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Refugee athletes see light at the end of the tunnel through U20 programme

June 19 2023 - News Release News Editorial

To mark World Refugee Day on Tuesday (20), World Athletics highlights the courageous path taken by four determined young refugee athletes whose lives have been transformed through the U20 refugee programme.

Refugee athletes see light at the end of the tunnel through U20 programme

Not too long ago, Alice Samuel Ilam, Esterina Julius Irino, Jean Mfite-Umukiza Jules and Perina Lokure Nakang were afflicted by poverty, living in substandard housing, and surviving as best as could be expected in the arid average 40°C Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya.

Today, they see a light at the end of the tunnel in their new boarding school, the All4Running Shoes4Africa Secondary School in the agricultural town of Kapsabet, Kenya. The contrast is not just in the landscape but also in their persona, which has been interesting to observe particularly in the eyes of their mentor, assistant coach and confidant, Arcade Arakaza. He is the man that has stood by them from the beginning of their athletics careers and continues to coach five fellow refugee athletes still training in the camp.

Although a drop in the ocean, the World Athletics U20 refugee programme is a catalyst of hope and opportunity for young people in refugee camps. The programme is a partnership between World Athletics, the African Higher Education in Emergencies Network and Youth Education and Sports (YES). The inaugural group left behind overcrowded classes of 80 to 100 students, each coming with their own level of education. Their new environment offers many advantages: smaller classes (12 to 25), higher academic standards, greener fields, cooler temperatures, three meals a day (a luxury for some who used to go to bed hungry) and, from the social angle, an opportunity to integrate with their Kenyan peers.

It has not been an easy transition, considering their personal traumatic journeys, the adjustment to a boarding school structure including the discipline and rules that go with it, and, of course, leaving their families behind. But it is a golden opportunity where World Athletics is offering schools fees, full board, school uniforms, training and competition kits, professional coaches, coaching materials, a nutrition programme, and local, regional, or international competition opportunities.

It is a happy group, one that enjoys learning and appreciates the time available for training with U20 head coach, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei. In a short span of time, their English and Swahili (the national language in Kenya) have already considerably improved thanks to joint efforts of the project’s innovative combination of online and on-site learning support. They have gained confidence, improved their communication skills and made new friends. When asked what their current needs are, at the top of the list are sports and everyday shoes, more competition opportunities and interestingly, English and Swahili dictionaries. David Langat, one of their teachers, describes them as good students that have integrated well. Perina has become a star due her brilliant performances in the 800m and 400m, boosting her new school to rank third at a recent regional competition.

This weekend, Arakaza successfully coached his team of Kakuma-based refugee athletes at the Lake Turkana Half Marathon, where they ran the 5km. For the first time ever, all of them came back with prize money. With rations in the camp limited, it meant they could help their parents with food.

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