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Hero’s welcome as refugee Olympians land in Kenya

Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya – Five South Sudanese athletes who have spent the last few weeks making history as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team returned to Kenya on Tuesday, where they were welcomed by friends, family and a troupe of Burundian drummers.

The homecoming party at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi appeared to surprise the five runners, who ran to hug their relatives, friends and staff from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“It feels wonderful to see my family again, and to be able to celebrate with them about what we have just done,” said Yiech Pur Biel, 21, who competed in the 800 metres.

“The whole experience was wonderful. Personally, the highlight was meeting champions – and competing with champions. But we have also shown the world refugees doing something very good, so that people know refugees for who we are,” he said.

“Really, when you meet people from around the world, you see everyone is the same, even if we are in different situations.”

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, 21, who ran in the 1,500 metres, admitted to some nerves as she walked out in the Rio stadium for her opening event.

“Meeting people from around the world was the best thing about Rio for me.”

“When I lined up the first time for the start of the race, I was a bit frightened,” she said with a smile. “But everyone was so friendly, they were so encouraging. Meeting people from around the world was the best thing about Rio for me.”

Lohalith fled South Sudan more than 15 years ago, and has not seen her family since. She says now that she’s back in Kenya, the Rio experience has made her realize that she can achieve any objective she puts her mind to.

“Now I am focused only on finding a way to see my family again,” she said.

The five athletes, who were among 10 young men and women from four countries who competed together as the Refugee Olympic Team, will return to their training camp in a town north of Nairobi, where they are looked after by Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan former Olympian. All said they wanted to continue training and competing.

“Training hard and working hard can take you far,” said Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, who ran the 800 metres in Rio. Beside her, Lohalith smiled, and added: “This was only the beginning.”

By: Mike Pflanz