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Community Impact

Thriving in a Refugee Camp: The Story of Doctor, an Athlete

Top image: A young-adult boy gets into race-ready position outside, in a dirt clearing. He wears a Special Olympics jersey. Bottom image: A young-adult boy stands, pulling his left leg up in a stretch. He wears a Special Olympics jersey, outside, on a dirt clearing.
Doctor warms up for practice after school.

Every morning Doctor, a teenage boy with intellectual disabilities, eats breakfast with his father and discusses the day ahead. He looks forward to learning alongside his new friends in school; but more than anything, he can’t wait to play football and improve his athletic skills. While Doctor’s life seems typical now, his past has been anything but normal.

Around the turn of the 21stcentury, much of central and east Africa was engaged in the Second Congo War. The warring factions contributed to tense living conditions in the already underdeveloped country of Uganda, where Doctor lived. Many people endured extreme deprivations and feared for their lives. As a young child, Doctor and his parents fled their home in Uganda and settled in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. This particular camp, located in northern Kenya, was first established in 1992 as groups from neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan crossed Kenya’s border, fleeing civil unrest and the fall of their governments. Now the camp, near the border of Uganda, has grown to house nearly 190,000 refugees from countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda. Overall, the conditions in the camp are difficult, with only five percent of the inhabitants having electricity and running water.

10s of white tents with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees logo on them lay in an expansive field.
The Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Shortly after arriving at the camp, Doctor’s mother passed away, leaving him and his father to navigate their new life alone. Over time, they built a new life, less than 85 kilometers from the Ugandan border. Despite his disability and the turmoil he had faced as a child, as Doctor grew older, he dreamed of living a life filled with sports, traveling and friends. However, his disability made it difficult for him to find sporting opportunities and to experience the sense of belonging he craved. While the majority of the schools across the camp are inclusive, major social barriers prevented students with disabilities from feeling safe and valued. As an escape, Doctor practiced football every day—but all alone. While he improved his technical skills, he longed for teammates to play alongside and share in his accomplishments.

A young-adult boy and girl approach the finish line on a dirt track, their legs stretched in a large stride. A crowd watches from behind the finish line.
Doctor wins the 100-meter race during a Play Unified: Learn Unified sports day in the Kakuma Camp.

In 2018, Doctor’s life changed dramatically when Play Unified: Learn Unified was launched at the Kakuma Refugee Camp through a Unified Sports training for coaches and teachers. One teacher who attended the training had previously noticed Doctor’s commitment to football and encouraged him to keep practicing. With her new knowledge of Unified Sports, she realized Doctor’s moment to shine had finally arrived. The teacher helped Doctor form a Unified football team that included students with and without disabilities from his school. Over time, the group of teammates became friends and focused on building camaraderie on and off the football pitch. Doctor is now regarded as a leader among his peers, constantly encouraging them to improve and to believe in their ability to achieve more than they ever imagined possible.

Five youth girls race down a dirt track while a large crowd looks on.
A Unified race at the Kakuma Camp.

In Doctor’s school and in the Kakuma Refugee Camp as a whole, perceptions about people with disabilities are beginning to change. People with intellectual disabilities now have a seat at the table and are accepted as leaders. Teachers and coaches in the camp are excited to maintain the momentum of Unified Sports, supporting Doctor and other Youth Leaders as they guide the transformation day after day by giving voice to their own truth and experience.

A group of youth in Special Olympics Kenya jerseys walks across a dirt track in front of a crowd. One youth carries a lit torch.
Carrying the torch during a Play Unified: Learn Unified sports day in the Kakuma Camp.

The visibility and inclusion provided by Unified Sports offer an unprecedented public platform to camp residents with disabilities, proving they can live life to the fullest. Since 2018, Play Unified: Learn Unified has empowered young people throughout Kenya to promote the idea that, if given recognition and fair opportunity, people with disabilities will add great value and spirit to their communities.

Unified Schools

During the first three years of Play Unified: Learn Unified, Special Olympics Kenya created 189 new Unified Sports teams. With the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Play Unified: Learn Unified has involved over 17,000 athletes and Unified partners and trained over 2,000 teachers and coaches in Kenya since 2018.

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