Three refugee athletes competing in Tokyo heading to Ontario college

By Elena De Luigi

TORONTO – Three refugees from South Sudan competing at the Olympics will be heading to a Canadian college this fall under a program that gives students displaced by conflict a chance to pursue their academic goals.

Rose Nathike Likonyen, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and James Nyang Chiengjiek are currently members of the Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Games.

They’ll be heading to Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., as the first cohort of students in a new athletic stream of the Student Refugee Program, which sees post-secondary institutions privately sponsor refugees.

“They’ve earned the opportunity to rebuild their lives and to chart their journey forward to success and we’re just so proud to play a part in that,” Janet Morrison, Sheridan’s president, said in an interview.

All three athletes fled conflict in South Sudan as children and grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they still live.

Likonyen and Chiengjiek competed in the 800-metre races at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as part of the Refugee Olympic Team while Lokoro competed in the 1,500-metre race at those Games.

Sheridan is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Olympic Committee and the World University Service of Canada – a non-profit that manages the Student Refugee Program – to bring the athletes to Ontario.

The trio will begin their first year in Sheridan’s academic upgrading stream, which focuses on literacy, numeracy and critical thinking, but then they could choose different options to pursue based on their own interests and career aspirations, Morrison said.

The college will be supporting the athletes with academic advising, physical and mental health resources and housing supports, among other things.

“There’s a lot of research on how to position students for success, all kinds of different students from all kinds of backgrounds and lived experiences. What we know is that central to that is a sense of purpose, which I think, no doubt these three learners have,” she said.

“They’ve had a lived experience with conflict and persecution so we’ll provide them with access to resources to help rebuild their lives here.”

The World University Service of Canada said the three athletes could help raise awareness on the need to support to more refugees.

“What Rose Nathike, Paulo Amotun, and James Nyang will remind the world on the Olympic stage in Tokyo, is that we have a collective responsibility to uphold the rights and help realize the potential of millions of refugees around the world,” executive director Chris Eaton said in a statement.

The UNHCR said it would like to see other countries sponsor refugees in a similar way.

“While the resettlement of refugee student athletes is relatively new, Canadian universities and colleges have a long history of sponsoring refugees to resettle and pursue post-secondary education at their institutions,” said Michael Casasola, UNHCR’s senior resettlement officer in Canada.

“It is a model that UNHCR has been encouraging other countries to follow so that more refugees are able to access post-secondary education and obtain a durable solution.”