Teddy Katz is a freelance Canadian journalist who was the media attaché for the Refugee Paralympic Team last summer at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Oakville, Ont., the three athletes draw little attention – even though their remarkable journey from refugee camp to competing in the Olympics made headlines around the world.
Now students at the city’s Sheridan College, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and James Nyang Chiengjiek – all originally from South Sudan – are the first refugee athletes to be granted postsecondary scholarships to live, study and train in another country under a new Refugee Athlete Stream of World University Service of Canada’s Student Refugee Program.
Piloted last fall at Sheridan College in Oakville, the WUSC initiative is supported by the International Olympic Committee and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Centennial College joined the program this year. Nigara Shaheen, an Olympic judo athlete, arrived a few weeks ago and has begun classes at the college in Toronto.
After nearly a year in Canada, the athletes share the story of their journeys from fleeing a country torn apart by war, to qualifying for the Olympics
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 29
At the age of eight, Ms. Lokonyen fled her village in South Sudan with her family during the civil war. The family eventually ended up at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
Ms. Lokonyen spent more than 14 years in the camp, where she developed a love of soccer. She often snuck out of the house to play with the boys over the objections of her father, who felt that girls shouldn’t participate in sports.
Her athletic talents were spotted by scouts in the camp during trial races. Ms. Lokonyen ultimately qualified for the first Olympic Refugee Team, which made its first appearance at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. There, she was the team’s flag-bearer during the opening ceremonies and ran in the 800-metre race. She also competed in the Olympics in Tokyo last summer.
“That was one of the first times we felt like we were human beings,” she said. “You don’t choose to be refugees. War and sometimes hunger forces people to flee their countries. Being on the Olympic Refugee Team, we are giving hope to all the refugees around the world.”
Today, Ms. Lokonyen is studying social work at Sheridan College with the goal of eventually helping other refugees.
“They say when you educate a girl, you educate a whole nation,” she said. “All the [female] children around the world should be given the same rights as men to go to school. You can become a doctor and become the leaders of tomorrow and inspire other women around the world.”
James Nyang Chiengjiek, 30
Mr. Chiengjiek is all too familiar with overcoming adversity. He fled South Sudan when he was 13 to avoid being kidnapped after his father was killed in the war and he faced pressure to become a child soldier.
“They recruited children, young boys to join the army,” he said. “They wanted me to replace him and I was really young.”
While competing in the 800-metre race in the Tokyo Olympics, Mr. Chiengjiek accidentally tripped on a competitor’s foot and fell onto the track. A photograph of the fall was seen around the world.
“It was a devastating moment for me,” he said. “The picture was everywhere. People reached out to me to say they were sorry. They saw how emotional l was and how I was crying. I want to thank all the fans for their support.”
At Sheridan, he is studying public and private investigation and hopes to work with displaced people. The oldest of five children, and the only male, Mr. Chiengjiek said he feels extra pressure to excel in his studies to be able to help his family and those he left behind in the Kakuma Refugee Camp.
“Especially as first-born, I’m like the father figure, he said. “The rest are younger so there’s a lot of pressure on you. You need to find something that can help them survive.”
Paulo Amotun Lokoro, 30
Mr. Lokoro didn’t have the performance he wanted in the 1,500-metre race in Tokyo, his second games with the Olympic Refugee Team.
With Kenya under lockdown during the pandemic, the training facilities in Nairobi were closed and Olympic Refugee Team members were forced to leave. For Mr. Lokoro, that meant returning to the Kakuma Refugee Camp for nine months.
Running on its unpaved dirt roads was far from the optimal way to prepare for the Olympics. But that setback paled in comparison with the challenges Mr. Lokoro faced as a child.
When he was 12, Mr. Lokoro’s village in South Sudan was set on fire. His family scattered. His parents ended up making it to Kakuma Refugee Camp, while Mr. Lokoro was taken in by his uncle.
When a neighbour fled to Kakuma, Mr. Lokoro’s parents learned their son was alive. They arranged for him to make the dangerous journey to the refugee camp.
It was an emotional reunion. “We cried because we hadn’t seen each other for three years,” he said. “My parents were crying. I was crying.”
Like Ms. Lokonyen, Mr. Lokoro is studying at Sheridan to be a social service worker and hopes to work with refugees, especially young people.
For now, he is focused on balancing his studies with training for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. “I never dreamed I’d be in Canada,” he said. “Without sport and education, I’d never be here.”