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Norwegian cyclist lauds the resilience of refugees in Africa

News Stories, 14 May 2010

© UNHCR/K.Shimo
Bjorn Heidenstrom stops off at UNHCR's office in Lusaka during his bicycling tour from Norway to South Africa to raise awareness about refugees.

LUSAKA, Zambia, May 14 (UNHCR) Former professional football player, Bjorn Heidenstrom, has reached Zambia on his biking marathon to South Africa and said he hopes his trip will help make a difference in the lives of refugees.

The 41-year-old Norwegian set out from Oslo almost a year ago to spread awareness about refugees and to collect football shirts from clubs across Europe and Africa. When he reaches South Africa for next month's World Cup football finals, he will combine the jerseys to make the world's biggest football shirt.

At a press conference after arriving in Lusaka earlier this week, Heidenstrom said he had been struck during his journey by the many challenges that refugees and UNHCR staff in Africa face. The refugee agency has provided him with logistical and other help in several countries.

Heidenstrom said that after visiting so many countries, he felt a mixture of sadness and happiness. "Sadness, because refugees and UNHCR staff in the various places I have gone through face many challenges and difficulties. Happiness, because, despite these challenges, I applaud the resilience shown by the refugees and the humanitarian spirit shown by various UNHCR staff."

He urged people to do more to help the forcibly displaced. "It's my hope that this awareness I am involved in may make a difference in one way or another," Heidenstrom added.

Bjorn Heidenstrom crossed into Zambia from Malawi last weekend and travelled almost 500 kilometres to Lusaka, where he was welcomed by UNHCR Representative James Lynch and other staff members.

When asked at the press conference why he had left the comforts of Norway, where he is media and marketing manager for a premier league football club, Heidenstrom said he had been compelled to set off on his journey because of the passion he felt for refugees and humanitarian work.

"I have always wanted to help the less fortunate. When I looked around, I thought of refugees. In Norway, we are renowned for our peace efforts and adventure," he said, adding: "Cycling for refugees is the idea that came up. The timing is good because the World Cup is something everyone is looking forward to."

UNHCR's Lynch lauded Heidenstrom's example and said he was particularly happy that the Norwegian had chosen to visit Zambia, a country with a rich history of hosting refugees. There are currently some 56,000 refugees in Zambia living in urban and rural settings. They come from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Uganda.

"It is very impressive that a person like Bjorn, who is a high-profile marketing executive in the private sector, has taken upon himself the noble task of embarking on an extraordinary humanitarian cycling journey, from Europe through Africa, to raise awareness about the plight of refugees," Lynch said.

"We are very hopeful that the awareness created about refugees, before and during the World Cup, will, in one way or another, help in finding durable solutions for refugees," he added.

Since arriving in Lusaka, Heidenstrom has met refugees and footballers, including staff from the Zambian Football Association, and the press. He plans to cross into Botswana on Saturday.

By Kelvin Shimo in Lusaka, Zambia

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Former Angolan refugees, in exile for as many as three decades, are given the opportunity to locally integrate in neighboring Zambia with the help of UNHCR and the Zambian Government.