Eritrean-born refugee athletes Luna Solomon and Habtom Amaniel: Sport lighting the path to peace

Solomon and Amaniel left their home nation in search of a better life and sport has helped guide these two incredible journeys.

By Olympics.com
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

When Habtom Amaniel and Luna Solomon were escaping violence and repression in their home nation Eritrea, playing sport couldn't have been further from their thoughts.

"I left because there is no freedom there," Solomon explained in Olympic Channel original series Taking Refuge, after she fled her country of birth in 2015.

She eventually made her way to Switzerland where she met Niccolò Campriani, Italy's triple Olympic gold medallist in sport shooting, who would later become her coach.

However, sport - and the dream of competing in the Olympics - eventually made its way into her life, and helped change her world: "Sport shooting brings me peace," she told Yahoo News.

The year 2015 was an important year for Habtom too: it was when he met Catherine Colomb, a former athlete and now a coach in Gland, Switzerland, who convinced him to commit to his talent for running.

It was a decision that helped him outrun prison, injustice, and exile.

In recognition of International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, we take a closer look on the refugees' inspirational stories, and how sport helped them find peace.

Two refugee athletes that have come a long way

Habtom journey to Switzerland was a harrowing one.

Escaping war-torn Eritrea mostly on foot through a desert across Sudan and Libya, the 1500m specialist spent days on a boat making the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Italy.

From there, the refugee made his way to Switzerland, where he found work as a painter and decorator. Any free time he had was spent honing his running skills.

"Here in Switzerland, I had the chances I did not have in my country. Here I can do whatever I want, and how I want, no one is telling me 'you cannot do this, you have to do that'," he told Reuters.

"That is why I decided to start doing sport alongside my job."

"He left without money, he had nothing, he had to cross the desert, he had no water. (He had to work out) how to cross the sea," his coach Cyrille Gindre said.

"I think this is why he has so much willpower. Like a lot of people who lived in those places, everything looks brighter and this is what we see in his journey."

While Habtom didn't make it to the final IOC Olympic Refugee Team that competed at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, at 31 years of age he's still got plenty more running left in his legs.

Luna Solomon: From escaping a war to sport's greatest stage

Solomon's journey is another remarkable tale: "The first time I participated in sport shooting was in Switzerland. Before that, I didn't know anything about sport shooting," she told Olympics.com.

After dedicating herself to the sport, Campriani selected the African-born athlete for the group of refugees trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Luna rewarded that faith by achieving the Olympic minimum mark, and was selected for the Refugee Olympic Team in Japan.

That feat is all the more amazing when you take into account the fact that she became pregnant and gave birth during the project.

The one-year postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to the pandemic gave her an opportunity to catch up, and she eventually finished 50th in the women's 10m air rifle qualification in Japan.

With an awareness of what it means to be a refugee in these times, her wish after that exhilarating ride to the Tokyo Games was that she could help others to live what she lived.

"I would like to join Nicco to help other immigrants like me… [To] help them be brave through sport, like I was with sport shooting."

And now she has her sights set on Paris 2024 too, telling Olympics.com, "I am going to continue with sport until Paris 2024. I want to participate in those Olympic Games."

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