For three South Sudanese-born Olympians, this is one eventful summer: reaching the world stage, then settling in a new country half a world away. "We feel so great … to go study in Canada," said track athlete Paulo Amotun Lokoro. "I'm so excited." They're competing as members of the Refugee Olympic Team, a squad of 29 elite athletes who each fled hardship and violence in 11 countries.
Amotun Lokoro, 29, and two others are being welcomed in Ontario after the Olympics, under a new program allowing refugees to obtain permanent resident status — and potentially, one day, Canadian citizenship — on the basis of athletic ability. According to the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR), Canada is the first country to adopt such a scheme.
"We are sending a message of hope to all the displaced people around the world," Rose Nathike Lokonyen, also a track athlete, told CBC News in an interview outside Tokyo's Olympic Stadium. "It will help other refugees."
The three athletes will study at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., as part of a partnership involving the UNHCR and the World University Service of Canada (WUSC). The non-profit organization assists more than 130 refugee students every year to come to Canada and study, according to its website. However, this is the first time its student refugee program has added an "athletic pathway" cohort.
Now, "it's on us to make sure that we do our best and give back," said James Nyang Chiengjiek, 29, who is competing in the men's 800-metre event. Nathike Lokonyen ran the women's 800-metre in Tokyo on Friday while Amotun Lokoro is competing in the men's 1,500-metre. The three refugees overcame the type of obstacles that most Olympians would never encounter. After fleeing South Sudan when they were younger, each lived in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp.
Nathike Lokonyen left South Sudan in 2002 at the age of eight. Although she said she remembers little of the violence she witnessed, she recalled a rival tribe burning houses in her community and killing her neighbours. "At least, for us, we managed to escape," she said. One day, years later, attending high school in the refugee camp, a teacher suggested Nathike Lokonyen compete in a 10-kilometre race. She finished second.
In 2015, she ran barefoot in a qualifying race that earned a chance to hone her skills at a training centre for refugees near Nairobi. She competed on the first Refugee Olympic Team at Rio in 2016 and served as flag bearer during the opening ceremony. After the pandemic disrupted training for all three athletes, Amotun Lokoro said good news came from Canada. He recalled a series of meetings and phone calls with immigration and other officials. Ultimately, "they said 'You guys may go to Canada, good luck!'" All three are expected to travel to Ontario in August.
Canada has other connections to the Refugee Team, too, including Iranian-born Hamoon Derafshipour, a karate athlete who trains in Kitchener, Ont. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi applauded the country for opening the door to refugees through an athletic pathway. "It shows how much Canada and the Canadian people are creative about ways to bring refugees to Canada in a significant way," Grandi said in an interview. He said he hoped other institutions in Canada, the U.S. and abroad would follow Sheridan's lead.
Grandi said only three per cent of the world's refugees reach college or university education. And he said he wishes Canada will resettle more refugees in this way. "How many? As many as we can," Grandi said.
The Refugee Olympic Team has grown substantially since its inaugural edition at the Rio Olympics, when there were 10 members. Six of the athletes who competed at those Games five years ago are in Tokyo again, but otherwise they're all new Olympians. Amotun Lokoro says he hopes the Refugee Olympic Team's visibility in Tokyo and their opportunity to study in Canada sends a message about people forcibly displaced from their home countries.
"People in this world now … they think refugees are not human beings. They say '[Refugees] cannot do anything.'" Rather, he said refugees around the world will see "you can do anything like anybody else."