Guor Marial became famous as the “runner without a country” when he participated under the Olympic flag for the men’s marathon in the 2012 Summer Games in London. The country of his birth, South Sudan, did not yet have a National Olympic Committee. Moreover, Guor had no documentation to prove his nationality. Although he was recognized and lived in the United States as a refugee, Guor was stateless. A group of friends started a campaign to petition the International Olympic Committee to allow him to participate in the games. Through social media, it developed into a global campaign that rallied support from across the five continents.
Guor’s journey from farm boy to Olympic marathoner was filled with adversity. In the early 90s, when Guor left home, times were hard and dangerous. There were no schools or health services in the countryside. Guor’s mother decided to send him to live with relatives when he was eight years old so he could go to school.
Eventually Guor and his relatives made their way to Khartoum and then, as civil war in Sudan escalated, fled to Egypt. As refugees in Cairo, they fended for themselves doing casual and domestic work in a hand-to-mouth existence until they moved to the United States in 2001.
By then Guor was 16 years old. He took full advantage of the opportunities offered in education. His athletic prowess was discovered in high school, and earned him a scholarship to Iowa State University, from which he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry in 2011.
In February of this year, Guor became a naturalized United States citizen. In May, UNHCR supported Guor to make his first trip to newly independent South Sudan, and brought him back to his birthplace.
The human cost of war
Guor’s mother clung to him as a child does a to parent. Getting over her shock, she broke into a stream of chatter. She walked him around the family home, showed him the spot where he was born, all the while marveling that destiny had brought him home at last.
Guor was shaken by how much his mother had aged, weighed down by the strain of rural life. With both her children absent (Guor’s only surviving brother lives in Juba), his old mother struggled to take care of herself. As a child he had helped her with household chores and harvesting grains. Raised in a polygamous home, Guor learned early that it was a child’s duty to care for the mother.
“The human cost of war is difficult to measure,” Guor said later. “I could have died, like many kids of my age did. My siblings died of treatable diseases. My elder brother was killed in the struggle for our country’s independence when I was in high school. My mother’s children should have been her social security. Instead, she was left to fend for herself right into her old age.”
As word spread of Guor’s homecoming, family members gathered in the front yard to greet him. Those of his parents’ generation wept with joy, beside his childhood playmates. His nieces and nephews, children of Guor’s brother and sister who died after he left home, threw themselves at him. He held onto each of his kin as if he had thought this day would never come.
A sprightly man sprang into the air carrying a rod and singing traditional songs. It was difficult to believe he was in his 90s. He clutched his son in his arms exclaiming repeatedly, “Guor, is it you my son?”
Guor’s mother said it took her a full day to come to terms with the reality of his return. By the end of his four-day visit she had acquired a new exuberance. Guor was able to put in place arrangements to take care of her and cultivate the land behind her home so that she will have grain come the next dry season. As he left the homestead his mother said, “Thank you for bringing Guor home. I have seen my son. My heart has finally rested.” Guor’s visit had brought closure to a painful period of separation.
Guor was equally elated. “I am especially grateful to UNHCR,” he said, “for bringing me home to the two most important people in my life — my mother and my father. My parents made the ultimate sacrifice when they sent me away in the hope that I would not meet the same fate as my siblings who died. I am eternally thankful to have found them alive, with the sight in their eyes to recognize me after so many years.”
Take Action Challenge
Today is World Refugee Day. Take a minute to tell someone about it. You can donate to the Syrian Crisis Urgent Appeal here. You can upload a photograph of your own chosen “one thing” – an object that you might instinctively reach for in that crisis here.