Refugee-turned-Olympian Yiech Pur Biel is on a mission to give displaced kids a sporting chance
Being a refugee, says Olympic runner Yiech Pur Biel, doesn’t mean you are nothing. Biel, a survivor of the Sudanese civil war who ran at the Games in Rio, is now leading a drive to improve sports facilities in refugee camps around the world and raise Olympic aspirations.
Biel was 10 when his family’s grass house in Sudan was burned to the ground. Left to fend for himself in the bush, he survived on fruit and leaves before finally reaching a refugee camp in Kenya, where he learned how to run competitively.
Ten years later, the 21-year-old was on the starting blocks for the 800 metres in Rio, one of 10 athletes in the first Olympic refugee team.
Joining him were two Syrian swimmers, two Congolese judo players, an Ethiopian marathon runner and four other middle-distance runners from South Sudan.
All had overcome tremendous hurdles, not only suffering the heartbreak and pain of family separation and loss, but also reaching high levels of fitness in adverse conditions. Biel, at the time, was living with 200,000 others at Kenya’s Kakuma settlement.
“In the refugee camp we have no facilities – even shoes we don’t have,” he said, as he prepared to leave for Rio. “There is no gym. Even the weather does not favour training because, from morning up to evening, it is so hot and sunny … Even if I don’t win gold or silver [at Rio] I will show the world that being a refugee you can do something.”
In the event, Biel failed to qualify from his 800m heats, but to him just being there was important.
He only remembers crying twice in his life; when he was separated from his mother and when he found out he’d been selected to run in Rio.
Last month he was given the opportunity to help others like him when he was asked to join the board of the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF), which sets up sport facilities for refugee, displaced and vulnerable children.
Biel, now 23, says: “I am proud to represent the 65.6 million refugees who have been forced to flee from their home country because of war, famine, manmade and natural disasters.”
He is looking forward to using sport as a tool for change for displaced young people around the world.
Financed by donations from the Qatar Olympic Committee and the government of Liechtenstein, the ORF is a partnership between the International Olympic Committee and UNHCR.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, believes that sport for children is vital. “It helps restore childhood and brings some semblance of normalcy in these young but already broken lives. For refugee children, organised sport activities means a safe space in which they can heal, grow and develop.
“Sport is an agent for change for displaced and refugee children working to improve their social, physical and emotional wellbeing, regain their self-confidence and develop their skills.”
The publicity surrounding Rio reached his hometown of Nasir, in South Sudan, and led to Biel being reunited on the phone with his mother.
She has now moved to a refugee camp in Ethiopia and, although they still speak, they have not yet been reunited in person.
Biel has begun studying international relations but trains with the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in Kenya in the hope that he will be selected for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“I can show my fellow refugees that they have a chance, and a hope in life,” he says. “Through education, but also in running, you can change the world.”