Benjamin Loyseau: “As an independent photographer, I have been working on refugee issues these past years in East Africa and France. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, contacted me last April to tell me they were setting up the first-ever Refugee Team with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to participate in the Olympic Games. I am not a sports photographer but I have covered seven Paralympic Games following the French team and I always loved documenting these stories, a mix of sport and human adventure. So I jumped on a plane and went to Kenya to meet the refugees who were training in the outskirts of Nairobi.
When I first met them, there was a group of 30 athletes, young men and women, training and living in Ngong Hills, outside Nairobi. They came from different parts of East Africa, Ethiopa, South Sudan, Somalia or Eritrea. They had one thing in common: they had all fled violence and wars in their country. Refugees end up in camps, and these athletes were living in a camp called Kakuma in the northwestern of Kenya. I’ve been to Kakuma – the situation there is particularly difficult. There are nearly 200.000 people living there, mostly long term refugees living in very tough conditions (storms, malnutrition, diseases), but more than that: desperation and hopelessness. So when selected to come to Nairobi to train to maybe join the Olympic Games, this was the chance of a lifetime.”
“The conditions in the training camp were better than their ordinary life in the refugee camp but far from the standards you would expect for athletes preparing for the Olympic Games. Most of them didn’t have running shoes before coming to Nairobi but you could feel how grateful and dedicated they were in training.”
“The refugees were filling their travel documents. At this point, they didn’t yet know who was going to be among the five to be selected to compete in the athletics, who would join the five other athletes (two swimmers from Syria, two judokas from Congo and a marathon man from Ethiopia) who would make up the Refugee Team.”
“Most of the South-Sudanese athletes had never taken a plane before flying to Rio and just a few months ago they had never heard of the Olympic Games.”
“On their arrival in Rio after a 24-hour journey, they were received at the airport as rock stars and surrounded by cameras and microphones.”
“The Refugee Team had the privilege to enter last in the Stadium at the opening ceremony, just before the hosting country, Brazil. They received the warmest cheer from the Brasilian crowd.”
“Anjelina didn’t manage to qualify for the semifinals in the 1500 m race. When I spoke to her before her race, asking her what surprised her the most in Rio, she said: “In my country (South Sudan), when the road faces a mountain, we go around it. Here, they go inside the mountain. I think it’s very strange”.
“Popole is from Democratic Republic of Congo and has been a refugee in Brazil for 3 years. He hasn’t seen his family for more than 18 years, not since he was separated from them by war and hid alone in forest for 8 days when he was still a child. So when he won his first fight, it was a very emotional moment and a great message of hope for the 65 million refugees around the world.”