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Refugee athletes captivated the world at the Olympics. But many returned to a life of despair

Refugee athletes captivated the world at the Olympics. But many returned to a life of despair

Kenya — Here she is leading her team into the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. There she is with the U.N. secretary general, grinning as the two of them hold up an autographed banner. Here she is with an arm around Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan running god who once held the women’s world marathon record.

Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 25, flipped through images from her time on the Refugee Olympic Team while sitting on the floor of a mud hut in this desert refugee camp, 100 miles from the border with her home country, South Sudan. Outside, a half-dozen grubby children crowded around a cooking fire, some of them ­naked from the waist down.

It has been a year and a half since the refu­gee team swept to fame in Rio, hailed as a symbol of hope for the more than 65 million people around the world displaced by conflict. As the world prepares for the next Olympiad, which starts this month in South Korea, the images for some of the 10 refugee Olympians is less hopeful. For Lokonyen, it verges on despair.

South Sudan has been at war since long before it arrived into being, carved off from Sudan in 2011 after a bloody independence struggle. When she was 8, Lokonyen and her family fled after rival tribesmen torched her village and slaughtered her neighbors. They sought refuge in the Kakuma refugee camp, a constellation of thousands of huts made of silt and dung and sheet metal, enveloped by a permanent haze of dust.

Kakuma is where she stayed and looked after two of her younger siblings when her parents went back to South Sudan to search for her grandparents. It is where she returned after she ran the 800 meters in the Rio Olympics, met Pope Francis and circled the globe to compete against the best athletes in the world.

“My life has not changed that much,” Lokonyen said, knocking the battered image album on her lap. She spends most of the year at a modest training facility outside Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, but Kakuma remains her home. Since the Olympics in Rio, she said, she has trained “without even benefiting, without even gaining anything.”

Lokonyen has continued to compete internationally. She ran the 800 meters in last year’s World Championships in London. She and the other refugee athletes are not paid, and they return from foreign competitions to face many of the same hardships they faced before they were Olympians: poverty, travel restrictions and a bar on gainful employment.

On the track, Lokonyen barely seems to touch the ground. Here in Kakuma, which is home to roughly 185,000 refugees, she spends her days doubled over, cooking on a fire pit and washing dishes with water from a yellow jerrycan. The Rio 2016 ID that hangs from the wall of her hut means less than the ration card, issued by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, that lists all 15 members of her family who are still eligible for food aid.

Unlike for Yusra Mardini, the refugee swimmer from Syria who has appeared in ads for Under Armour, hopes of a sponsorship deal have not materialized for the five South Sudanese athletes still living in Kenya.

“We have been here for almost two years now, but what is the advantage for these young people?” said Yiech Pur Biel, who competed in the 800-meter run in Rio. “Are they going to support my career?”

The International Olympic Committee and UNHCR, which jointly sponsored the Refugee Olympic Team, have publicly committed to supporting the refugee athletes even after they stop competing. Both organizations have pledged to find accommodations for them and to cover their tuition and school fees.

“There has ever been a commitment to supporting especially the five [South Sudanese] athletes who went to Rio,” said Raouf Mazou, the UNHCR representative in Kenya.

Lokonyen said she was told last year there was no budget for her to start a program in sports management at a Kenyan college. Her teammate James Nyang Chiengjiek, who ran the 400-meter race in Rio, said he was told the same thing.

Biel is studying international relations, but on a scholarship funded primarily by the German government. His teammate Paulo Amotun is still in high school, while Anjelina Lohalith started a two-year program last fall with funding from UNHCR.

Mazou said there might have been a misunderstanding between the athletes and those funding them that has resulted in the delay. Moving forward, he said, UNHCR and the IOC would support any of the five Rio Olympians in Kenya who wish to study.

Since late 2015, the refugee athletes have trained at the facility in the rolling hills outside Nairobi. Lokonyen returned there in January to prepare for the Commonwealth Games in Australia. For nearly a month over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, while the training camp was closed, she was home in Kakuma. Every day she spent there cost her seconds on the track.

It is not safe to train in a sprawling refugee camp where sexual violence is rampant and ethnic hatred festers. She and other refugee athletes ran once as a group — an effort to mitigate the risk — but threats, leers and whispered warnings put them out of commission.

Fame is a dangerous thing in a place where everyone is desperate. “People think, ‘You are rich, you have traveled abroad — now give us something,’ ” Lokonyen said.

When you do not, sometimes they try to take it. Three weeks ago, men from a nearby settlement tried to break down her gate in the middle of the night. Luckily, a neighbor’s shrieks drove them away.

“It is very risky to train here,” Lokonyen said. “As a woman, something may happen to you. And especially now, they know me.”

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