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Refugee athlete Biel proves “anything is possible” through sport

Yiech Pur Biel
On World Refugee Day, Yiech Pur Biel, a member of the first Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016, takes us through the journey that led him to the United States and to dream of competing at the Olympic Games for a second time at Tokyo 2020 next year. He also reminds us that everyone can help refugees end up in a better place.

Biel fled from conflict in South Sudan in 2005. He ended up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. In 2015, he impressed at the athletics trials organised by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and moved to Nairobi to train there. Biel was selected for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and competed in the 800m. He is currently a student at the Iowa Central Community College and is an Olympic Refuge Foundation board member.

20 June is World Refugee Day. What is your message to refugees around the world?

My message is that nothing should make you feel ashamed to be a refugee. The only response is to work hard, go to school, prepare yourself and try to change your life through your skills or your passions, and to find any way to become a better person. Don’t allow the past to take you back to problems. Show people that we need time to make changes. And people should know that the UN is working to make refugees safe. We need to say thank you on this day to those who are helping refugees.

UNHCR’s message is that “Everyone can make a difference, every action counts”. How does this resonate with you?

It is very positive. I always talk to young people and many of them don’t know what is happening in the world, that young people like them have lost their homes. We need to show that they can help to make changes, that they can help refugees end up in a better place by meeting needs like education and shelter. With the support of the IOC and the UN, we can make an impact and change people’s perspective. That’s why I carry on advocating for them. Sport gave me safety and friendship. Now, I’m trying to contribute through sport.


Tell us about your journey so far.

I had to leave my home in 2005. Government troops came to our village. I was lucky; I escaped with my mother and my brother. We spent three days in the bush, eating fruits. Eventually, I was rescued by the United Nations and went to Kenya with my neighbour. I was 10. It was very hard. Eventually I got into running. I became good in the 10km and, after the trials, I got invited to train in Nairobi. I became one of their top athletes, and so I got my chance on the Refugee Olympic Team. Since coming back from running the 800m in Rio, I got into school in America, and so now I am both a student and an athlete. I am very happy combining the two.

How important was the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in your development?

This was the beginning of everything. When I finished high school in 2015, I thought, ‘This is the end of everything’, because being in the refugee camps was hard. But the Foundation gave me motivation. And the Olympics have brought success and given me the chance to continue my education. Being in Nairobi also gave me the chance to get into advocacy.

Yiech Pur Biel UNHCR
What is your abiding memory of Rio 2016?

Entering the Maracanã [stadium, at the Opening Ceremony]. We were the second-to-last team to come out, just before Brazil. In life you have a lot of challenges. You can cry because you’ve lost someone, or there are problems in your country. But at the Maracanã, I cried because this was my first step, and here was the IOC President, and the UN Secretary-General, standing up and clapping for refugees. We were ambassadors for a message of hope, that anything is possible. A good thing had come out of our situations. The world understood. I am called a refugee, but you never know when someone else might become a refugee, through war or persecution. We wanted to show that we responded positively. So that made me very happy. Through sport, we can unite and make the world better.


How is training for Tokyo 2020 going?

I’m well prepared. Due to coronavirus, things aren’t going the way they were, but we can just work hard to be even better prepared for 2021. I’m hoping to make it onto the Refugee Olympic Team again. Young people are increasingly fleeing from their countries, so we must continue with the same message. And we want to be better as a team than we were in 2016. We can really do something in Tokyo.

You are part of the Olympic Refuge Foundation. How important is it for refugees to have access to sport?

I’m honoured to be a part of the Foundation. It gave me a voice, a voice for my fellow refugees. It is not an easy job, and it needs a lot of dedication. The Foundation’s objective is to make sure refugees have access to safe places to play and practise sport. To encourage young people to devote themselves to sport and provide a safe environment for them to do this. The Olympic Refuge Foundation works all over the world using sport to improve the mental well-being of young refugees and bring together forcibly displaced young people and their host communities. It’s important to try and make an impact. I know what it is like.

What is your opinion about the power of sport to build communities and improve well-being?

It can be the best tool because it can unite people. In the Kakuma camp, we had 19 different nationalities and we created friendships and supported each other through sport. In 2016, the refugee team didn’t have a country, but the 10 athletes made one team. Sport is a tool of sharing, for better health, and this is the value of the Olympic Movement. They value people.

Do you have a #StayStrong message for people struggling during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Just like with refugees, this is a situation where we need to come together as human beings to support each other, because we never know how long it will take to improve. We need to support those in need. Refugees know that. But we are in this as a family. So I say: don’t lose hope. Let’s bring back some humanity and friendship.

Yiech Pur Biel is one of the 49 Refugee Athlete Scholarship-Holders who are supported by the IOC and who are currently training with the aim of being selected for the Tokyo 2020 Refugee Olympic Team. The athletes come from 18 host countries – from Australia to Kenya, Europe and the United States – and represent 11 sports: athletics, wresting, judo, taekwondo, cycling, swimming, badminton, boxing, shooting, karate and weightlifting. The first Refugee Olympic Team inspired the world at Rio 2016 with the strength of their human spirit. The IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo 2020 will continue to send a symbol of hope for all refugees around the world. The composition of the team will be announced in 2021.

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