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Special Olympics Highlights its Powerful Work with Refugees to Mark World Refugee Day 2024

Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, a region of Special Olympics, Inc., has launched a compelling feature video highlighting the stories of refugees Ali, in Spain, and Sasha, in Slovakia, whose lives in their adopted countries have been transformed by their involvement with the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Program.

Over 10,000 refugees including youths with and without intellectual disabilities from reception centers, refugee camps and community centers across the world have been positively impacted by Special Olympics’ refugee-focused program, the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Program, which is supported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF). Two of these young people, Ali and Sasha, are the focus of a newly released short feature video.

The film follows the challenging journeys of Sasha, an eight-year-old Ukrainian living in Slovakia, and Ali, an Afghan living in Spain. It shows how sports—and specifically their involvement in Special Olympics—have given them renewed hope, new goals, and opportunities to settle, make friends and grow.

"The Unified with Refugees Program goes beyond just sports; through sports, it creates a platform for social integration, friendship and personal growth for some of the most marginalized populations in the world. There is a natural kinship and an innate understanding between people with intellectual disabilities and refugees—both populations understand isolation, exclusion and discrimination. Through our Unified with Refugees Program, both populations experience the inclusivity, comradery and sense of community that sport offers.”
David Evangelista, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia Regional President

From Ukraine to Slovakia: Sasha’s Story

When war broke out in 2022, Sasha and his mother Lyudmila fled their home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, without taking any of their belongings.

“I realized that if we did not flee, we would either be killed by the bombs or starve to death there,” says Lyudmila.

After a seven-day journey, they arrived safely in Bratislava, Slovakia. Lyudmila explains that her eight-year-old son “struggles with communication due to the differences in his development as a result of autism.” This meant that life in a whole new environment presented intense challenges for mother and son.

A woman holding a young boy, both smiling and giving a thumbs up
Sasha and his mother Lyudmila enjoying a fun moment at the Day Dream Activity Center

However, hope arrived in the form of the Special Olympics Dream Day Activity Center in the Slovak capital city, created by Special Olympics Slovakia through the vision of National Director Eva Gazova. There, Sasha began participating in physical activities alongside children with and without disabilities. Meanwhile, Lyudmila was hired as a teacher at the same center. She shared, “it was thanks to Special Olympics that we started somehow to go somewhere, see something and meet new people, including Ukrainians. We met and became so united.

“Physical activity affects Sasha’s development. And the fact that I can work at least a bit makes me feel like a human being, not just a refugee.”

From Afghanistan to Spain: Ali’s Story

Man in a red t-shirt and holding a football
Ali took part in a Unified Football exhibition with Special Olympics athletes

When Ali first arrived in Spain as a refugee, he experienced a mix of emotions. On one hand, he felt relief at "regaining my freedom." On the other hand, he felt insecure because his life had completely changed in a matter of days. He was now living in a country he did not know; with a language he did not speak.

Despite these challenges, Ali's strength of mind, perseverance and language abilities, along with the support of the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Program’s sports platform, helped him overcome these obstacles.

Ali has always been passionate about sports. Growing up, he tried martial arts and was an avid boxer. However, Ali said his favorite sport has always been football. He says that "As it happens with many Afghans. Many know the cities because of the football clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Cádiz, Almería, Sevilla. I could not have imagined that one day I would live in Spain.

“It's crucial not to marginalize anyone. Kindness alone isn't enough; inclusivity is essential. Sports send a powerful message of unity, integration into society, and the equal rights of all individuals to live, grow, study, learn, play sports, and fulfill their dreams."

About Special Olympics

Founded in 1968, Special Olympics is a global movement to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. We foster acceptance of all people through the power of sport and programming in education, health and leadership. With over four million athletes and Unified Sports® partners and one million coaches and volunteers in 200 countries, Special Olympics delivers more than 30 Olympic-type sports and nearly 50,000 games and competitions every year. Engage with us on: X, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn. Learn more at

About the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Program

Since its inception in 2016 with the support of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), and ESPN, the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Program has been instrumental in providing crucial social integration opportunities through sports to two of the world’s most marginalized populations—refugees and people with intellectual disabilities worldwide.

So far, over 10,000 refugees youths with and without intellectual disabilities from reception centers, refugee camps, and community centers across the world have been positively impacted. The Special Olympics Unified with Refugees Program currently has active programming across Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Kenya, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, and Uganda.

About Special Olympics Europe Eurasia

The Special Olympics Europe Eurasia region of Special Olympics, Inc. encompasses a diverse range of cultures, languages, and customs traversing 58 countries in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. From Iceland to Italy, and Portugal to Kazakhstan, Special Olympics promotes respect, inclusion, and human dignity for people with intellectual disabilities through sports.