I’m sure most of us have been on the “Bol bandwagon” this past week. And rightly so!
Peter Bol’s success has enchanted the nation and will be a long-remembered highlight of the Tokyo Games for many of us. But behind three courageous 800m runs this past week is a beautiful, but challenging story. One that I trust we can ponder well beyond the Games.
Retired sportsperson, commentator and now passionate human rights advocate, Craig Foster, captured it so well this week: “Peter Bol reminds us where we are as a country in Australia. And gives immense hope for the country we know we can be.”
The Bol family story reminds us of the difference a nation – and ordinary people in that nation – can make when we take seriously our commitment to human rights and ensuring refugees are welcomed warmly and given every opportunity to succeed in their new home country.
I often cry in special sporting moments – just ask my kids. I was even crying watching a tween movie with Imogen last week as she sat with a big smile on her face. So, when we all got to see the Bol family and friends packed into to watch Peter run this week, I was weeping.
Tears of joy, tears of hope, tears of concern.
Joy, celebrating what a resilient young man had achieved with the help of good people around him – good people from his own Sudanese community – and good people like Helen Leahy and Brian Moore. [Let me come back to Mrs Leahy, her Dad, and the difference amazing schoolteachers and coaches can make in our lives.]
As Peter Bol ran so bravely this week we were reminded as a nation that it should be perfectly normal for a former refugee to be achieving amazing things.
Refugees are resilient and courageous in a way most of us will never know. Many have fled horrors and tragedies most of us will never endure. I can easily cheer on a sports star now wearing the green and gold or my footy team’s colours but can fail to know their powerful back story. Sitting with refugee and asylum seeker families in their lounge room or mine has redefined for me what true resilience and courage looks like.
And, today, across all sectors of our society, in cities and country towns, Australia benefits from the skills, gifts, experiences, passion and heart of former refugees. Here is multiculturalism at its best.
As we celebrate Peter Bol, the athlete today and all that is ahead of him [bring on Paris!], please let’s remember his past.
Peter ‘fled Sudan’ a commentator said this week.
But there was no mention of his family seeking asylum, refuge, or that his family travelled by boat, a four-day journey from Sudan to Egypt.
Yes. By boat!
As Craig Foster wrote this week:
“If we are so willing to hold Peter up as an example of multiculturalism, we must acknowledge his history, the implications for our own policy and what he shows us about ourselves.”
That’s the challenge behind this week’s beautiful story. We should celebrate what can be, but we also must see what still is.
Sadly, some of our leading politicians and conservative media commentators continue to use the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” in such disparaging ways. Most refugees or asylum seekers I have met speak of being made feel “less than human” by the policies of present and past Australian governments, from both sides of politics.
And yet what did former refugee Peter Bol so powerfully remind us of this week, with that gorgeous smile: “We’re all human at the end of the day”.
Further, Peter also comes from an ethnic minority that has been so easily and cheaply targeted by some politicians and media commentators in the city that I live in.
It’s wonderful we celebrate the success of former refugees. As we do, let’s also commit afresh to doing more to support the wellbeing of many refugees and asylum seekers living in our local communities, as well as advocating for those still being held in the abyss of offshore detention.
Leahy recalled this week on radio station 6PR that she had to organise a team for the school athletics carnival, and she didn’t have anyone to run the 400m. One of her students spoke up and said: “Peter can run”.
Yes, that Peter, the one who had fled war-torn Sudan and first came to Australia as a refugee at the age of six.
With nothing to lose Peter was recruited to run the 400m. As the story is told, he won that school race by more than 100m. Ms Leahy said everyone was stunned, not least Peter and herself. That could have been the end of the story. A nice school sporting memory.
But seeing Peter run and the smile on his face at the end of the race, Ms Leahy did what so many amazing teachers do. She went beyond the call of duty. She went out of her way. She enlisted the support of her late father Brian Moore to come alongside Peter.
Today I am reminded and am thankful for teachers and mentors who saw potential in me and invested more of themselves than they needed to. Ordinary people, like Ms Leahy and her Dad, through encouragement and small acts of practical care make such a big difference in breaking down stigmas and building lives and communities.
With the blessing of the Bol family, Brian Moore started coaching Peter, got him his first running shoes and signed him up to the local athletics club.
You got to love Mr Moore!
He told Peter’s parents that his primary interest in helping their son was not because he could run fast. That was a bonus. It was because Bol was such a fine young man and Brian Moore saw so much potential in him as a human being.
Brian Moore didn’t look through a success lens. It wasn’t about how good a runner Bol might be, or how Peter might make him look. He looked through a lens of human dignity and how he could help Bol become the best he could be. He came alongside someone who had many barriers stacked in front of him. Someone who needed a mentor and advocate. His first coach would have been so, so proud hearing Bol speak after finishing fourth in the 800m final this week.
Yes, we would have loved to have seen Peter win gold, but again this week we were reminded what true champions looks like. They don’t need to have medals around their necks. That, as Brian Moore would say, is a bonus!
Someone who did win gold this week was Rose Nathike, another refugee from Sudan.
After fleeing her homeland with her parents when she was eight, Rose has lived for the past 19 years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, along with 200,000 other displaced people.
Rose grew up playing soccer every day in the camp, until she was introduced to athletics in 2014. Seven years later she is an Olympic champion, one of 29 athletes who competed at Tokyo for the IOC Refugee Team.
Like Peter Bol, Nathike has faced so many challenges. And yet she has held on to hope. Now with a gold medal around her neck, she looks forward to studying in Canada where she hopes to graduate with a degree in sport management or international relations.
“And I want to use my sporting success and study to help others who haven’t had the opportunities I have. The vast majority of refugees will never get to do what I have done,” Nathike said this week.
And sadly, she is right.
The UN refugee agency estimates that at the start of 2021 there were more than 82 million displaced people in the world. They all yearn for the things that I take for granted. And while some readers won’t agree, I wish as a nation we would open our doors and arms to more of the world’s displaced being able to experience what the Bol family have in their adopted home country.
Yes, refugee policy is complex and there are many drivers that need to be considered. But my sense is there are many Australians, myself included who would happily contribute to the cost of enabling more people to find refuge in the great southland.
As a nation, our political leaders love to celebrate sporting success. As we join them in cheering on Peter Bol, may we also take the time to remind them of the need for courageous and compassionate leadership and to be on guard against hypocrisy.
Because today – in our nation – there are refugees and asylum seekers struggling to survive as the result of a number of inhumane, short-sighted government policies and actions.
May Peter Bol’s courage inspire us to keep pursuing justice for all those on the margins of our communities, because as this beautiful young man reminds us …
“We’re all human at the end of the day!”