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Community Impact

Sasha’s Journey of Hope Through Special Olympics

‘Unified with Refugees’ platform provides Ukrainian refugee with integration opportunities in Slovakia via sports

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,” said Lyudmila.

After a perilous seven-day journey, they arrived in Slovakia and, soon after, began a new life in the capital city of Bratislava.

Adjusting to their new life in a different country was not easy, but they found renewed hope when they received a phone call from Special Olympics inviting them to join the ‘Unified with Refugees’ sport activities.

Lyudmila explained that his eight-year-old son “struggles with communication due to the differences in his development as a result of autism.

“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.”

In Slovakia, Sascha began participating in physical activities at the Dream Day Activity Center alongside children with and without disabilities. Meanwhile, Lyudmila was hired as a teacher at the same center.

“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.”

A blond boy and a woman smile with their thumbs up while posing for the photo
Sasha and his mother Lyudmila have found renewed hope through the Unified with Refugees Program

Since its inception in 2016, with the support of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), Special Olympics ‘Unified with Refugees’ 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 refugee youths with and without ID from reception centers, refugee camps and community centers across the world have been positively impacted. It currently has active programming across Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Kenya, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand and Uganda.

Lyudmila recognizes the crucial role sports play in leading a better and healthier life. She said, “Many disorders in the head are caused by disorders in the body. That’s how sports heal—you have to move.”

Sasha especially enjoys swimming, and diving into the water is one of his favorite activities. “He is like a beautiful fish! Thanks to sports, my son has become more disciplined. He listens to me more attentively and understands what teamwork and following orders mean.”

Lyudmila added, “We hope to return home to Ukraine, but no one knows how it will turn out. For now, Special Olympics is our only hope that keeps us going and pushing forward.”