In 2005, the frightened 10-year-old Yiech Pur Biel was forced to flee the conflict ravaging South Sudan; now, 15 years later, the Rio 2016 IOC Refugee Olympic Team member is proud to have been named the newest UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
“It is a huge honour for me to be able to use my status as an athlete to help refugees and displaced people, to share my own story and those of other refugees like me, and make sure that refugees all over the world have a voice,” said the 25-year-old, who has supported the UN Refugee Agency since 2016.
In his new role, Pur will advocate for the rights of displaced people globally - a remit he has long embraced.
“I want to be an ambassador for refugees everywhere, and I am so happy to be able to continue my commitment to working with UNHCR, the UN agency, helping refugees not only to survive but also to thrive,” he said, just weeks after the latest UNHCR Global Trends report revealed that more than 79.5 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced.
“This work is incredible, and vitally important to so many people all over the world.”
Pur’s story is inspiration enough. After spending three days hiding in the bush, the 10-year-old Pur travelled alone to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. It became home for almost a decade, and the place where he nurtured his talent and love for middle-distance running. Despite the basic facilities, Pur shone in the trials organised by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in 2015 and, having moved to Nairobi to train, he was picked for the inaugural IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016.
“Nothing should make you ashamed to be a refugee,” said the man who walked out with his fellow refugees during the Opening Ceremony four years ago. “We were ambassadors for a message of hope, that anything is possible.”
Since competing in the 800m in Rio, Pur has travelled to 26 countries as an athlete and advocate for refugees, speaking at UNHCR events in New York and Paris and even returning to Kakuma to deliver a TEDx speech.
“Pur’s active and long-standing commitment to speaking up for refugees and displaced people, drawing directly on his own experience, is deeply admirable,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
“This new role will help formalise and amplify his advocacy even further. At a time when forced displacement has reached unprecedented levels, with one per cent of humanity now uprooted by conflict, persecution and violence, his contribution is more critical than ever.”
Pur has considerable experience in effecting genuine change. He is a Board member of the Olympic Refuge Foundation, an organisation launched in September 2017 to support the protection, development and empowerment of forcibly displaced young people across the world through sport. It is not an easy role, but it is one to which Pur has devoted himself.
“It is important to try and make an impact,” he said, with the Foundation having supported specific projects in Uganda and Jordan to support mental well-being and prevent sexual gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know what it is like,” he added.
Pur, who has also represented other refugees at peace talks in Addis Ababa and Khartoum, has certainly caught the eye of IOC President Thomas Bach.
“Pur's extraordinary journey, from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to Rio 2016, where he competed for the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team, inspires us all. Today, Pur is also a strong voice within the Olympic Refuge Foundation, providing access to safe sport for forcibly displaced young people across the world,” Bach said.
“I am sure that in his new role as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, he will continue to act as a role model and demonstrate that sport can not only bring hope but also change lives, empower young people and drive positive change in our society.”
Currently a student at Iowa Central Community College in the USA, Pur is not forgetting his sporting ambitions either. He is currently training hard and hopes to be on the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Tokyo 2020. It would, of course, give him another stage from which to promote his core beliefs and show off his talent.
“Young people are increasingly fleeing their countries, so we must continue with the same message,” Pur said. “And we really want to be a better team than we were in 2016. We can really do something in Tokyo.”