Lam Joar stands in verdant setting next to a body of water

Philanthropy Report 2021/22

Using the power of sport to transform lives


Former refugee athlete and Dulverton Scholar Lam Joar is combining personal experience and academic thinking to make a positive change in the lives of young people around the world.

In 2006, at the age of just 15, Lam Joar was forced to leave his home in the village of Fangak in Sudan (now South Sudan) following the escalation of violent conflict in the region. ‘A family friend was fleeing the village and my parents decided to give me to them so that I could be safe, and to stop me from being recruited as a child soldier,’ he says. ‘I crossed the border to Kenya and travelled to the Kakuma refugee camp, and this is where I started school.’

In the years since, Lam’s life has taken many different turns. After Kakuma he moved to Nairobi, completing high school in 2014. Still unable at this point to return home due to conflict, Lam began planning for his future in Kenya. He had heard that former marathon world record-holder Tegla Loroupe was looking for athletes to join the Refugee Olympic Team, and, having always been sporty, decided to try out. He breezed through the trial races and joined Laroupe’s training camp in Ngong.

Over the next year Lam trained intensively, but was not, ultimately, one of the five athletes selected to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Despite this, he says that seeing his colleagues represent the refugee community was a joy: ‘proving to the world that we are not who everybody thinks we are – we are able to do things.’ This feeling left a lasting impression on him, and he continued his association with the team while studying for a degree in business at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Lam, Paulo, Rose and James stand together outside on a sunny day. A grey stone building and clipped green hedge sit behind them
Lam Joar (second from left) with Refugee Olympic Team members Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Rose Lokonyen Nathike and James Nyang Chiengjiek

After graduation Lam continued to seek out opportunities to engage with the refugee community, and became involved in a project aimed at boosting the social and emotional wellbeing of children in refugee camps. It saw him return to Kakuma, where an unexpected meeting with a team of Oxford researchers would end up changing the course of his life yet again.

‘I fell in love with everything’

One of those he met in Kakuma was Alex Betts, Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs. ‘We had a lot in common,’ says Lam. ‘He loves sport very much and he’s also an advocate for refugees. I told him that I would soon be coming to London, sponsored by the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust to attend a One Young World summit, and he invited me to visit Oxford.’

While in the city Professor Betts took Lam to lecture at the Refugee Studies Centre and introduced him to the Oxford Athletics Club. ‘I fell in love with everything,’ he reflects.

Lam also had an opportunity to attend an admissions interview at the Saïd Business School, having initially wanted to pursue a master’s degree in business. It went well, but Lam’s involvement with refugee athletes and affinity for the work of the Refugee Studies Centre caused him to rethink. ‘I knew that I needed to do something that would impact me with knowledge about how I could make a change from within for the refugee community.’ Lam applied to the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and was accepted into the 2021/22 cohort with a full scholarship from the Dulverton Trust.

‘Oxford had been my long-time dream. I didn’t know it when I was growing up, but I started to realise it when I began to read books. I dreamt of being part of something great’

Lam Joar

Lam chose to focus his master’s research on the potential for sport to transform opportunities for refugees, something in which he is clearly well-versed. ‘Sport is one of the crucial activities that could change lives if utilised well,’ he explains. ‘Sport boosts the chances of refugees. They don’t just do it for money or to have success, they also do it to determine their own path. Being a refugee is a limiting status and so they do sport to make sure they have a home… If they do it well then different societies might accept them.’

Although Lam thrived on the course, it wasn’t without some challenges. As a non-native speaker he had to work hard to improve his English, and attended language classes throughout the year. He also invited his course mates to take part in extra group discussions and to read with him, something that brought benefits for all involved. ‘We were studying a subject that I have experience in; they have read it and so have the theory and I would say that I have both the practical knowledge and theory, which was part of my strength. So we got a lot from each other,’ he notes.

Lam Joar stands outside a college building wearing academic dress
Lam pictured wearing academic dress

Sport for fun – and for a healthy mind

Alongside his research Lam also volunteered with a charity supporting forced migrants and refugees in Oxford. He worked predominantly with people under the age of 18 who had not yet been granted asylum status, focusing on ‘doing sport for fun’ – including running, football and volleyball. He also became part of the Oxford Athletics Club and volunteered for junior parkrun. ‘There’s a lot of academic pressure at Oxford, but if you do sport then I think you are in a better position to have a healthy mind,’ he says.

Lam was supported throughout his degree by a Dulverton Scholarship, which enables talented students from Sub-Saharan Africa or Eastern Europe to undertake graduate study at the University. ‘I am forever grateful to the Dulverton Trust for making my dream come true,’ he says. ‘The money they provided to me was great because it not only supported me doing my studies full time, but also my family back home in Kenya. I haven’t seen them for a year now and that’s very sad, but I believe that what I’m doing is something that’s good for them.’

Shortly after completing his course Lam secured a job as a Programme Officer with One Young World, an organisation that works to empower and develop young leaders to build a fair and sustainable future for all. Having been an attendee at three of their previous annual summits (one of which was the reason for his visit to London in 2019), he felt confident that it would be somewhere he could continue to make a positive impact.

Lam Joar and David Beckham sit next to each other on stage during a panel event organised by Education Above All
Earlier this year Lam joined David Beckham to discuss the importance of providing sport and education to underprivileged children © Education Above All / Susannah Fields

‘South Sudan is my country’

In the longer-term Lam hopes to be able to do more work with refugee communities and forced migrants, perhaps working with governments to advise on immigration policy. Ultimately though, his dream is to return home. ‘I want to transform education in my own country,’ he says. ‘Because of the conflict, I think South Sudan is still behind in this way and I want to help make a change.

‘I appreciate the love and support I have received from everyone I have met [since leaving], but what everyone wants to see is me giving back to the people that need my skills the most, and these are the South Sudanese.’

And when he does return, Lam is certain of one thing: ‘I want Oxford to be there to help out.’

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