Special Olympics Unified with Refugees brings the transformative power of sport and other programming to the most marginalized and amplifies the movement’s calls for social inclusion. Special Olympics partner the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 79 million people worldwide have been forced by violence and other conditions to leave their homes. Refugees and other people on the move often live on the fringes of the societies to which they flee, due to lack of acceptance and poor access to resources.
"I will forever be grateful to the athletes of Special Olympics Italia. They welcomed me. They understood me. They offered their hands of friendship to me when I needed it most—and it continues to serve as a defining moment in my life."
Gerald Mballe, Special Olympics Italy Unified Partner
People with intellectual disabilities (ID) know the social isolation and exclusion that people on the move face. That is why the Special Olympics movement exists: to use sport to combat isolation, demonstrate the diverse face of humanity, and unite communities.
With over a half-century of rich experience promoting social inclusion for people with ID, Special Olympics is pleased to welcome refugees and displaced people to the movement. By using Unified Sports in refugee camps, reception centers, and host communities, Special Olympics helps refugees demonstrate the ways in which they can contribute positively in their new homes, providing pathways to community and acceptance. It also drives a truly Unified Generation through sport by building bridges between the displaced and ID communities, and creates the opportunity to reach refugees and other displaced persons with ID and their families—the most marginalized among the marginalized.
Special Olympics Bosnia and Herzegovina athletes are happy to include refugee children from the migration center "Ušivak" in Sarajevo in the celebrations of European Football Week 2019.
On 16 June 2019, Special Olympics Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) hosted an international street race in Velika Kladuša. Twenty Unified Partners aged 4 to 16 years old from the migration center “Lipa” in Bihać participated alongside 20 Special Olympics BiH athletes from 3 cities.
A group of girls and young women with and without ID share in the joy of football in the Dadaab Refugee Complex in November 2019. This match was part of Unified Football Tournament with teams made up of refugees and host community members. Housing over 200,000 refugees across three camps as of July 2020, Dadaab is one of the largest refugee complexes in the world.
A young refugee boy with ID has an eye screening as part of the first-ever Special Olympics Healthy Athletes screenings at Kakuma Refugee Camp in October 2019. Located in northwestern Kenya, the Kakuma Refugee Camp is home to refugees and asylum seekers from many countries in East Africa.
Health care workers from Kakuma Refugee Camp and the host community participate in a training held in the camp in October 2019 on how to provide care to people with intellectual disabilities.
Boys and young men with and without ID at Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania are ready to participate in Unified football and athletics. Malachie, far right, became a Special Olympics athlete after spending three years in the camp in chains—his family’s way of keeping him safe in a world where many don’t understand people with intellectual disabilities. Malachie went on to compete in athletics at Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi 2019.
On 28 October 2017, Special Olympics Tanzania hosted a Family Health Forum alongside sports competitions at Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. Children enjoyed playing 11- and 5-a-side Unified football and 100m sprint. Approximately 150 people participated in a Family Health Forum on topics including a general orientation to Special Olympics and intellectual disability; water, sanitation and hygiene; and establishing Family Support Network. Created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Tanzanian government, around 150,000 refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, live in this camp in western Tanzania.
Special Olympics Uganda trained 54 coaches in July 2019 at Kagoma Youth Center in western Uganda. These coaches provide Unified sports programming in football to 213 athletes and Unified partners in this refugee settlement, which is home to refugees from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and Somalia.
Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners in Umpiem Refugee Camp in Thailand near the border of Myanmar show off their medals. Thanks to the collaboration of Special Olympics, Right to Play, and UNHCR, the older children enjoyed competing in Unified bocce and Unified football, while the younger ones participated in Special Olympics’ early childhood development program Young Athletes.
This participant in Young Athletes at Umpiem Refugee Camp enjoyed himself so much that he wanted another go at the obstacle course! His mother accompanies him through the course as elderly community leaders from the camp brave the midday sun to cheer him on.
Special Olympics athletes and Unified Partners from refugee reception center in Settimo Torinese, Italy prepare for a 5-a-side Unified football match as part of European Football Week 2020.
Let's get unified and restore dignity to humankind, says this Unified team after their European Football Week 2020 match in Turin, Italy. The Unified Partners from a nearby refugee reception center were pleasantly surprised by how easily the Special Olympics athletes included them on the pitch. They came out of a match they described as “incredible but intense!” wondering why people with intellectual disabilities are so seldom given opportunities to demonstrate their potential.
Five teams of Special Olympics Belgium athletes and Unified Partners—from the Woluwe-Saint-Pierre refugee reception center for youth—are ready for a day of 7-a-side matches in Kraainem, Brussels, in October 2019.
Special Olympics Asia Pacific President and Managing Director, Dipak Natali; member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors, Nils Kastberg talk; and an official from Special Olympics Pakistan speak with refugee families with children with intellectual disabilities in Karachi, Pakistan in early 2020. Their conversation about how Special Olympics programming can help improve the health and development of children with intellectual disabilities was particularly timely, with the COVID-19 pandemic breaking out not long after.
Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director, David Evangelista; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Deputy High Commissioner, Kelly Clements; Special Olympics Unified Partner, Gerald Mballe; UNHCR Director of External Relations, Dominique Hyde; and UNHCR Senior Refugee Sports Coordinator, Nick Sore meet at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2020. The shared commitment to the power of sport for social inclusion was solidified further in December 2020, when Gerald became the first-ever Advisor on the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees program and Special Olympics and the UNHCR formalized their partnership with a global memorandum of understanding.
Special Olympics embarked on the Unified with Refugees journey in 2016, after Europe alone received more than a million refugees and migrants the preceding year. As part of an urgent focus to address the plight of individuals with intellectual disabilities in refugee settings, Special Olympics conducted a briefing at the UNHCR HQ office in Geneva, Switzerland and additionally with the European Union in Brussels, Belgium in early 2017. These engagements prompted initial activations in the Netherlands and Cyprus, as well as a series of editorials in key publications like Euractiv, AIPS, Sport and Development and more! They highlight the growing impact and scale of the Special Olympics Unified with Refugees platform. Since that time, Special Olympics and its valued partners have brought the power of sports to refugees with and without intellectual disabilities in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. As the reach of the program continues to expand, even more refugees of all abilities will benefit from inclusive development.