Rose Nathike Lokonyen runs the 800-metres for the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016

Credit: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

When Rose Nathike Lokonyen takes to the Olympic track in Tokyo this week it will be the culmination of a journey that began with her running, alongside her family, from the village of Chukudum in South Sudan.

As she ran in the dark, barefoot and aged eight, her neighbours were killed by armed militants. It was 2002 and the Second Sudanese war had ravaged the country for two decades. It was one of the longest civil wars in history, and would lead to approximately two million deaths – through fighting, slaughter, disease and starvation. Four million people would be displaced. 

On Thursday, Rose will – for the second time – compete in the 800m race at the Olympics. In 2016, she was part of the first team of 10 refugee Olympians; now she stands as part of 29.

Back in 2002, Rose, her parents, 10 younger siblings and a handful of neighbours escaped to their neighbouring town. Wellwishers provided them with shelter until they could make it across the border to Kenya. Because of the fighting, travel was difficult, but soon they arrived in Kakuma refugee camp.

“For me, I felt safe, I had escaped from the danger,” Rose says.

Within a week, space had been found for Rose’s family to have a place of their own, and by 2003 the children were enrolled in primary school. The sprawling shanty town in north-western Kenya now houses nearly 200,000 refugees, but it’s grown exponentially in recent years, only surpassing its 58,000 capacity in 2014. The settlement was established at the onset of war in 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” – over 20,000 Sudanese boys, most aged six or seven, who fled to escape death or induction into the northern army.

Aged 14, Rose faced a new challenge – juggling her education with the duty of caring for her younger siblings. Her parents had travelled back to South Sudan to find her grandparents. “They couldn’t find them, they were killed,” Rose says. “I managed to take care of my younger siblings, the responsibility was on me. I am the first born.” It would be another nine years before her parents returned to Kakuma camp, all the while Rose ran the household.

And then, a school competition. A teacher prodded Rose to take part in a 10-kilometre race. She ran, once more, barefoot. “I had not been training. It was the first time for me to run, and I came number two,” she says. “I was very surprised!”

Her talent had been spotted. In 2014 the national trials came along; Rose came in first place. Shortly after, another race, 20-kilometres, in which Rose came second. “I was told: ‘you will go to Rio.’ I didn’t know where Rio was, I thought it was in Kenya.”

With under eight months of training under her belt, Rose,  a track and field athlete, was selected as one of 10 in the Olympics’ first ever refugee team. She joined 11,000 fellow athletes in Brazil and waved the flag at the opening ceremony. The Refugee Olympic team was created by the International Olympic Committee to allow athletes to keep competing even if they have been forced to leave their home countries.

Rose as a flag bearer during Rio – all athletes on the refugee team have escaped violence or persecution in their own countries and cannot compete under their own national flags

“I had the chance to compete with the champions of Kenya. People cheered for us [the refugee team], we felt like we were human beings,” she says. Rose ran the 800-metre, and finished seventh in her first round heat with a time of 2.16.64.

Rose adds: “Sometimes in our culture, in Africa, girls are told they are not able to get into sports, but at least we showed them that we can do what men do.”

In 2017 Rose would compete in the World Championships in London, and again in 2019 in Doha, Qatar. 

As coronavirus began to sow its seed, Rose was at the peak of her high-altitude training camp in Iten, an area known for producing some of Kenya’s strongest runners. Wilson Kipsang and David Rudisha, who both broke world records for long-distance running, both trained there. On March 13, the country confirmed its first Covid case – a young Kenyan woman who had travelled from the US via London. The two passengers beside her on the plane tested positive two days later, and President Uhuru Kenyatta closed schools, ordered home working and restricted travel.

Training camps closed. Rose packed her bags and returned to the Kakuma camp, “it’s my home”, she says. Team training was forbidden, and the conditions were difficult to practise in, reaching up to 40 degrees in spring. Rose managed to run once a day between house work, and before temperatures peaked and the 6pm curfew started. 

Rose leads her fellow athletes during a training run at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in Ngong

Credit: UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

In early 2021, Rose was one of 48 refugee athlete scholarship holders – from across the world and 11 sport disciplines – to train at the IOC Refugee Olympic camp in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. 

In June, she made the cut for a second time, along with 28 other refugee athletes. Rose says: “Competing at my second Olympic Games is of course a big achievement. I am passionate about running and my participation is a great reward. Also, meeting the IOC Refugee Olympic Team Tokyo 2020 for the first time has been great. In Rio, we were only 10. This year we are a bigger team.”

Before leaving for Tokyo, an official in the IOC Refugee Olympic Team tested positive for Covid – all other members, including athletes and officials tested negative. Rose admits the situation has been “difficult” but as her sport is based outdoors she has been able to continue training. “We are taking it one day at a time,” she says.

There are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world. The war Rose fled from led to South Sudan’s independence in January 2011. Since 2013, the country has suffered ethnic violence, massacres and human rights abuses. The total number of south Sudanese refugees from the past eight years has passed two million; it is the largest refugee crisis in Africa. Sixty-three per cent are under the age of 18.

Rose says: “Being a refugee is a status. But nobody chooses to be a refugee. [The Olympics] gives us a chance to show our talents to the world. When we are given a chance through sport or education we are able to change our lives.”

Rose said: 'Sport has changed life for so many refugees around the world'

Credit: UNHCR/Atsushi Shibuya

“We have not come here to represent ourselves, but to represent the entire refugee community around the world and also to give the message of hope,” she adds.

Dominique Hyde from the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says: “Against the odds, these extraordinary athletes have kept their dreams alive to represent millions of refugees around the world.

“We’re dedicated to a world in which all those who have been forced to flee – including those with disabilities – can access their right to sport and play at all levels.”

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says: “They are an exceptional group of people who inspire the world. Surviving war, persecution and the anxiety of exile already makes them extraordinary people, but the fact that they now also excel as athletes on the world stage fills me with immense pride.

“It shows what is possible when refugees are given the opportunity to make the most of their potential. These athletes embody the hopes and aspirations of the more than 80 million people around the world who have been uprooted by war and persecution. They serve as a reminder that everyone deserves the chance to succeed in life.”