© Richard Bullock

At the age of eleven, Lydia Philip fled harrowing conditions in war-torn South Sudan with her father and six siblings after her village was burned down and her mother abducted. After arriving as a refugee in Kenya, her talent for running 400m was spotted by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation (run by Kenyan former elite runner, Tegla Loroupe) leading Lydia to join the Athlete Refugee Team, a collective of international refugee athletes competing under one banner.

As a result, Lydia’s life changed completely. Now 17, she’s represented the team in the U18 Athletics World Championships, and earns a small amount of pocket money which she divides amongst her family for food and school items.

Honest, moving and inspiring, I’m humbled that Lydia has shared her story with me in her own words.

A huge thank you to On, sponsors of the Athlete Refugee Team in Kenya, for making this happen.

My humble beginnings were characterized by a life that was hostile to me. The way people lived [in South Sudan] was aggressive; they fought one another and I felt like there was no hope in life due to the lack of peace around me at all. I lived in fear not knowing what might happen to me and my family.

Unbearable circumstances caused me to leave South Sudan in February 2013 due to violent conflict (war). A vicious fight arose caused by malicious men who destroyed our entire village, burnt down all our houses and abducted my mother to an undisclosed location – even now, we still do not know where she is. My father, now a single parent to seven of us, brought us to Kenya in a very challenging way and thank God we arrived safely. As I look back I shed tears, yes tears of joy and pain; I can’t fully express the feeling. A life of difference and hope started in Kenya, especially when I was registered as a refugee. My siblings and I got free food which was difficult to find in Sudan. I was enrolled for free education and also felt protected.

I became interested in running (athletics) in the year 2014 when I was in standard four (school year). I participated in the area schools games in Daadab Refugee camp every passing year where I could always be top three in the finishing line! That is when I discovered that I was good at running, a belief that was reinforced by my teacher who took me to a race in the regional hub of North Eastern Kenya – Garissa. I performed excellently and came second out of 86 athletes. It was amazing, everybody was congratulating me and I felt much more confident than ever! [The] 400m race built my confidence and consistency and propelled me to running 800m comfortably, giving me the courage that I can be a champion of tomorrow.

In 2016 the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) noticed my athletic talent when they were scouting for refugees whose talents could be identified and developed. It was announced that there would be athletics trials open to those who had sporting talents and that the participation was free. I found my emotions rising and had sufficient courage to try my level best. I participated and came second in the 5km race. I was informed that I had qualified and race organizers took my name and I was informed that I had succeeded in joining other athletes at Tegla Loroupe /UNHCR camp in Ngong, near Nairobi. I can’t express enough the joy I had when it dawned to me that I had made it to be one of those forming the refugee athletics team!

© Richard Bullock | Lydia, centre, with two ART teammates

I joined other athletes who had been selected earlier, and I have a very close bond with them – it’s a very special bond considering what we have gone through and everyone has a story to tell. Since I joined them, they welcomed me, recognized me as a team member and accepted me as one of them. We have gone through different challenges (good and bad times) even as we exchange the varied traumatic experiences and memories we share. They have shown me much love and care since I am among the youngest athletes in the camp.

My training with the guidance of the coaches is such that I train twice a day; very early in the morning before I go to school and late in the evening when I am back from school. It is quite tedious. But to be successful, I follow the programme developed by my coaches as I go to the field/ track.

I train in On tracksuits, long and short tights, socks, t-shirts, racing shoes, shorts, sweat jacket.

In the course of my running, my most memorable experience was when I ran in a regional race in a county called Kajiado in Kenya where I managed to come second among a strong and seasoned group of athletes in the 800m. I stood on the podium and the feeling was so refreshing in front of everyone! This was, and is still, my dream: of one day standing on the podium in front of an international audience. I am determined and committed to reaching excellence and making my dream come true. I cherish the Kajiado experience very much! I won’t forget the feeling I experienced and still look at one of the international runners, Caster Semenya, whose 800m running inspires me very much [to think] I could be standing on the podium in the very near future.

Another event that is memorable to me is the IAAF U-18 (Athletics) World Championship; this was the first International event I ever participated in. It was a race with a difference compared to the rest of the local races I have participated in. I found it so different since I met people from different parts of the world which was an experience of its own! How they talked, behaved and also dressed was unforgettable. An Indian young lady who looked like a boy really amazed me! It was also quite challenging to compete with people that I was not used to. I was the only African in the heat I was running in. It was a real challenge to me but I loved it as it gave me a sense of achievement.

Lydia, left, in Nairobi

As I look back at the time I was in Daadab Refugee camp before the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation spotted me, I was a nobody. One who could not even buy a pen for myself, one who could not help but see her siblings cry because of hunger, but instead of helping them, could just join in the crying! The memory looks so distant as I reflect on the transformation I have gone through since joining the refugee athletics team. But since TegIa and UNHCR spotted me, I have become useful to my family. Whenever I receive my stipend (pocket money) I divide the money with them. The little money would buy them food and also books and pens for school. Life is no longer the same. There is some change from the time I left Daadab. I also work very hard in school and have received commendations from my teachers.

My dream for the future is to be among the first refugee record holder of 800m and to become a women’s representative in sports for refugees in the whole world and a voice for all. My dream is valid since I am working hard and believing in myself.

I finish by a quote by an anonymous person who said: “Whatever life gives you, even if it hurts, just be strong and act like you are okay. Strong walls shake but never collapse.’’

I am strong and I believe in the future.

On continues to support the Athlete Refugee Team as it works towards Tokyo 2020. Read more here.

Find out more about the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation by visiting www.teglapeacefoundation.org.