Refugee athletes give back to their communities

While attempting to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021, many of the 51 Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders are balancing intense training schedules with efforts to give back to their host communities and support fellow refugees in navigating the additional challenges caused the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we put the spotlight on four inspirational projects that are showing other refugees what’s possible.

Picture by Getty Images

Yusra Mardini: introducing refugees to swimming

The swimmer was a symbol of hope for millions at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 when she was part of the first Refugee Olympic Team, and has continued to train in Germany since then in the hope of reaching her second Games in Tokyo.

Yusra is hugely grateful to her host country, and recently collaborated with her former coach, Sven Spannekrebs, to organise the “Yusra Mardini Swim Camp” in Berlin, which 30 refugee children attended over two weeks. For many of the 5 to 11-year-old girls and boys, it was their first introduction to swimming, and some of them had to be introduced very carefully because of their fear of water.

“Their parents have had to manage a completely new life since they arrived in Berlin, and sport is not the first thing you have in mind as a mother or father when you have to make your way through these new circumstances,” explains Yusra. “So the idea was to offer a low-threshold project to bring these kids in touch with sport. Swimming is an important skill in society, so I hoped I could help the kids to learn it – and maybe some of them found their new passion, like swimming is for me.”

Wasserfreunde Spandau

Many of the beneficiaries had their own moving story of seeking refuge, similar to Yusra’s.

“We share a lot of the same experiences,” she adds. “I have many opportunities for my own life that not many refugees have, but I’ll never forget that I was forced to leave my country too and to build a new life in Germany. So I will always remember this, and if I see a chance, I will give something back.”

Farid Walizadeh: setting a positive example

The 22-year-old boxer overcame a treacherous journey from Afghanistan to Portugal via orphanages, prisons and refugee centres, and told his remarkable story to earlier this year. Now, he is sharing it with fellow refugees and explaining how sport can change lives.

During a gathering organised by the Olympic Committee of Portugal, Farid met and spoke to young refugees who had recently arrived in the country, just like him seven years previously, from Greece’s refugee camps. The 25 unaccompanied minors were all Afghan, Egyptian or Iranian boys aged between 15 and 17, and received advice from Farid about how the adversity they’ve been through can make them stronger and help them to pursue their dreams.   

Maria Machado

“When I was asked to speak about the past, I recalled how hard it was to be a refugee at such a young age, and how I felt so lost not knowing where life would take me,” Farid explains. “When I was living in the refugee centre, I clearly remember that besides hope and the belief that my life would change, I didn't have anything; I had nothing.”

Farid emphasised how sport – in his case boxing – can help to build confidence and overcome everyday frustrations, and stressed the importance of learning Portuguese, which was the key to successful integration in his host country, allowing him to study architecture at a university in Lisbon. 

He adds: “My advice was very short and clear: try not to lose hope, and make your best effort to learn the language and culture of the country you are in, which makes it a lot easier to feel like home. Work as hard as you can, because your future lies in your hands.”

Aker Al Obaidi: training with local youngsters

Sport has also played a key role in the integration of Aker Al Obaidi, an Iraqi refugee who, since 2016, has been living in a small village in the mountainous Tyrol region of Austria. Aker has thrown himself into life at his local wrestling club, Ringer Sport Club Inzing, where he trains seven times a week in pursuit of his Olympic dream. And this year, he has also found the time to help train the local children there.

“I do not take over any real coaching activities in our club,” he explains. “But I train together with the children and support our coaches by showing them a few techniques.”

Giving back to the local community has been a positive experience for Aker, and is helping him process and recognise the hurdles he has overcome on his own personal journey.

“The children have a lot of fun training with the ‘big ones’ like me,” he says. “It makes me very happy to see the joy of sport in their eyes , and it motivates me when I see their talent. The children who look at me like a superstar give me even more strength to give everything.”

Benjamin Loyseau

Amir Al-Awad: integration through wrestling

Another wrestler, Amir Al-Awad, is making an impact in his own host community of Alexandria, Egypt, where, in addition to working in a restaurant and training towards Tokyo 2020, he runs his own academy.

The Syrian Sports Academy, which receives some funding from UNHCR, is helping the disparate refugee community in Alexandria to integrate by offering classes in kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, gymnastics, self-defence, Zumba and wrestling.

Amir Academy

In particular, Amir wants to instil the love of sport in the young refugees there so that they can build their confidence and self-esteem, and runs popular evening classes for that purpose which have attracted upwards of 20 children per session.

“The most rewarding part about giving back to young refugees is when I see happiness on their faces – especially those who suffered from war in their countries,” Amir explains.

“Because they are not responsible for what has happened; they have not chosen war to break in their countries. So seeing happiness in their faces is the most rewarding thing I can get.”