Refugee Olympians arriving in Canada as part of a one-of-a-kind immigration program
For three Olympians born in South Sudan, it’s been an eventful summer: reaching the world stage, then settling in a new country halfway around the world.
“We feel so good… going to study in Canada,” said track and field athlete Paulo Amotun Lokoro. “I’m so excited.”
They compete as members of the Refugee Olympic Team, a team of 29 elite athletes who have each fled hardship and violence in 11 countries.
Amotun Lokoro, 29, and two others are welcomed to Ontario after the Olympics as part of a new program that allows refugees to gain permanent resident status – and potentially, one day, Canadian citizenship – on the basis of their athletic ability. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Canada is the first country to adopt such a program.
“We are sending a message of hope to all displaced people around the world,” Rose Nathike Lokonyen, also a track athlete, told CBC News in an interview outside the Tokyo Olympic Stadium.
“It will help other refugees.
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The three athletes will study at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., In a partnership involving UNHCR and World University Service of Canada (WUSC). The non-profit organization helps more than 130 refugee students come to Canada to study each year, according to its website.
However, this is the first time that its student refugee program has added an “athletic path” cohort.
Now “it’s up to us to do our best and give back,” said James Nyang Chiengjiek, 29, who competes in the men’s 800 meters.
Nathike Lokonyen ran the women’s 800 meters in Tokyo on Friday while Amotun Lokoro competes in the men’s 1,500 meters.
Long road to Canada
The three refugees overcame the kind of obstacles most Olympians would never encounter. After fleeing South Sudan when they were younger, each lived in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Nathike Lokonyen left South Sudan in 2002 at the age of eight. Although she said she remembered little of the violence she witnessed, she did remember a rival tribe who burned houses in their community and killed their neighbors.
“At least for us we managed to escape,” she said.
One day years later, while attending secondary school in the refugee camp, a teacher suggested that Nathike Lokonyen take part in a 10-kilometer run. She finished second.
In 2015, she ran barefoot in a qualifying race that gave her the chance to hone her skills at a refugee training center near Nairobi. She was part of the first Olympic refugee team in Rio in 2016 and was the flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
After the pandemic disrupted the training of the three athletes, Amotun Lokoro said good news came from Canada.
He recalled a series of meetings and phone calls with immigration officials and others. In the end, “they said ‘You can go to Canada, good luck!'” The three of them are due to go to Ontario in August.
Canada also has other ties to the refugee team, including people born in Iran. Hamoon Derafshipour, a karate athlete who trains in Kitchener, Ont.
Canada is encouraged to do more
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, congratulated the country for opening the door to refugees through a sporting route.
“It shows how creative Canada and Canadians are about ways to bring refugees to Canada in a meaningful way,” Grandi said in an interview. He said he hoped other institutions in Canada, the United States and abroad would follow Sheridan’s lead.
Grandi said only three percent of the world’s refugees reach college or university.
And he said he wanted Canada to resettle more refugees this way.
“How much? As much as possible,” said Grandi.
The Refugee Olympic team has grown considerably since its first edition at the Rio Olympics, when it numbered 10 members. Six of the athletes who competed in these Games five years ago are back in Tokyo, but otherwise they’re all new Olympians.
Amotun Lokoro says he hopes the visibility of the Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo and their opportunity to study in Canada sends a message about forcibly displaced people from their countries of origin.
“People in this world now… they think refugees aren’t human beings. They say ‘[Refugees] can’t do anything. ‘”
On the contrary, he said refugees all over the world will see “you can do anything like anyone else”.