Life beyond the Olympics for refugee athletes

UNESCO is pleased to make the audio and text of this interview available copyright-free for the celebration of World Radio Day 2018. Radio stations are especially encouraged to broadcast the interview, either in its totality or by extracting the answers and announcing the questions themselves.

UNESCO spoke to Erin Hayba, the 2016 recipient of the prestigious Peace and Sport Awards, for her work on refugee athletes. Her project, ‘From Refugee Camp to Rio’ gives rare insights into the daily lives of refugee athletes through images, personal testimonies and in-depth background stories. For Erin, it is a work in progress, as she has her eyes already set on the Tokyo Olympics to continue chronicling these athletes’ inspiring journeys.

Q. You brought refugee athletes to the centre of the Rio games in 2016 – what was it like presenting the story of refugee athletes to the world?

It’s been a project of passion and persistence, and also just using personal skills and knowledge. I come from working as a humanitarian in the refugee camps in Kenya and the Middle East, and my husband is a photographer focusing on sports. So using our two interests is what helped us get the story out and work on the project.

Q. Now when you look back, what was the key ingredient to its success?

Really working to know these refugees!! I think that many people saw the athletes in the stadium in Rio and they had the same clothes as everyone else. They looked like world class-athletes – they were world-class athletes. But spending the time – and now we’ve spent a couple of years – of getting to know these athletes and the coaches and bigger story behind them. Going to the camps, going to the huts where their family and friends live, really takes a lot of dedication. That is a huge part of the success, and hopefully of the future success as this project goes forward.

Q. There are countless examples of these kinds of ‘Sports for Peace’ initiatives around the world. Why do you think there is so little coverage for them?

People need to find a way to relate. And sports is a great tool in order to help people relate to issues that they might not be so familiar about. Having an Olympic team of refugees, people know about  the Olympics and people have heard about refugees, but the two going together makes people think about that and wonder what’s happening. I think that this is the reason why these stories are not told as much, because people might not know so much about a particular topic – these difficult topics of refugees and displacement. And, the Sports for Peace initiatives, they’re wonderful and incredible but they get lost in everything else that is happening. So I think pulling these stories up, where people can have something they can relate to, and understand, would be my suggestion.

Q. Refugee athletes were at the centre of the Rio games. But after that, we have not seen much about them on radio or on TV on in the media in general.

I think they see this one story that happens and they get great attention then. And actually, our book will be released in 2019, early 2020, prior to the next Olympic Games, with the hope of bringing the story out again, that this isn’t just a one-time thing that happens. This is a part of a much larger issue.

But you’re right – the story has been the headline story and then now you’re back to hearing what’s happening with refugees or migrants. You’re not hearing the story again and again. And the stories that did come out were very much surface level, and not getting to the deeper issues of what it means to be a refugee athlete. It was just highlighting that they made it to the Olympics. So I think it’s a really difficult process, which might be why they are lost. These stories reach people that want to hear them, but they need to go a step further and getting this out to a general public that might not have the understanding of such a context. But using the tool of sports, and driving for peace, these issues people care about, they just might not know exist. And they might not know where to find that. So the people telling the stories need to find a way to reach the public that would be interested, so they want to get involved or do something to help.

Q. Your report drew the world’s attention to these athletes. Would you say it clearly shows the kind of reception your report and the players got, that there is a definite need to cover such stories?

Yes – I think there is a huge need to cover these stories. And I think that people – there is a need to combine the two different things. The humanitarian side and the sports side, the peace side. That using the tool of something like the Olympics – a team of refugee athletes – people can understand and know what the Olympics are about, use that platform to talk about these difficult issues of migration, displacement, conflict. These are what the sports for peace programmes or initiatives are trying to address – huge issues. But using a way that people can relate to somebody. People understand what it means to be an athlete, and this is what our book hopes to help people understand.

Reading a book about an Olympic athlete, an underdog, that came from a refugee camp, that came from fleeing from war, what was their story that led them to be on a world stage? There are very few of them that would ever have this opportunity but now let’s talk about what they’re passionate about, which is bringing peace to South Sudan or to Syria. What is it that caused them to become a refugee in the first place? Many of these people were athletes way before they were refugees and they want to use this platform that they’ve been given to tell their story and tell the world about these things that need to be heard and addressed.

Q. What was gender equality like among the refugee athletes?

The gender equality in the programme that is in Kenya is pretty good – partially because of Tegla Loroupe, who is a famous Kenyan runner who helped found the training center in Nairobi where the refugee athletes stay and live – is a woman, and for her, bringing in female athletes is incredibly important. They have a male and a female captain of the team. And they try to bring these women in from the camps. However, there are different cultural and gender issues from the families that might not even let the female athlete leave home or leave the refugee camp to come and train because they have different responsibilities to their family.

So from the athletes that I’ve met, the females were only from South Sudan. They did not have any Somali girls or Ethiopian – I didn’t see any other nationalities coming to train. Though others had qualified to come and train, their families were the ones who had prevented them, and also the fear for their safety in travelling so far and being away from their families. There’s a process we need to go through to help use these female athletes as role models. And they already are –  many are going back and really encouraging their friends to come and get involved or to participate in sports in different ways. One of the grandmothers of one of the athletes that did not go to Rio, but was training, she understood that, even though she comes from a generation where women did not compete in sports or not go to school, she said this is really important for my granddaughter, and I want to support her to do what she wants to do. And so we need people like that from families to encourage young women to break the norms and have the opportunity to do so.

Q. Do you think a medium like radio is the real platform for such athletes where their stories need to be told?

I think radio is an excellent and widely used media platform in refugee camps. It’s accessible, everyone has a radio, people listen to the radio, it’s always on. In the camps there are radio stations run by refugees, so definitely it can be told there, in their tribal language. And this is a way to even possibly interview the athletes and share their stories among community members on a broader scale. When the Olympics happened and the time difference made it very difficult, it was in the middle of the night, but people still listened on the radio to find a way to hear what was happening to their friends or their family members across the world, that they were so proud of and could relate to, and say “Hey the refugees are being represented.” So yes,  I think that radio plays a very important part.