Special Olympics has a simple mission to use sport to transform the lives of those who risk social marginalisation. As part of its commitment to empower people with intellectual disabilities, the organisation is working with young refugees, a group that faces risk of stigmatisation and exploitation.
Special Olympics recognises the power of sport to build bridges between people both on the playing field and in life itself. In the wake of the current global refugee crisis, the organisation is developing programmes with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help the estimated 65.6 million displaced people in the world, over half of which are under the age of 18. It is estimated that 13 million of these displaced people have disabilities, and that around half a million have an intellectual disability.
The challenge is particularly difficult for young refugees with intellectual disabilities, but David Evangelista, President of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, says sport provides a simple tool that can empower them.
“Special Olympics recognises its obligation to conduct outreach to anyone with an intellectual disability irrespective of their ethnicity, creed or statehood,” he says.
“Special Olympics speaks to ability, and our athletes are the messengers of peace, solidarity and unity. They are bringing down the walls of exclusion and replacing them will tolerance, acceptance and a unity that the world desperately needs.”
Abdullah Najim’s story epitomises the Special Olympics mission. Born in Iraq, Abdullah was kidnapped by a militant group when he was six years old. He later fled Baghdad with his family, firstly to Syria and then to Cyprus. Abdullah is also autistic, and has benefitted immensely from the Special Olympics support network and opportunities after joining the organisation’s initiatives in Cyprus last year. In March this year, he won a gold medal as part of the Cyprus team that won the floorball tournament in the 2017 Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria.
Abdullah’s father, Abdul Amir, says that since joining Special Olympics, Abdullah is a changed person. “He is happier and more confident. It has also been life changing for us as a family. Special Olympics has succeeded where all else has failed, and Abdullah has finally found joy and success.”
Sport is a simple tool that can have a big impact on the victims of the global displacement crisis, and Abdullah is living proof. Celebrating 50 years of empowerment in 2018, Special Olympics is much more than a not-for-profit sport programme. It is now a social movement bringing purpose and fulfilment to those at the very margins of our society, and the 5.6 million Special Olympics athletes in the world are leading the way forward.