Feature31 Mar 2024

All-female Athlete Refugee Team makes history in Belgrade


Janeth Jepkosgei with ART athletes Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, Farida Abaroge, Esterina Irino Julius & Perina Lokure Nakang (© Michelle Katami)

Looking through the entry list of the World Athletics Cross Country Championships Belgrade 24, one can hardly miss the momentous inclusion of the World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team (ART) in the 10km senior women’s race. 

For the first time, an all-female ART participated in a World Championships event when four athletes took on the course in Belgrade on Saturday (30).

“The objective is to motivate more female refugee athletes to take up sport. If it's not athletics, then any other sport, but if it's athletics, even better. Because we believe that it can impact their lives in a positive way,” says Alice Annibali, Senior Manager of Athletics for a Better World and the team lead in Belgrade. 

“They see hope in this event. They can smile. You still see the sadness when you speak with them; they come from a past that was very difficult and sad.” 

The Belgrade quartet are Esterina Irino Julius, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith and Perina Lokure Nakang – the trio of South Sudanese origin based in Kenya – plus Farida Abaroge, an Ethiopian refugee based in France. Additionally, the four had an all-female support team, with Janeth Jepkosgei as head coach. 

“Without a nationality, you feel nothing. Even when you compete, you cannot be on a podium. But now I feel like I have a country. I know where I am going. Now I am competing like everybody else,” says Abaroge, who finished 62nd in Belgrade.

Athletics represents freedom for the 30-year-old.

“The fact that I can compete in a team at such a world event is already a big positive step forward for me. It gives us the opportunity we didn't have or would not have had. I feel like we have the same chances as other female athletes.

“I feel the freedom that now I can excel in what I am doing, and my work is being recognised. I didn't feel much freedom, because I would run and win, and I couldn't be on the podium. But ever since I have been a part of the ART, I feel free.” 

Perina Lokure Nakang, Esterina Irino Julius, Farida Abaroge and Janeth Jepkosgei on the course in Belgrade

Perina Lokure Nakang, Esterina Irino Julius, Farida Abaroge and Janeth Jepkosgei on the course in Belgrade (© Christel Saneh)

The all-female squad is part of the larger World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team founded in 2016 to provide an athletics home to athletes who fled their homes due to conflict, violence and injustice. 

This programme has grown over the years, since the first athlete made an appearance at the 2016 Olympic Games. Several other athletes have competed at four editions of the World Athletics Championships and other major events since. 

“This chance is beyond making a name for themselves on the world stage, but changing the narrative around refugee status, finding meaning, and being able to help their families financially,” says Annibali. “We know the trauma that they've been through and sport, as Mandela once said, has the power to change the world.”

This is a sentiment Lohalith concurs with. 

“It's not only thinking of maybe winning the gold. Whenever you have some bad memories, it helps you with healing. It makes you realise that we are all human beings. We deserve a better life,” explains the 29-year-old, who was the best placed team member in Belgrade, finishing 23rd. “It has also helped in terms of education because we are given the chance to go to school. So, it has opened our minds to explore more and to keep our dreams alive.” 

These four athletes have a similar experience of their lives having been turned upside down and the traumatic journey of fleeing their countries because of conflict, war or political unrest.

As part of the ART programme, Athletics for a Better World also launched an U20 project in 2022 with the aim of getting a team ready for the World Athletics U20 Championships in Lima in August. 

The team is coached by Jepkosgei, the 2007 world 800m champion. Two of the world cross country athletes – Julius and Nakang – were part of the U20 programme.

Nakang is one of the pioneers of the U20 project and she has since become a senior. The 21-year-old was a refugee at Kenya’s Kakuma camp after her family fled South Sudan in 2016. She played football in primary school and then won the athletics trials in Kakuma and made the ART selection. She is a recipient of the IOC Refugee Scholarship and her international competition debut was at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest last year. 

Perina Lokure Nakang of the ART at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships Belgrade 24

Perina Lokure Nakang of the ART at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships Belgrade 24 (© Getty Images)

Nakang’s motivation is to succeed in athletics and education, to be able to offer her family a better livelihood. 

It is a perfect fit for the programme, which focuses on a holistic approach to education, training and wellbeing. Nakang is now a form three student at the All 4 Running Secondary School in Kapsabet.

“I wake up at 5am, go to school until 6am, then go for training,” she explains. “At 7am we are back in class, then at 10am we have training for an hour and return to class. In the evening, we jog for about 30-40 minutes. It is all about education and athletics training.” 

Jepkosgei believes this empowerment project will be a game changer. 

“I am so happy to coach the refugee team, this will motivate the women refugees,” she says. “Most of them have a belief that when you are a woman, your work is just to get married and have babies. Now we are trying to change the narrative.

“Coming here is also a motivation for those who are back in the group. You could see the excitement in Esterina as she was discovering more things.”

Abaroge was elated with her first World Cross Country Championships experience. It represents freedom for her. 

She has been involved in sport since her childhood – playing basketball, karate and football – with dreams of excelling from a young age. Athletics has always been important, but she only picked the sport up in France, after she fled Ethiopia for political reasons, through Egypt and then Libya where her quest for political asylum led her to France in 2017. 

Abaroge became a member of an athletics club for two months and moved again. But here is the catch: despite excelling in athletics, her refugee status was a hindrance to her progression. 

“I have been sad and sometimes I cry because I have worked hard just like everybody else, but I can never get on the podium. And it's the people I defeated that end up being on the podium,” she says.

This status has changed since she became a member of the ART four months ago. 

“I hope those who see what I have been through will have a sense of hope,” she explains. “We will motivate other refugee athletes to take up the sport. I hope my experience will be an opening for other refugee women to see that they can. There is a place for them. There's a door open for them to practice a sport, and to feel that they can be a part of the athletics family.

“Now when people ask: ‘What are you doing?’ I can say I am going to participate in this world championship. I see there is a future and something to aim for. Before there was no motivation, I just ran around and didn't know what was next, more or less,” adds Abaroge, who is coached by Gerald Muller. 

Lohalith is the longest serving member of the refugee team. She has two Olympic Games and two World Championships on her CV, and she also competed at the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst in 2023.

“We hope that many female refugees will be inspired,” she says. “This is big for equality. They don't have a specific language that you need to speak for you to compete – the only language is sport and competition.”

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith at the World Athletics Championships Budapest 23 (© Getty Images)

The 20-year-old Julius, who was 74th in Belgrade, is already inspired to follow in the footsteps of the top athletes she competed against. It being her first international competition, she could not hide the pride she felt at being part of the team, which she calls ‘sisters’.

“Now that I came here, some of the refugee athletes who are still in training will have encouragement,” she says.

Julius took on the course with courage, motivated that the rest of the athletes are just people like her. 

“I didn’t fear them. In this competition, we can run together, there was no separation. We were all trying to finish together.”

Julius began athletics in 2019 during trials at her school in the Kakuma camp. She was then selected to be part of the athletics team. Her progression was largely down to a push from her friends.

“When we went to Kapsabet, I got the opportunity to learn. That's what motivates me to continue with my practice, and the support I get, too,” she says.

They fled to Kenya due to war and starvation. In 2023 she joined the Kapsabet camp.

“In Kapsabet there is more enjoyment because I found more friends. Even learning is so different,” she says.

“Here we have our coach Jepkosgei. She is a good coach; she encourages people, advises us and treats us well. That's what makes me train and makes me feel free.”

Julius is a 1500m runner, and it is no wonder that multiple Olympic and world champion Faith Kipyegon is her role model. Her goal is pretty simple: to be famous one day. And that will come with great athletics success.

The four athletes are motivated. This is a project about shaping their lives, changing the narrative, and – above all – providing a sense of belonging and quality. It is not about the medals right now, but being part of the athletics movement. 

It is indeed Athletics for a Better World.

Michelle Katami for World Athletics