Running From Exile

After more than a decade living in a Kenyan refugee camp, five South Sudanese athletes hope to make their mark on the Olympic Games.

Rose Nathike Lokonyen hoisted the flag bearing the iconic emblem of five interlaced rings, her first ever exposure to the Olympic Games made complete with the roar of the crowd.

Lokonyen beamed as dignitaries, global celebrities, superstar athletes and sports fans in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium rippled to their feet, all for ten underdog athletes largely unknown in the world of elite competition.

They are the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team — five South Sudanese runners, two swimmers from Syria, two Congolese judokas and a marathoner from Ethiopia competing under a single banner.

They are joined not for the glory of one country, but under the flag Lokonyen carried, bound by their status as refugees and representing the millions of people displaced from their homes around the world.

This moment, the traditional parade of nations through the streets of Rio, was Lokonyen’s first real exposure to the world-class competition other athletes have prepared for their entire lives.

She never watched a favorite competitor pull off superhuman feats on TV. She never sat in awe of the stagecraft of past opening ceremonies. She never heard her national anthem play as three champions stood at the podium to claim their prize. She didn’t have a coach, a track or parents to drive her to practice. Lokonyen spent her youth surviving, grasping at whatever opportunity came her way, rather than training.

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The Tegla Loroupe Foundation, named after the renowned Kenyan marathon runner, helps the athletes to prepare for the Olympics at its training facility outside of Nairobi. Many of the athletes never received formal training prior to the opportunity to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

The collection of athletes represent refugee crises old and new. Unlike their fellow teammates from Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose pangs of homesickness are still fresh, the South Sudanese runners are a testament to the festering repercussions of violent conflicts that never end.

Exiled from their homes for more than a decade, Lokonyen and the four other South Sudanese runners represent a generation of stateless people. “Refugee” is the banner they’ve unwittingly carried for most of their lives; now they’re taking it up deliberately on the world stage.

“Now, I have a mission to tell the world that we are refugees. We are human beings,” said Yiech Pur Biel, 21, who will run the men’s 800m race.

“Now, I have a mission to tell the world that we are refugees. We are human beings.”
– Yiech Pur Biel, Olympian competing in the men’s 800m race
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In lieu of formal athletic training, the five South Sudanese runners took up soccer alongside many of the other refugees living inside the Kakuma camp.
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Young boys stretch between soccer matches inside the Kakuma refugee camp. Many children are unable to afford shoes to play in.

That these five athletes have an opportunity to break free from their life in perpetual limbo is rare. Even more remarkable is the fact that competing in the Olympic Games somehow became a more likely prospect than being able to return home.

All five runners competing on the team of refugees grew up in the same refugee camp, called Kakuma, located in the barren desert region of northwestern Kenya roughly 450 miles northwest of Nairobi. The camp is, in a sense, home. And while all five runners are South Sudanese, none of them have ever technically set foot in their country. After South Sudan won its independence, the country has been marked by a near-constant cycle of peace agreements dissolved by more violence.

Lokonyen, who will compete in the women’s 800m race, fled her village in 2002, nine years before South Sudan gained its independence and title as the youngest nation in the world. She spent nearly all of her formative years at Kakuma.

SUDAN

ETHIOPIA

SOUTH

SUDAN

Home (Far) Away

From Home

Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, home to a fluid population of roughly 150,000 people fleeing violence in South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kakuma, located roughly 450 miles from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, remains isolated from urban centers, preventing refugees from integrating into local communities.

Juba

KAKUMA

KENYA

SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN

Nairobi

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

Kinshasa

INDIAN OCEAN

Refugee Camp

Capital

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Kenya Fact Sheet, February 2015; Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

SUDAN

ETHIOPIA

SOUTH

SUDAN

Home (Far) Away

From Home

Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, home to a fluid population of roughly 150,000 people fleeing violence in South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kakuma, located roughly 450 miles from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, remains isolated from urban centers, preventing refugees from integrating into local communities.

Juba

KAKUMA

KENYA

SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN

Nairobi

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

Kinshasa

INDIAN OCEAN

Refugee Camp

Capital

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Kenya Fact Sheet, February 2015; Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

SUDAN

ETHIOPIA

SOUTH

SUDAN

Juba

KAKUMA

SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN

KENYA

Nairobi

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

Kinshasa

INDIAN OCEAN

Home (Far) Away From Home

Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, home to a fluid population of roughly 150,000 people fleeing violence in South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kakuma, located roughly 450 miles from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, remains isolated from urban centers, preventing refugees from integrating into local communities.

Refugee Camp

Capital

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Kenya Fact Sheet, February 2015; Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

Home (Far) Away

From Home

Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, home to a fluid population of roughly 150,000 people fleeing violence in South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kakuma, located roughly 450 miles from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, remains isolated from urban centers, preventing refugees from integrating into local communities.

SUDAN

ETHIOPIA

SOUTH

SUDAN

Juba

KAKUMA

KENYA

DEMOCRATIC

REPUBLIC

OF THE CONGO

SOUTH ATLANTIC OCEAN

Nairobi

Kinshasa

INDIAN OCEAN

Refugee Camp

Capital

Sources: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Kenya Fact Sheet, February 2015; Graphic by Melissa Paige Taylor

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Trainers at the Tegla Loroupe Foundation first scouted the South Sudanese athletes during a series of running trials inside the Kakuma refugee camp beginning in 2014. From there, they whittled down the field of talent to settle on the five mid-distance runners who will join other refugees from around the world at the Olympic Games in Rio. They’ll compete together under one flag as the Refugee Olympic team.
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For decades, Kenya has served as a haven for refugees, accepting thousands of people each year fleeing South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Refugee” is the banner they’ve unwittingly carried for most of their lives; now they’re taking it up deliberately on the world stage.

Anjelina Nadal Lohalith, 22, was just a child when she was torn from her parents. She first set off for Kenya’s capital, where a woman offered her kindness and took her in. But when Lohalith’s caretaker could no longer make ends meet, she was sent to reunite with what family she had at Kakuma. Now, she lives with her aunt Mary, who looks after her and her brother.

“Most of the time I used to cry. If someone else [tried] to touch me, I always remember then that I wish it would be my mother,” Lohalith said. “But it came a time that I have to learn to not cry, just to forget about them. But I cannot wait to catch up with them.”

Lohalith had never heard of the Olympics, nor the Brazilian seaside town where this year’s games are being held, until she found out that she had made the refugee team.

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Many refugees spend most of their childhood inside of the Kakuma refugee camp. These young schoolgirls are among the nearly half-million Somali refugees currently living in Kenya.
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Refugees live an average of 17 years inside camps throughout Kenya, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This means that for many children, refugee camps like Kakuma are the only home they have known for most of their lives.

As a young child, James Nyang Chiengjiek, who will be competing in the 400m race in Rio, watched his father take up arms in the second South Sudanese civil war. And at 13 years old, Chiengjiek was confronted with the inevitable demand to follow in his father’s steps and join the ranks of the now-infamous “Lost Boys” who are forced to become child soldiers. Chiengjiek instead chose to flee.

Paulo Amuton Lokoro, 24, grew up raising cattle in South Sudan. Once the violence neared his village, his parents bolted. Lokoro, who is running the 1,500m race, stayed with his uncle as they took refuge in the bush before joining the thousands of South Sudanese people flooding into the Kakuma refugee camp in the early 2000s, while the fighting was at its fiercest back home.

Large-scale refugee camps emerged as a cushion to absorb the constant ebb and flow of refugees displaced from their homes. Kakuma was first built in 1991 as a safe haven for thousands of displaced refugees throughout the region, with swarms of people fleeing Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Various conflicts have spilled so much blood in South Sudan that 2.3 million people have been forced to leave. Waves of families were displaced by the second South Sudanese civil war, marking one of the longest internal conflicts on record. The violence was drawn out from the early 1980s until peace agreements were finally brokered in 2005. But peace did not last long.

A shopkeeper minds his store, located on the same street where Olympic runner James Nyang lived in the Kakuma refugee camp.
Kakuma is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. More than 150,000 refugees resided in the camp as of June 2016, according to the UNHCR.
A shopkeeper minds his store, located on the same street where Olympic runner James Nyang lived in the Kakuma refugee camp.
A shopkeeper minds his store, located on the same street where Olympic runner James Nyang lived in the Kakuma refugee camp.
"It came a time that I have to learn to not cry, just to forget about them.”
– Anjelina Nadal Lohalith, 22, Olympian competing in the women's 1,500 meter race, said of her family
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Children play along the dried out bank of the Tarach River, which divides the Kakuma refugee camp into two parts.
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UNHCR provides basic goods and services to the more than 150,000 refugees who live inside Kakuma, including primary and some secondary education.

More and more families register for placement inside Kakuma every year. Optimism that the refugee camp could offer a viable short-term solution has waned. Refugees spend on average 17 years inside of refugee camps in Kenya, unable or unwilling to risk returning home, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the international humanitarian organization that runs the camp.

Jeff Crisp, the former head of policy development at UNHCR and a leading expert in refugee affairs, says that protracted refugee situations became the byproduct of violent, drawn-out conflicts and neighboring countries that refused to integrate displaced people into local communities. With few alternatives readily available, large-scale refugee camps became the primary solution to host the millions of people forced to flee from their homes.

“The long-standing model of refugee assistance was that people would leave that country, they would be put into the camp in the hope and expectation that the violence would end and everyone would be able to return home,” Crisp said.

Today's refugees — Biel, Lohalith, Lokonyen, Chiengjiek, Lokoro — wait in vain.

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Grace Apule (center) was one of the budding South Sudanese athletes preparing for the Olympics, but the 19-year-old stopped once training began outside the Kenyan capital. She said she enjoyed practicing with her coach and learning the proper running form, but she was anxious to return to her studies back in Kakuma. “The only thing I missed very much was to be at school,” she said.
“The long-standing model of refugee assistance was that people would leave that country, they would be put into the camp in the hope and expectation that the violence would end and everyone would be able to return home.”
– Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development at UNHCR
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The family of Olympic athlete Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, including her aunt Mary and friends, sit outside their home in Kakuma, where Lohalith was raised. Lohalith, who is competing in the women’s 1,500m race at the Rio Olympics, first fled South Sudan in 2002 and traveled to Nairobi alone, where a woman was willing to take her in and care for her. After some time, the woman ran out of money and Anjelina went to Kakuma to live with her aunt.

Kenya is now the second largest refugee host in all of Africa, and strict laws and regulations have trapped refugees in a stateless limbo that’s difficult to escape. Refugees are barred from seeking work and earning money and a livelihood. Inside camp Kakuma, boredom and despair have led to a prevalence of violence against women. Freedom of movement is harshly limited, leaving few options to start a new life elsewhere.

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The Kakuma refugee camp, already crowded, expects more Somali refugees in the coming year thanks to the Kenyan government’s announcement that it will close Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, located along the country’s eastern border. Tens of thousands of Somali refugees will be repatriated to their home country over the next year, while at least 15,000 are expected to be moved to Kakuma.

Within Kakuma, refugees receive the most basic supplies. Rice and grains are rationed for families, along with a few blankets and a large jug to share. Refugees must fetch their own water each day, left to improvise with bathing and caring for infants. Children may enroll in primary and secondary schools within the camp to prepare for a future full of uncertainty and void of opportunities.

“How do we make them be self-reliant? So far, it has not been possible,” said Duke Mwancha, a spokesperson for UNHCR operations in Kenya.

Somali students study at the school inside Kakuma called Mogadishu, named after the capital of their war-torn African country.
UNHCR provides scholarships to elite students who wish to continue in post-secondary education studies.
Somali students study at the school inside Kakuma called Mogadishu, named after the capital of their war-torn African country.
Somali students study at the school inside Kakuma called Mogadishu, named after the capital of their war-torn African country.

UNHCR and the Kenyan government are now exploring new alternatives to help empower refugees and craft a more long-term solution. Plans are underway to build a new township located near Kakuma that will host up to 60,000 refugees and 20,000 local Kenyans while forming an integrated society open for private investment. The new development, called Kalobeyei, will likely take several years to complete, but the timing will be crucial as aid workers prepare for the next crisis.

Violence has once again broken out in South Sudan as fresh rounds of peace agreements falter under unrest. A sudden influx of refugees from the region caused Kakuma’s population to swell, eventually settling at 150,000 people.

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Basic education is provided in cramped classrooms for the tens of thousands of children living inside Kakuma. After their studies conclude, refugees are often stuck in limbo, unable to seek work in Kenya and unwilling to return to the violence in their home countries.

The world of sports has no shortage of Cinderella stories, athletes relying on talent to embark on journeys full of opportunity. Few competitors in the Olympic Games, however, will have higher personal stakes than these five men and women from South Sudan.

The latest conflict in the region puts a damper on the already remote hope that the runners could return to their country once they finish their Olympic debut in Rio.

“How do we make them be self-reliant? So far, it has not been possible.”
– Duke Mwancha, spokesperson for UNHCR operations in Kenya
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A woman stretches out in pain as she awaits medical care at the makeshift hospital inside the Kakuma refugee camp. Doctors believe she may have contracted malaria.
“To live in this world you must leave the past, then you start a new life. Now to go to Rio, it means a lot to me.”
– Yiech Pur Biel, Olympian competing in the men's 800 meter race
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Social and religious life thrives within Kakuma, yet many refugees are stuck inside the camp, barred by the Kenyan government from integrating into local communities.

The athletes grew up learning to adapt to the conditions inside camp Kakuma. They had to time meals against lulls in the great gusts of wind that would blow sand into their food. The sun was unforgiving, the heat oppressive. A leisurely run was best left to the early hours of dawn. Most of the athletes stumbled into becoming runners, starting off with passing games of pick-up soccer with other refugees their age. Some were winning foot races before they had their first pair of running shoes. After competing against world champions, this is the life to which they could very likely return.

Biel, like his teammates, hasn’t seen his parents since he was a child. For 16 days in Brazil, thousands of miles from Kakuma, thousands of miles from home, he’ll focus on the enormous pressure to perform well, or risk failing his “family” of millions of refugees worldwide.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“To live in this world you must leave the past, then you start a new life,” Biel said. “Now to go to Rio, it means a lot to me.”

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Employment opportunities are nearly nonexistent and resettlement opportunities are limited for refugees. The dynamic leads to a protracted refugee situation that can, and does, persist for generations.

Gabriel Joselow contributed to this report.

Newsha Tavakolian’s photography ranges from bold reportage of political events to sensitive social documentary. Her subjects include the insecurity of middle-class youth, female Kurdish fighters and the impact of sanctions on individual lives.

Tavakolian began her career at age 16 as a self-taught photographer for Zan, the Iranian women's daily newspaper. At age 18, she was the youngest photographer to cover the 1999 student uprising. By 2002, she was covering the war in Iraq.

Her photography has been published in international magazines and newspapers such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, Stern, Le Figaro, Colors, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, NRC Handelsblad, The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.

Her work has been displayed in dozens of international art exhibitions and exhibited in museums such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, LACMA, the British Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Art.

Tavakolian was chosen as the fifth laureate of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award in 2014. The next year, she was chosen as the principal laureate of the Prince Claus Award and became a Magnum nominee.