Kristin and I were about to travel across the world to participate in an experience that conceptually, we understood. We were going to a refugee settlement to meet with a community of people that have gone through something unimaginable, and honestly very indescribable at that point. We were going there as coaches, as runners, as programmers. We knew running on multiple levels: the emotional release, the physical endorphins, the undeniable connection any runner has with another. These things we could grasp. What we didn’t know was the level of energy, desire, and connectedness paired with the constraints of fear and resources that would greet us.
Our first day we toured through one region of the settlement. 100,000 people live in Nakivale with more coming on a daily basis, and a drastically smaller number ever leaving. We met the leaders, teachers, coaches, volunteers, farmers, and children of this community, helping us obtain the smallest sense of what living means to them.
The last piece of the day we got to meet a selected group of girls that are on a persistent and courageous pursuit of more. We got to spend 90 minutes communicating through a translator their desires, passion, and commitment for a running program. They want to run to free their mind from the bad things that have happened, to feel the greatest sense of physical strength and competitiveness, to walk forward feeling resilience like we’ve never felt. When we ended our meeting they could not contain how much love and connectedness they felt. With the little English they knew they showered us with hugs, words of love, and the astonishment of this dream becoming reality.
World Refugee Day 5k: I was legitimately nervous for this because I knew I was going to be running through what felt like the middle of nowhere surrounded by people that saw me as some mizungu (white person) running in Nike shoes and running tights while they wore their everyday clothes, and - if they owned them - shoes or flip flops.
Well, here’s what really happened.
Our warm up consisted of jumping, dancing, and cheering as they announced the different nationalities present for the race, over 13 different countries represented. 2,000 people had signed up for the race with many many more present to cheer and celebrate World Refugee Day, one of the most highlighted days of the year.
We then all made our way to the start and by the time I got there hundreds of people were already running. So I jumped in and started going with whoever surrounded me. The first mile or so of the race I was playing around with the kids. We’d make eye contact, I’d give them the “let’s race” look, and off we’d go dodging bodies as we sprinted through the street. I caught up to one the of girls we met in our meeting the day before and we immediately made eye contact, and had a moment of exaltation. It was very clear how happy we were to see each other. She was pulling along another girl much younger than her.
This young girl was running in just a skirt and flip flops, carrying her t-shirt in hand. I ran next to her and listened as her breathing rate elevated and her pace started to slow. She had slown down and I stayed back with her. Before I knew it I felt a sweaty hand meet mine, followed by a tight squeeze. At this moment my heart moved up to my throat as I felt acceptance, and a huge gesture of love. Five minutes had passed and we were still running side by side, hand in hand. At this point I loosened my grip thinking that maybe she wanted to run free and be independent of me. I paid attention as her grip kept the same firmness so I continued to hold on a little tighter.
We had been running for a while now through a rural part of the settlement. She spoke very limited English and I constantly wanted to check in with her, but didn’t know how to. I saw her shirtless chest rising and falling rapidly. I looked at her squeezed her hand and showed her how I would fill my belly with a deep breath of air and slowly release it. She mimicked me over and over. We made it to the water stop that was being hoarded by all the runners. We made sure we stopped to grab water followed by a packet of glucose. I poured it into the water for her, she took several gulps, handed me the water bottle, and onward we went hand in hand.
As we ran back into town I noticed a tug at my arm. She was pulling me and I wasn’t sure why until I saw a boda boda (motorcycle) narrowly pass by us. Every time someone drove by she pulled my arm forcing my body closer to her and away from danger. She was taking care of me. We had formed a unit that was beginning to grow as other girls started to link up at different points in the race, hand-in-hand. Without stopping to walk we charged up the gradual incline and closed in on the finish line. There were tons of shouting, laughing, and energy as we made it to the end and walked our way into the post-race festivities. A group of her friends joined us and we spent the next hour interacting in ways other than conversation. We made hand shakes, played soccer with a plastic water bottle, took endless selfies, and continued to hold hands.
This 5k run encompassed my experience over the last week. It was about human interaction and connection. It was about reciprocation of respect and dignity. It was about the acknowledgement of one’s deep struggle and one’s ability to help. I know how easy it is to become immune to the problems of the world. I have often acted in a state of paralysis where I blame this feeling of being completely overwhelmed and using it as an excuse to limit my exposure. What I realize is that I always have the ability to do something. It’s not going to always look like a week-long trip to a refugee settlement. But it will look like education for myself and others, communicating and creating lasting relationships with the people I met, actively putting myself in situations where I can be with people that withhold stereotypes and misunderstandings.
Thank you to everyone that has followed along and supported our journey to Uganda in any way. Fly Feet Running will always stand for the connection of vulnerable people, what makes us human beings. We use our health and fitness as our tool to connect and we support the continuation of that across the world and throughout our lifetime.
All Hail the TreadMighty,