UNHCR – Venezuelan refugee children win an unprecedented medal for Roraima at the School Paralympic Games.

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From left to right: Yusleni and his son Johnny, bronze in swimming;  and George in Athletics Gold and his mother Liliana.

From left to right: Yusleni and his son Johnny, bronze in swimming; and George in Athletics Gold and his mother Liliana. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

Brasília – Two young Venezuelan immigrants have placed four times on the podium of the 2022 School Paralympic Games in Roraiman, an achievement unprecedented in the history of athletics in the state. Both are temporarily living in the Pricumã shelter, one of the shelter facilities of Operation – the federal government’s response to the influx of refugees and migrants from Venezuela to Brazil – in Boa Vista (the capital of Roraima).

The regional stage of the event took place last week in Brasilia and brought together 300 athletes from nine regions and the Federal District. 12-year-old Jorge Alejandro won two gold medals in athletics, in the F34 class shot and shot put modalities (for those with motor coordination problems in the lower limbs). 16-year-old Johnny Jesus won two bronze medals in the S10 category in the 50m and 100m freestyle (for swimmers with lower physical motor abilities).

With the results, both the school Paralympics received a passport to the national level, the largest event in the world for young people of school age with disabilities, the Brazilian Paralympic Committee (CPB), announces that it will take place in November, the year Sao Paulo

Jorge and Johnny traveled to the competition with the support of Operation Shelter, UNHCR, United Nations Refugee Agency, Fraternidad Sin Fronteras and AVSI Brasil. Operation Shelter is managed by the Sub-Committee on Shelter and Internal Affairs (SUFAI) through a Technical Cooperation Agreement with UNHCR. In them, UNHCR teams and their partners carry out activities for the integration of persons with disabilities in structures tailored to their needs.

George has been in Brazil for three years and Johnny for three months. Both of them, accompanied by their mothers, entered the country in search of treatment to improve their lives. In collaboration between CPB and Roraima State University, they have the support of the Logistics-Humanitarian Task Force Operation Reception to participate in sports training at the Roraima Paralympic Reference Center.

Vinicius Denardin, coordinator of the referral center, said after Operation Shelter sent the refugees to the site, the trainers recognized the potential for both methods. “Neither of them have competed in Brazil or Venezuela before. They came with us a month and a half ago, and they already gave him this positive result,” explained Vinicius. But we don’t worry about medals, ranking and performance. “The most important thing is to provide the motor, psychological and social benefits that Paralympic sport entails,” he added.

For UNHCR, sports practice supports the inclusion and social cohesion of refugees, improving their psychosocial well-being through fun, safe and integrated sports activities that contribute to their development, learning and integration into host communities. For this reason, the United Nations Refugee Agency tries to promote sports experiences through its programs and activities in the country.

“Sport has always existed in immigrant communities, but it is often seen as a distraction for youth rather than as a strategic protection and integration tool. Today, we need alliances so that more immigrant children and youth can access sports programs, good health, and new opportunities, as George and Johnny did.”

  • George's mother, Liliana, was uneasy about where her son stood in his first athletics competition.

    George’s mother, Liliana, was uneasy about where her son stood in his first athletics competition. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

  • George and his mother Liliana on stage at the Regional Paralympic School Games in Brasilia.

    George and his mother Liliana on stage at the Regional Paralympic School Games in Brasilia. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

  • George won two gold medals in athletics at the Regional Paralympic Games in Brazil.

    George won two gold medals in athletics at the Regional Paralympic Games in Brazil. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

  • Johnny with his coach before entering the pool for the 50m freestyle event at the 2022 Paralympic School Games in Brasilia.

    Johnny with his coach before entering the pool for the 50m freestyle event at the 2022 Paralympic School Games in Brasilia. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

  • After winning the bronze medal in swimming, Johnny received the love of his mother Yusleni.

    After winning the bronze medal in swimming, Johnny received the love of his mother Yusleni. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

  • The medal winners' mothers, Yusleni and Liliana, who came to Brazil in search of medical treatment for their children, will celebrate the children's participation in the games.

    The medal winners’ mothers, Yusleni and Liliana, who came to Brazil in search of medical treatment for their children, will celebrate the children’s participation in the games. © UNHCR/Vansa Beltrame

Unprecedented gold in athletics

Athletics was George’s first sport and two golds were his first medals. The unprecedented reality doesn’t stop there. George, who has cerebral palsy, brought Roraima the first gold medals in athletics at the Paralympic School in the state’s history.

In Brasilia, in the stands of the Federal District’s Integrated Physical Education Center, Liliana, Jorge’s mother, watched in horror as her son threw each one. She went down to get closer to the fence and turned around anxiously. The leader of the delegation made the number 1 with his fingers while addressing the crowd from the middle of the sports field. The result was confirmed by a text message sent to Liliana’s cell phone: George was awarded the gold medal.

Two years ago, it was difficult for Liliana to think about sports and medals. He was unable to stand when the boy underwent surgery at Boa Vista to walk with the support of crutches.

“He was in a wheelchair in Venezuela. He is happy today. I was surprised by his performance in the games. Even though he is disabled, he can save himself, feed himself and speak, but I never thought he would make it this far,” says this proud and emotional mother.

The boy said he was so excited about the sport and was so happy with his victory that he didn’t let go of his medals even to go to sleep. After the confirmation of the second gold medal, George ran into his mother’s arms with a big smile and made a plan for the future: “The third medal will be in Sao Paulo, and the fourth as well” on the national stage.

In the reference center, Jorge’s trainer, Anna Kesia Neves, explained that despite the short training period, he can perform the necessary movements correctly and accurately. “He is a born talent, and he will be here again next year. Now, we will work to improve his performance in the two tests, because he has earned a place in the countries,” he celebrated.

From rivers to pools

In the Federal District Federal Police Service Association pool, Johnny was calm and nervous as the race began. His mother Yusleni proudly sent a video and photo to her husband and their two remaining children. Venezuela and looked forward to the information. “For us, as parents, it’s a matter of pride. We arrived in Brazil in May and he’s representing Roraima. We didn’t expect it,” she said.

Johnny was an active child and taught himself to swim in the rivers of Venezuela. However, when he was 11 years old, he was injured in a football game and developed septic arthritis in both legs. He won’t walk today. His mother said the boy was very worried when he arrived in Brazil. “I cried a lot, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. Until the Operation Shelter staff encouraged him to come out of the shelter and start swimming,” says Yusleni.

A month and a half of training is not enough to notice the evolution of the athlete, but in Johnny’s case, the improvement in mobility and autonomy is already visible, explains the coordinator of the reference center. “We can see the changes and we believe that in three to four months we will have a very important result for their freedom,” concludes Vinicius.

After his first bronze medal, as he left the pool, Johnny was greeted with a loving hug and kiss from his mother, who cheered her son on from the stands. Shy and of few words, he smiles when he talks about swimming and says he’s inspired me to keep swimming, but he still misses football. “I used to like to play soccer in Venezuela, but today I can’t play, so I like to swim.”

In football country, Johnny finds joy in swimming again.

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