• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

World Cup-bound Norwegian cyclist teaches Eritrean refugees about the internet

News Stories, 16 March 2010

© UNHCR/B.Heidenstrøm
Bjorn Heidenstrom meets UNHCR staff in Khartoum.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, March 16 (UNHCR) When Bjorn Heidenstrom met pupils at the Eritrean Refugee School in the Sudanese capital recently, he was so impressed by their thirst for knowledge that he has decided to help bring the internet into their classrooms.

But first the former professional football player, who is cycling through Sudan on his way to South Africa for the World Cup finals in June, wanted to show them how they could use blogs and social media platforms to reach out to people around the world.

Heidenstrom is using his journey to spread awareness among the global football fraternity about the millions of forcibly displaced people in Africa. The 900 children at the crowded school in Khartoum were among the first refugees he had met, after spending recent months lobbying for support and donations of football shirts from professional and amateur clubs around Europe.

"I saw positive eyes, dreaming eyes and I asked myself: 'How can I help these kids?' And I felt I could help them with communication and knowledge," recalled the 41-year-old, who is taking time off from his job as marketing and media manager for Norwegian Premier League football club, Valerenga.

"Then, I asked them: 'How many of you have access to the internet?' No hands in the air! 'How many of you have seen the internet?' Two hands in the air! 'How many of you believe that they can learn something from the internet?' All hands up!!"

Teachers told him that the school had five computers, but they could not afford to pay for internet access, which cost more than 100 Sudanese pounds (US$45) a month. Heidenstrom decided to step in and help, feeling confident that the money can be raised quite quickly.

But he decided that it was best if the students asked for help themselves, through the use of social media. "I felt I should let these people learn something first, rely on their initiative, create a school blog and make a Facebook profile where they can communicate with the entire world."

To get the ball rolling, Heidenstrom spent a recent weekend teaching seven teachers at the Eritrean Refugee School how to create simple blogs and use platforms like Twitter and FaceBook to raise awareness.

"This is a great idea," said Jamal Hassan, a teacher at the school and a refugee himself. "We have learnt how to create a web blog for the school and we will update it every week from a nearby internet café. By doing so, we can show the world what we are doing before we ask for support."

The intrepid Heidenstrom, meanwhile, is confident that when people across the globe learn about the cultural and social life of these refugee children, "they will definitely support them." And he reckons it could become a blueprint for similar schools in other parts of the Sudan or elsewhere.

During his stay in Khartoum, Heidenstrom also crossed the Nile to Omdurman to visit one of Sudan's top football clubs, Al-Merreikh, where he was given a signed shirt. The Norwegian plans to create and display the world's biggest football shirt once he reaches South Africa, using all the jerseys he has collected.

He also spoke to staff from the UN refugee agency which will be giving him logistical and other support as he tours countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya and South Africa on his bike. "I decided to serve the refugee cause through exploration," he told staff in Khartoum. "We have a great tradition of exploration in Norway, which is represented by the late polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who was also the first High Commissioner for Refugees."

Peter de Clercq, UNHCR's representative in Sudan, praised Heidenstrom's efforts to spread awareness about refugees and those helping the forcibly displaced. "We are particularly happy that Bjorn has made it all the way to Sudan, the country with the longest tradition in hospitality for refugees in Africa." The Norwegian is currently in Ethiopia.

The Eritrean Refugee School was established in the 1980s and relies mainly on local community initiatives for funding. UNHCR provides assistance in form of school materials as well as through its implementing partner, Save the Children.

By Ahmed Elhassan in Khartoum, Sudan




UNHCR country pages

A World Cup Goal

Cycling for refugees

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

South Sudan: Preparing for Long-Awaited Returns

The signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the army of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement on 9 January, 2005, ended 21 years of civil war and signaled a new era for southern Sudan. For some 4.5 million uprooted Sudanese – 500,000 refugees and 4 million internally displaced people – it means a chance to finally return home.

In preparation, UNHCR and partner agencies have undertaken, in various areas of South Sudan, the enormous task of starting to build some basic infrastructure and services which either were destroyed during the war or simply had never existed. Alongside other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR is also putting into place a wide range of programmes to help returnees re-establish their lives.

These programs include road construction, the building of schools and health facilities, as well as developing small income generation programmes to promote self-reliance.

South Sudan: Preparing for Long-Awaited Returns

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety Play video

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety

Years of fighting between Sudan and rebel forces have sent more than 240,000 people fleeing to neighbouring South Sudan, a country embroiled in its own conflict. After weeks on foot, Amal Bakith and her five children are settling in at Ajoung Thok refugee camp where they receive food, shelter, access to education and land.
The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya Play video

The end of a long, silent journey: Two Eritreans in Libya

Two Eritreans set out on a perilous journey to Europe, crossing Sudan and the Sahara arriving in Libya during its 2011 revolution. They arrive in Tripoli having avoided the risks of detention and despite contending with a crippling handicap: both David and his wife Amitu are deaf and mute.
South Sudan: Helping the Most VulnerablePlay video

South Sudan: Helping the Most Vulnerable

UNHCR comes to the assistance of older, disabled and sickly Sudanese refugees arriving in Yusuf Batil Camp.