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Team of Refugee Athletes Seen as 'Symbol of Hope,' Says Olympic Committee

Refugee Athletes to Compete as Team at Rio Olympics
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Refugee Athletes to Compete as Team at Rio Olympics

Kenya is hosting five of the 10 athletes who will compete in this year's Rio Summer Olympics as part of a new Refugee Olympic Team.

The International Olympic Committee says it hopes the team, representing refugees around the world, will be a “symbol of hope” and a reminder of the magnitude of the global refugee crisis.

The five competitors working out at the Tegla Loroupe Training Center for Refugee Athletes in Ngong are all originally from South Sudan.

Runner Rose Nathike Lokonyen was just 4 years old when her family fled ethnic conflict in the eastern part of the country. She has lived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya for 16 years.

She thinks of her two youngest brothers often. She had to leave them at Kakuma to come to Ngong to train.

“I really miss my siblings," she said, displaying their pictures on a cellphone.

Lokonyen said she was headstrong about participating in sports from an early age. She remembers her father punishing her for playing soccer. "I really miss him because he was just looking after me. He didn’t want me to participate in any sport, but I insisted on doing just that.”

The team has a tough training regimen. Every morning, they start with stretching exercises that last for 45 minutes.

Then, the team runs for about two hours a day. Lokonyen’s event is the 800 meters.

It may be no accident that the five refugee Olympians that Kenya is hosting will compete in track and field events. This training camp is named after Kenyan marathon runner Tegle Loroupe, who holds several world records.

Jackson Kemoi, manager of the Olympians' training camp, is hopeful about the athletes' prospects in Rio.

“They had good time in our trials, so that’s the special thing they have," he said. "Another thing, they are also disciplined ... and that is what is needed most. These are the best guys, and they have persevered in the camp since September last year up to now.”

Lokonyen and her teammates had to flee their homes years ago. Now, they will run for gold.