, sometimes three times a day,” Nathike said.
Just eight months later they were on an airplane to Rio where they would represent the first refugee team in Olympic history. Both said they were honored to have such an experience and hoped to use their platform to bring awareness to the conflict in their country.
“While we were there, we met with our team from South Sudan. They were so happy to see us, but because we were running for another organization, they asked if we ever plan to come back. For me, if there will ever be peace in our country then I wish to go back and run—to represent my country,” Chiengjiek said.
“During the Olympics, we all just tried our best. We experienced what it was like to compete against the best in the world,” Nathike said. “I wanted to show the world that refugees are just human beings like others, and they can compete just like anyone else.”
Jill Dierberg Clark is a freelance writer and director of public engagement at Eden Theological Seminary. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and twins.