18 Jun 2012

What do Fabrice Muamba, an NBA baskbetball player and a German Jewish doctor from the 1940s have in common? They are all refugees who fled persecution and have made a huge contribution to British sport over the last few decades.

As the London 2012 Olympic Games approach, people across the country will be celebrating the refugees who have become Britain’s sporting heroes for Refugee Week 2012 (18-24 June), which kicks off today.

Here are just some of the outstanding contributions to British sport by refugees:

  • Fabrice Muamba, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who fled political persecution with his family, and was given safety in the UK, aged 11. He played for Arsenal and more recently, Bolton Wanderers.
  • Luol Deng, a refugee from Sudan is a key player in this year’s British Olympic basketball team. He plays for the Chicago Bulls and is Barack Obama’s favourite basketball star. Deng fled Sudan with his family as a child, and grew up in Brixton, London, and is now a British citizen.
  • 'Scottish Wayne Rooney' Islam Feruz, came here as a child refugee from Somalia and plays for Chelsea’s youth team. He has been selected as the youngest ever player for Scotland Under 21s.
  • Abdifatah Dhuhulow arrived as a refugee in 1998 from Somalia, and since having his leg amputated following war injuries, has competed in the British Open Championships, completed the London Marathon in just over 3 hours, and been presented with a ‘Heroes of Running’ Award by Dame Kelly Holmes.
  • Lomana LuaLua, was a striker for Blackpool.  He fled from Kinshansa, Democratic Republic of Congo as a child. 
  • Mario Stanic is a former footballer with Chelsea who fled Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. 
  • Christopher Wreh who played for Arsenal, was a refugee from Liberia.
  • Czech Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott represented Great Britain at the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games as a weightlifter. 
  • Walter Herz, a Czech refugee who fled Europe during WWII, designed the famous official poster for the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
  • German Jewish refugee, Ludwig Guttman, fled Nazi Germany and held the first sporting event for disabled people in Buckinghamshire in the 1940s that would later become the Paralympics. In 1956 he was awarded the Fearnley Cup, an award for outstanding contribution to the Olympic ideal.

Speaking of this year’s games, LOCOG chair, Seb Coe said: 'The Olympic Games are not only a celebration of excellence, but also of friendship. Let's open up our team to refugees across the globe!'

Refugees contributing to the Olympics

A number of refugees are also contributing to the London 2012 Olympic Games, many from behind the scenes:

Téa Hodzic was a successful musician in Bosnia, before she escaped the war in the early '90s. She has rebuilt her career in the UK and will perform at the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. 

Cynthia Masiyiwa, a refugee from Zimbabwe helped campaign to ensure Londoners working at the Games would get the London living wage and helped 60 young people secure jobs at the Olympics.

She said: 'I’m very excited about the Olympics coming to London, and the opportunity to be involved in such a big sporting spectacle. I’ve been working with young people to help them secure jobs in the Olympics too – it is great that we can all be involved to make it happen together.'

Luka Phiri fled Zimbabwe in 2003. He is now a civil engineering student and will be part of the Olympic support team during the Olympic Games.

He said: 'I feel honoured to be involved in the Olympics. It is such a great opportunity for me and many other refugees from different countries around the world who are also part of the Olympic team -  cleaners, performers, athletes, working so hard to make it all happen. Refugees have so many skills to offer, and they should be given more opportunities like this to contribute to national events and life in the UK. I love athletics, and I’ll be supporting Team GB and the Zimbabwean team.'

Kolbassia fled from Africa, and since being in the UK has learnt English, gained a Masters degree, and now works for the charity  Freedom from Torture. As a Trailblazer volunteer, he has worked on preparations for London 2012, and will be a Games Maker in the Basketball Arena for the Olympics.

He said: 'When London was chosen as the host city for 2012 I was really excited because I didn’t have the opportunity in my home country to be in a city where there would be a major tournament taking place. I thought it would be a dream to be part of it and I wanted to be able to say that I was one of the people who did something towards this massive event. I’m really excited – I love sport. During the last Olympics I watched everything – cycling, boxing, rowing – whatever I could!'

Almir Koldzic, head of Refugee Week said: 'As people come together to support Team GB this summer, we will be cheering for the refugees who are making a huge contribution to British sport. People like Luol Deng and Fabrice Muamba are national sporting heroes, and show how refugees who have been given sanctuary here make a massive contribution to British culture.

'But it is also the unsung heroes of the Olympics, refugees working behind the scenes to make it happen, and refugees who make everyday contributions in their communities around the UK, that we are celebrating this Refugee Week. Others can do the same by going along to a Refugee Week event and finding out more about what refugees are doing for us.'

Refugee Week events

This Refugee Week people across the country are celebrating both the major and everyday contributions of refugees to the sporting, cultural and business life of Britain through attending over 500 events nationwide.

Key events include:

  • Celebrating Sanctuary, world music festival, Southbank, London, 17 June
  • Refugee Week Scotland Opening Concert, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 18 June
  • Casablanca at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 22 June
  • Refugee House, experiential art exhibition, St. Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff, all week

For more information visit the Refugee Week website and follow events on Twitter at #RefugeeWeek.


For further information contact:

Refugee Council: Philippa McIntyre, Media Officer, 07956 636 219, 020 7346 1214. 

UNHCR: Laura Padoan, External Affairs Associate, 020 7759 8092, 077 5566127, Padoan@unhcr.org

Case studies

We have a range of case studies of refugees who will be contributing to the Olympics this year available for interview, with accompanying photos.

About Refugee Week

Refugee Week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities. Refugee Week 2012 takes place from 18-24 June 2012. www.refugeeweek.org.uk

Refugee Week is a multi-agency project, and partner agencies currently include: Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The Children's Society, Refugee Action, Refugee Council, City of Sanctuary, Scottish Refugee Council, STAR (Student Action for Refugees), Welsh Refugee Council, Freedom From Torture, and British Future.