By Motlabana Monnakgotla
He ran away from his circumstances in war-torn South Sudan. Today, this refugee athlete has crossed boundaries, broken barriers and has Olympic aspirations.
Seventy million. That’s the number of refugees forcibly displaced worldwide. The size of an entire nation. People without homes in a world that is now saying ‘stay home, stay safe’.
Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed is one of them, forced to leave his home at a young age. Still in his 20s, this South Sudan-born migrant refused to confine himself within boundaries. In fact, he crossed several of them, as a full-time ‘refugee athlete’, eventually making it to the finish line and winning gold at world sporting events.
When he was only eight years old, he had to endure the tragedy of losing his father – who was shot and killed by the militia in his home country. “When you grow up, you have your dad and you don’t need to worry about anything because someone cares about you, and [then] you lose him and life goes from good to terrible and that’s how I decided to do something for my siblings because I was now the head of the family,” recalls Mohammed.
In 2010, this led him to decide to leave his conflict-ridden country to seek greener pastures. However, he legally couldn’t because he was underaged, but arranged to pay to have his date of birth changed.
“I saved money and changed my birth year from 1996 to 1993. I then traveled to Egypt and then Israel and slept in the park until I met a kind Sudanese person who let me move into his house.”
Two years on, Mohammed had made friends in the foreign country and played football with them. One of them advised him to take to athletics because he could run behind a ball for hours.
In 2014, he joined a club, and won his very first competition.
“When you grow up, you have your dad and you don’t need to worry about anything because someone cares about you, and [then] you lose him and life goes from good to terrible and that’s how I decided to do something for my siblings because I was now the head of the family.”
Today, Mohammed is a part of the Athlete Refugee Team (A.R.T), formed in early 2017 by Kenyan long-distance runner, Tegla Loroupe, for refugee track athletes competing in global IAAF (World Athletics) events and the Olympics. A.R.T is funded by On Running, IAAF, the UNHCR and Pascal Gerdsmeier, a private investor based in Monaco. A.R.T, made up of refugees from the Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Morocco, is hoping to take them to next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games as medal contenders.
A 90-minute documentary titled RUN, released on June 20 (World Refugee Day), depicts the story of A.R.T from inception to the current coronavirus crisis that has stalled the sporting world. The documentary, shot over three years and across three continents, follows the athletes’ “emotional journey to compete at the Olympics”, and covers their lives, from “living in war-torn tribal regions to competing on the world stage”. It’s the story of the human spirit and how sport can change lives.
Since 2017, Mohammed has traveled between Europe and Africa competing professionally. A top contender for the now-postponed Olympics, he continues training hard for the proposed event in 2021. He ran away from his destiny at a young age, and continues to change the course of his life.