by Nafissatou Thiam

Off-season looks different for every athlete. A lot of people saw me walk the runway at Paris Fashion Week recently. What many didn’t see is that a week prior I was in Lebanon on my first mission in the field as an ambassador for UNICEF. I spent two days meeting with local children and refugees and visiting all the projects UNICEF is involved in to help the community there.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Lebanon before I knew I was going, or the Syrian conflict for that matter. When I found out I was going, I did some research and actually found it very difficult to get a clear idea of the ins and outs of the situation there. So to me it meant an awful lot to go there, and not only talk with the UNICEF bureau, but the children living there.

The project I am involved in focuses on education. As soon as UNICEF approached me regarding the role at the end of last year it appealed to me, because it is a topic I feel very strongly about – education’s always been very important to me.

Education is the key for independence in your life.

All of those Syrian refugee children going to school – they are the future of their country, they are building their country again. The next generation will have to handle all the problems and damages caused by the war – they have experienced the worst, and you need a generation that is ready.

Nafissatou Thiam in Lebanon with UNICEF (UNICEF BELGIUM/Benjamin Denolf)

Something about the project spoke to me and I really wanted to be a part of it, even if my involvement could only be small, or if I only have a little impact. If I can help in any way, I really want to do that. I know as athletes we often reduce ourselves to our performances on the track and the field, but I believe especially with sports, university and school, you can learn a lot.

There is a lot of talk about the ‘lost generation’. There are so many kids who are out of school, who are refugees, who had to leave their countries, that are getting no education. But they don’t want to lose that generation – we can’t lose that generation. UNICEF want to educate them, give them opportunities and more possibilities for the future.

Most of the activities I was involved in focused around kids aged 3 to 14 because they are the age group who has to be in school, but there is a host of other programmes available to help educate and help those older than 14. We had a session and they were asking for advice – which, at first glance, seemed strange. They’ve been through so much and they still experience such difficult situations, a lot of which we can’t even imagine. And yet – they were asking me questions about failure and success, how to deal with pressures. And I know that is not the same situation they are facing at all, but I think some advice and some things you can transfer to different situations. I learnt a lot from them, too.

Nafissatou Thiam in Lebanon with UNICEF (UNICEF BELGIUM/Benjamin Denolf)

I tried to share some of my experiences there via my social media, to help people get an idea of what UNICEF is doing out there and a lot of people were getting really interested in it. That was the goal – to get people who might have never engaged with the topic to think about it. That’s what I was hoping for, to raise interest, to help give visibility to the project. I think if people know about a project and know about a situation and learn more about it themselves, how they can play their own part, that should be the goal. The response was really positive. Yes, maybe just on a small scale, but I think it was a great step. 

I wouldn’t want to make anybody in a similar position as me feel guilty and say that they need to do something like this, but expanding your horizon can never hurt anybody. It’s important for everyone to see more than what they know. I think everyone who would go there and would go through the same experience, they would feel the same way.

The thing that struck me the most was how positive these kids are. A lot of them have lost their countries, some of them have lost their families, but they still have so much hope for the future. Despite all that, they are still dreaming of a better future, they want to go to school, they want to learn.

Little kids, I met them, they were 12-years-old, they said they want to become doctors, they want to become teachers. That was beautiful to see, that although they have been through so much, and it would have been easy – and understandable – if they lost hope, they are hoping for a better future. And I think it’s our duty to help them get there. Every child deserves a bright future.

Photography: UNICEF BELGIUM/Benjamin Denolf