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Sudanese Refugee Athletes Dream of Peace - 2004-09-29

At a refugee camp in Kenya, Kenyan sports stars recently joined the refugees in celebrating the International Day of Peace.

One by one, the young athletes leapt over the hurdles in the steeplechase event, sweat pouring down their faces. The crowds cheered wildly as the sun beat down relentlessly on the dusty, windswept track within Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, home to some 86,000 refugees, most of them from Sudan.

Running side-by-side with the athletes in the steeplechase and other sporting events on the International Day of Peace on September 21 were several Kenyan sports heavyweights, including current marathon world record holder Paul Tergat and Catherine Ndereba, who twice won the Chicago and Boston marathons.

Following the steeplechase event, Kenyan Home Affairs Minister Linah Kilimo summed up what the day was all about.

"I want to thank God that your spirit has not been displaced - that's why you're able to run, though you have been displaced from your home ground," she said. "One thing that war has not taken from you is hope. So, never give up. Don't lose hope. Just as the night comes and the day comes, so one day, you shall also go back to your own land."

Peace talks to end civil wars in Sudan and Somalia look like they are about to wrap up in Kenya. If that is the case, people who have been living in Kakuma for as long as 12 years may soon be going home.

Sudanese athlete Lawrence Matter is preparing for that day. Mr. Matter says he has been training to be a runner for more than six years, running some 10 or so kilometers each week on roads in and around Kakuma.

The 18-year-old says he and other athletes in Kakuma have had to be creative and self-reliant, as they have no coaches or resources for training.

Mr. Matter's dream is to represent Sudan in international competitions, and to run with the likes of Mr. Tergat and Ethiopian star runner Haile Gebrselassie.

"I make sure that I make good training. Whether I'm in a bad situation, I could make a good training for my people to clap for me and to make a flag for my nation, to raise up over the world that I am the champion, of Sudanese nationality," he said.

That is a dream both Mr. Tergat and Ms Ndereba are familiar with. As a child growing up in Kenya's Rift Valley, Mr. Tergat ran for kilometers from his home to school without enough food to eat, until the World Food Program started up a free, daily lunch program at his school. Mr. Tergat is now a WFP "Ambassador Against Hunger."

Ms. Ndereba knows the thrill of representing her country at international competitions, and wished the same for Mr. Matter and other athletes living in Kakuma Camp.

"The refugees would love to represent their countries as I also represent my country, because each and every one is proud of his or her country," she said. "It's my prayer that they will be able to carry their flag one day one time."

Seventeen-year-old Nyador William is a referee for Kakuma Camp's many basketball tournaments. On the International Day of Peace, the tall young woman was refereeing a wheelchair basketball game in which the players - many of whom had no legs - were furiously spinning their wheels and dribbling the ball as they struggled to capture victory for their team.

Ms. William, who has lived in Kakuma for most of her life, wants to return to her native Sudan for something more basic than representing her country at international competitions: she wants to live a way of life she has only dreamed about.

"In Sudan, there is a lot of bombardment, people are fighting, there is no peace. It's like, everybody is [hating] one another," she said. "There is nothing like a neighborhood where you can be peaceful, go to school, learn. Things like that are not there in Sudan. So if those things happen, I'll go back to Sudan."

For now, Ms. William says, she will continue to referee in the relative security of Kakuma Camp.