The Special Olympics Unified with Refugees program has expanded the mission of inclusion and community to some of the world’s most marginalized people.
Over the past two months, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spiraled, exposing the world to a parade of horrifying, heart-rending images. These snapshots depict ordinary citizens taking shelter wherever they could, carrying children and traveling with whatever they could on their backs as they left their homes hoping to escape the violence.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 10 million people had already been displaced during the first few weeks of the invasion. In the weeks since, that number has only climbed.
And that almost incomprehensible number is just folded into a global surge in refugees over the past decade and beyond. Since 2011, the number of people who qualify under the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency has nearly doubled to 20.7 million. Even that represented just a portion of the record 82.4 million people who had been forcibly displaced worldwide by the end of 2020, the last year for which the organization has data available.
In 2015 and 2016, wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere contributed to a wave of refugees arriving on European shores, often soaked, starving and openly grieving for loved ones they’d lost along the way. Organizations and individuals in many parts of the world attempted to rally around this latest surge, opening their homes and businesses to contribute supplies and human power to rescue and humanitarian efforts.
As David Evangelista, President and Managing Director for Special Olympics Europe and Eurasia, watched these disturbing images, he saw an opportunity for Special Olympics to make a difference.
“I said to myself, some of these people have to have intellectual disabilities,” Evangelista told FanSided. “And what are we prepared to do for them? They will be hosted, be it temporarily or permanently. In EU member states, in the Balkans. We have a responsibility. Special Olympics prides itself on being a tenacious organization and empowering people with intellectual disabilities. But we don’t predicate that empowerment on jurisdictions and zip codes.”
Evangelista took his question and his urgency to the organization’s Europe and Eurasia Leadership Council and the seeds of a revolutionary program were planted — Unified with Refugees.
The Special Olympics Unified Sports framework was already established — a structure that brought athletes with and without intellectual disabilities together “on sports teams for training and competition.” Unified with Refugees would take that structure and bring it to refugee camps and reception centers to help build connections for everyone in this displaced community who needed it.
Special Olympics jumped right in, hosting their first event in Cyprus. Evangelista that said right from the beginning, he could see the potential for this program to be something much larger than he had originally envisioned.
Special Olympics is obviously an organization focused on inclusivity but, at first glance, it may appear that inclusivity is moving in one direction — creating opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to participate in sports and build community through that participation. But here was an opportunity for that inclusivity to move in the other direction, for Special Olympics athletes to welcome other marginalized people and communities into their own and share everything that had to offer.
“What we ended up finding was that Special Olympics is no longer a movement for people with intellectual disabilities. It’s a movement from them. It’s an invitation that they give to the world. We thought we were doing something for them. But I guess serendipitously we were doing something very much for [the world] through them,” said Evangelista.
After that first successful pilot, the program began to rapidly scale up, moving next to Belgium and Spain. Eventually, the program was expanded to numerous countries across Europe, Africa and Asia and in that process of rapid expansion, the program continued to evolve and add new elements.
As Evangelista said, “We were riding the bike and building at the same time. I didn’t have the time to take seven months and build up. People were dying. When the image of the boy in Turkey hit my screen, there was no patience left.”
Many of these refugees came from communities with no real infrastructure or cultural integration for children or adults with intellectual disabilities. As Special Olympics worked to bring athletic opportunities to camps and welcome centers, they also found themselves offering early childhood development resources and programming for people with intellectual disabilities.
“That was what Thailand needed the most,” said Evangelista. “And they didn’t offer Unified Sports, they offered inclusive ECD programming and family support. They were providing all sorts of health supplies, they were providing food, providing clothing, and it was about little children learning and finding gross motor skills.”
As the program blossomed beyond just sports, it became a global partnership with The UN Refugee Agency and is now a true “multi-thematic platform” offering “ECD programming for children, youth empowerment opportunities for youth of all abilities, sports, Family Health Education” and more.
Unified Sports was what opened the door, but now Special Olympics is in a position to help deliver so much more to those in need.
Special Olympics Unified with Refugees finds its most potent advocate
While Evangelista helped create an opening for Unified with Refugees to begin, Gerald Mballe has become the face of the movement it launched.
Mballe was born in Cameroon, but he was forced to leave as a child to escape horrific violence. A complicated, arduous journey through multiple countries brought him to Libya and, eventually, to Italy. Alone at the age of 17, Mballe was living in a refugee camp and trying to make sense of a new place, language and culture when a local coach noticed how happy he seemed to be playing sports and invited him to help with a Special Olympics soccer program.
Mballe, who does not have an intellectual disability, did not really have experience with people who did and didn’t quite grasp what he was joining until he met the rest of the athletes.
“He told me that they were very special,” Mballe told FanSided. “So I did not get it at all. I said, ‘but special in what sense?’ He said I will see that when I go to the field.”
“When I arrived in the field, I was watching these guys playing, and I didn’t realize that they were athletes with intellectual disability. He came to me he said, ‘Okay, look, this is Antonio. Antonio is a striker. He has Down Syndrome.'”
From the very first practice, Mballe was welcome and included in a way that felt very different from the rest of his early experiences in his new country.
“I mean, this was a magical moment,” said Mballe. “We started playing football. I mean, they were not judging me. They were not looking at my skin color. They were calling me by my name. They were inviting me for pizza. They were asking me what type of language was I speaking, it was just so natural and so intense. That is just the transformation — that is where everything started.”
And this moment for Mballe was a perfect example of what Evangelista saw from that first refugee event in Cyprus. The inclusivity and sense of belonging fostered by Special Olympics programming wasn’t just directed towards the athletes with intellectual disabilities — it was rippling outward to everyone involved.
This experience and Mballe’s ongoing connection to Special Olympics helped him overcome the reality and perception of exclusion that so many refugees face in their new homes. For someone who had been forced to leave their family and community, this was an opportunity to rebuild a new one based on a real, meaningful shared experience.
“I know what exclusion feels like,” said Mballe. “I mean, I know [what it feels like] being looked at like someone who could not give anything in society. In Libya, I was hidden away in cells, in camps working like slave. I mean, in Europe, in Torino, at the beginning, I was at the margin of the community. Thanks to practicing sport, in my case football, I regained my self-esteem. I mean, I got back my songs, I discovered qualities that I had that I did not know.”
From the very first practice, Mballe has become a central part of the Unified with Refugees program. He continued to compete with his Unified Italian team and since then has become an Advisor for the Unified with Refugees program. He spoke at the 2018 Special Olympics Refugee Forum and at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in early 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland. He won the Integration of Refugees Through Sport Award (IRTS) Role Model Award in 2021 and his work isn’t limited to just Special Olympics:
"Gerald was on the front lines of the current COVID-19 pandemic as an official of the Italian Red Cross. As hundreds of millions of European citizens were confined to their homes, Gerald was on board a frigate off the coast of Sicily, providing psychosocial support, counseling and translation services for refugees and migrants recently rescued in the Mediterranean. At a time when fear gripped the world, Gerald answered the call of duty for humanity."
The Unified with Refugees program is currently active in 11 countries and the program has continued to adapt and evolve to address new challenges, including the flood of refugees leaving Ukraine. It has continued to use sports and inclusion as the mechanism for connecting people, but the program’s mission has expanded far beyond the initial conceit, working with partner organizations to help to deliver food, medical and emergency supplies, education programs and resources, and so much more.
Calling any particular displacement a crisis— current refugees from Ukraine or the wave of African and Middle Eastern refugees in 2015 and 2016 — undersells the degree to which this is an ongoing and seemingly ever-increasing problem. Wars, violence and civil unrest seem like intractable contributors to forced migration, and climate change will continue to drive refugees in the decades to come.
Providing support for these people involves so many challenges, but addressing inclusivity and community-building can help build a stable foundation to replace what’s been lost. Special Olympics, their athletes and partners, and their Unified with Refugees program are ready to do their part.
“It’s a huge opportunity to give people a chance,” said Evangelista, “and in doing so, empower other marginalized groups to reap the same benefit.”
Children and adults with intellectual disabilities and Special Olympics Ukraine athletes urgently need your help. Please support Special Olympics Unified with Refugees. All funds raised will go to support Special Olympics refugee relief for Ukrainian families fleeing violence.
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