Story: Katherine Arms, Photos: Copyright IOC/Claire Thomas
Anjelina Nadai is one of ten athletes who will compete at the 2016 Olympics as part of the first all-refugee team. She spoke to the World Food Programme’s Katherine Arms about her journey from Kakuma refugee camp to the Rio Games.
Like most children in her village in what is now South Sudan, Anjelina Nadai ran daily to the bush to milk the family cattle and then bring the milk home. She never dreamed that one day she would be headed to the Olympics, running under the Olympic flag.
Anjelina spent most of her childhood in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, having fled war in Sudan with her aunt.
“She only learned recently that she had made the refugee team.”
Her parents and the rest of the family stayed behind. She started running as a would-be athlete at school in the camp, recording good times. Anjelina began training with a foundation run by Kenyan marathoner Tegla Laroupe in 2015.
She only learned recently that she had made the refugee team with four other South Sudanese runners from Kakuma camp – an Ethiopian runner, two Syrian swimmers and two judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Anjelina will compete in the women’s 1,500m athletics event.
“I arrived at Kakuma in 2002, and I barely remember it. I was very young,” says Anjelina. “I remember getting our provisions from WFP…every 15 days we received food. This was so good. But sometimes it was finished early.
“People always seem to need more. There is never enough when there is so much need. It was challenging.
“Food and education go hand in hand.”
“The food we got from the World Food Programme helped a lot – without it we wouldn’t have survived. Compared to what we had, Kakuma saved us. We received a steady flow of food at the time and we could rely on it.”
In Kakuma camp, Anjelina also received WFP school meals. She says food and education go hand in hand when trying to keep children in school, especially in times of emergency.
“By providing education in emergencies to children, there is a foundation for peace,” said Anjelina. “Values have been learned. Food in school is needed.
“If food runs out, school and education become too challenging. Performance drops if you are hungry. You cannot learn if you need something in your stomach. Food in school encourages kids at home to go, and it also encourages kids to compete at a higher level.
“Children who receive an education can help rebuild their country.”
“Children who receive an education, though they have had to flee their homes, are better prepared for their future and can help rebuild their country when it is safe to return.
“When you are educated at least you have got something you can take home – you can go with a message. At least we can understand problems and try to solve them. We then have the words for disputes rather than fighting with a weapon.”
With the Olympics now her focus, Anjelina says she wants to find her family when she returns to Africa from Rio, hopefully with a medal. After Anjelina arrived at Kakuma in 2002, she lost contact with her family.
“We have had no communication at all. I even forget what my parents looked like. I hope to try to see them when I get back. I have been alone here (in Kenya) as I have no siblings. I only saw my aunt and my brother, who arrived recently. I will look for them when I get back,” she says.
“We have come far. We represent hope and peace.”
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, when officially announcing the new refugee team, said: “These refugee athletes will show to the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and the strength of the human spirit.
“We have come far. We (team refugee) represent hope and peace,” Anjelina says. “All over the world you have to consider refugees. We aren’t just on TV. You have to imagine what we go through. We are people. We are not to be feared. We are humans and should be treated fairly.”