I have cried twice in my life.
The first time was when I was 10 years old when my village was attacked by militiamen. I remember my mother grabbing me by the arm and running into the bush.
We hid there for three nights and survived by eating leaves from trees and any type of berries we could find. We would check if the berries were poisonous by rubbing them against our skin to see if they would sting.
Because my mother needed to find food for my family, she made a decision to set out by foot to Ethiopia with my siblings. But she wanted to leave me behind, “You’re man enough to survive,” she told me as I pleaded with her not to abandon me. “I cannot take all of you with me,” she said. She left me with our neighbours who were also hiding in the bush with us. I was only 10. I was scared and alone and I was afraid I would never see her again.
That was the first time I cried.
My tears were of complete abandonment and sadness. I felt I had lost everything in that moment – my home and my family. I stayed with my neighbours in the bush for three days, sick to my stomach, missing my mother and siblings.
When it felt safe enough, we returned to the village. Everything had been destroyed. My home, my neighbours’ home, everything. I saw dead bodies on the pathway. I saw a lot of things I don’t like to think about. As we tried to pick up the pieces of our broken and destroyed homes, the United Nations officials came to our village. They asked us to follow them to safety.
But I didn’t want to go. I was waiting for my mother to come back. But my neighbours, the surviving villagers, and the U.N. persuaded me. They told me that it wasn’t safe to stay in my village any longer and that we needed to leave. I was taken to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. This was in 2005.
Kakuma Refugee Camp was very different from anything that I knew. To distract my mind from missing my home and my family, I went to school and I played football at every chance I got.
This helped me forget the suffering and the violence. It helped me forget what I had been through.
The mind is a strange thing. When you move from conflict to living freely and in peace, your mind still does not feel free. It gets stuck in the conflict you have been through.
To escape my mind or any sadness I felt from missing my family, I began playing football. I played football for 10 years in Kakuma.
But one day, when I saw some people from the camp running as a sport, I was curious. When you play football, you are working as a team. When you are running though, you are completely on your own. Because I had been by myself for so long, I thought: Let me depend on myself. Let me try running. Running helped me find a lot of peace in my mind.
In 2015, some people came to the camp and held a race. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but I was allowed to participate. I didn’t have running shoes, so I ran barefoot for 10 kilometres. I managed to make it to third place.
The race organisers met with me afterwards and said they would like me to go to Nairobi to train as a runner full time. They told me there was a chance that if I trained well, I could make the Refugee Olympic team and represent Kakuma Camp. I didn’t even know what the Olympics were, but I was excited to go to Nairobi and to run more.
On November 13, 2015, I went to Nairobi to join the training centre after I completed my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination. I was the last person to join the training centre because of school, so I had to work hard. Coaches helped me with training to improve my time, my technique and my running.
I remember one day an article from the Washington Post was posted on the bulletin board in the centre. It talked about the creation of a Refugee Olympic team. By this time, I had learnt a lot about the Olympics. There were 23 refugees training in Nairobi. I remember thinking to myself how proud we would all feel even if only one of us made the team to go to the Olympics.
On June 23, 2016, the results of the Refugee Olympic team were announced. The coaches read through the list at the training centre. My name was the first one called. When I heard them say my name, I felt complete happiness like I have never experienced before. I looked down to the ground and closed my eyes tight. I held myself back from crying.
The Olympics were held in Brazil in early August and it was one of the best experiences of my life. When they announced our team in the stadium, that we are the Refugee Olympic team entering the arena, I heard a roar from the audience that made my ears ring. I saw the stadium lights on us. The stadium was packed. I never thought people would all stand up for us, but every person was on their feet, including the President of Brazil and the Secretary General of the International Olympic Committee – all of them cheering for us. I felt a lump in my throat, tears swell in my eyes. I felt my skin tingle from the vibration of sound in the audience. And I felt more alive than I ever had in my life.
This was the second time I cried.
My tears were of life, of feeling so alive that I had to hold myself back from running on the stadium track right then and there.
We performed well as a first-time Olympic team. But there is still much more room for improvement. That’s the thing about running – the more you push hard, the more the running becomes easier.
Running has brought me a lot of things in my life — not only a sense of peace or competing in the Olympics, it also brought my family back to me. When I was in Brazil for the Olympics, a man from an NGO reached out to me asking to take a call at 4:00am in the morning.
When I answered the phone, my mother’s voice was on the other line. I could not believe it. She asked me, “Are you my son? Are you alive?” I felt so much happiness, I felt she was right beside me. She asked me what I was doing in Brazil and what the Olympics were.
Talking to her made me feel so grateful. I had long since thought that I would never hear from her again. She was back in South Sudan with the rest of my family, living in a different village from where I grew up.
Having my mother and family back in my life has given me the courage and strength to continue with my running.
Now, my hope is set for Tokyo 2020 Olympics. I am training hard to have a spot on the Refugee Olympic team again. I have dreams of winning an Olympic medal. I also have ambitions of completing further education. This past month, I was awarded a scholarship to study for a Bachelor’s degree at Iowa Community College in the USA.