Feature07 Mar 2023

Women leading by example – how the U20 refugee team is changing lives, on and off the track


Barbara Moser-Mercer and Janeth Jepkosgei (© Lucy Crookes)

School exam results and personal best running times recorded by a group of refugee athletes are how Kenya’s 2007 world 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei measures her success these days.

For just over a year, Jepkosgei has been head coach of the U20 World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team (ART) based at a resettlement camp located around 100km from the South Sudan border in east Africa. A woman-driven programme, it is led by Swiss educator Barbara Moser-Mercer with Jepkosgei as head coach, supported by coach Arcade Arakaza, himself a refugee from Burundi.

Barbara Moser-Mercer and Janeth Jepkosgei with World Athletics U20 Athlete Refugee Team athletes

Barbara Moser-Mercer and Janeth Jepkosgei with World Athletics U20 Athlete Refugee Team athletes (© Barbara Moser-Mercer)

Their group of disadvantaged but talented teenagers – eight female and seven male – now call the Kakuma Refugee Camp and neighbouring Kalobeyei Settlement in northwest Kenya home, after fleeing war and hunger in Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.

They gained entry into the ART by being the fastest competitors in time trials and they now receive life-saving support in terms of food and clothing as well as life-changing athletics training and education.

The pilot programme they’ve joined is not only revolutionising their lives one stride at a time, but it’s helping shape the future of their remaining families and other members of the wider 222,000 Kakuma/Kalobeyei camp residents who look up to the teenage role models.

The improvement Jepkosgei is witnessing in her teenagers when they have food in their stomachs, clean water to drink, running shoes on their feet and hope in their souls, is dramatic.

Head coach Janeth Jepkosgei observing her team in action at an U20 training camp

Head coach Janeth Jepkosgei observing her team in action at an U20 training camp

The joy they radiate as they train, learn and succeed fills the 39-year-old with more happiness than the five medals she won at World Championships and Olympic and Commonwealth Games over a stellar five-year elite career from 2006 to 2011.

“Being with the young ones, coaching the young ones and seeing them winning and being successful, the coaching I am doing now makes me happy because I see it changing their lives. Changing lives is the best thing I like to do,” Jepkosgei said.

“The big success is seeing the athletes improving their times. Last year when we did the trials for the juniors, I was happy because everyone was running their personal best and that was a big success for me.”

Teaming athletics with quality education is also key to the refugee programme.

“They love doing athletics and the opportunity to study and to do even better in education,” Jepkosgei said. “Through running they discover that despite being a refugee, they can do better in life. So now they are enjoying education and sport.

“When the refugees leave their country, they have to go back to lower classes that are not for their age group. But since I am working with them, they do not mind. You get someone who is 17 doing primary school - but age is nothing and they are enjoying it.”

U20 ART athlete Lokure Nakang Perina (left) in action

U20 ART athlete Lokure Nakang Perina (left) in action

In 2022, World Athletics paid school fees for 10 U20 refugee athletes attending schools inside the refugee camps. At the end of the first year of the pilot programme, two athletes were enrolled at Jepkosgei’s school in Kapsabet and in 2023, the U20 ART project is covering school fees for four female athletes.

As a result, these athletes will all be able to focus on their education and sport, away from home and family responsibilities, which can be quite demanding for youth of their age. Being able to lead by example has helped, with Jepkosgei demonstrating to parents that it is possible to have a high-level athletics career and a family, with Jepkosgei now mother to a six-year-old daughter. In addition, mentorship sessions in English, science and life skills are held every week.

Another great joy for Jepkosgei is assisting her youths to negotiate for the first time the tasks that other people take for granted, such as catching a plane (to Nairobi) and meeting dignitaries like Athletics Kenya President Lt. General Jackson Tuwei.

As well as steering their training, Jepkosgei also mentors her team and teaches them life skills such as how to trust again, how to live together in harmony “as brothers and sisters” and how to juggle their training and school workloads. And they’re having fun doing it.

The magic mix of an integrated athletic and academic programme means that teenagers who once woke up scared and hungry are now hungry for success.

“They have the ability to be at the international level because now they have discovered what they can do. They think ‘we are refugees, but we can do it’,” she explained.

The current U20 refugee programme started at the end of 2021 when World Athletics teamed up with the Kenya-based African Higher Education in Emergencies Network (AHEEN). Key instigator Professor Moser-Mercer was instrumental in integrating her 2019 refugee project operating in Kakuma with World Athletics’ vision. 

With further assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Youth Education and Sport (YES), Women Education Researchers of Kenya (WERK), Athletics Kenya and the Kenyan government, plus help from local schools, parents, coaches and teachers, the programme is now celebrating its first birthday.

To mark the occasion, World Athletics has produced a yearbook about the programme that ultimately aims to help the U20 athletes qualify for the World Athletics U20 Championships in 2024.

The yearbook celebrates the lives and progress of the refugee athletes to date, as well as the extensive support staff, including qualified refugee coaches and educators.

Jepkosgei’s vision is for her refugee athletes to succeed on the world stage and she’s off to a good start.

In February she took senior members of the refugee team on tour as head coach to the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst where they competed in the mixed relay event.

Despite the athletes being based in different places – in France, Kenya and the UK – and coming together just one day before the competition, the team finished 13th in 27:15 from a field of 15 teams. The learnings and exposure were huge.

Role models for the U20 team: senior ART athletes at the World Cross Country Championships Bathurst 23

Role models for the U20 team: senior ART athletes at the World Cross Country Championships Bathurst 23 (© Steve Christo)

Jepkosgei wants the world athletics community to get used to hearing about the ART, but back home she continues to face seismic challenges to get her teenage charges world-stage ready.

“It is quite a challenge when we are in Kakuma. There are no (training) fields but there is a flat area that we use,” she said. “That is why I introduced a programme that during the school holidays they come down to Eldoret (500km away). That is where they get the facilities.

“I bring in other juniors from Kenya and you can see they love it. They get their motivation from them, they want to be like them. When they are running, they really challenge them. They feel like ‘I can be like them’.”

Nor is Jepkosgei content with just getting her team to qualify for next year’s World U20 Championships. She has higher ambitions. She also wants them to first qualify for the July 2024 Paris Olympic Games. “We have big plans.”

Louise Evans for World Athletics