In 2016, when she was just 12 years old, Abeer Kaffi attained third place for her age in the Amman Marathon, an annual event held in the Jordanian capital that winds 10 kilometres under the Raghdan Bridge, onto Hashemite Square and past the jigsaw of cream apartment blocks that rise on the surrounding hills.
Some 9,000 people entered the race, but Abeer could not help but be disappointed with the result. “Are you really interested in pursuing professional running as a career?” Zakaria Kaffi asked his daughter. “Because I don’t have time for this, if it’s just a hobby.”
Abeer told her father that she was good at running and wanted to continue. In return, he promised his daughter he would begin training her and that, one day, she would be first.
From then on, Abeer and her younger sister, Fatima, would attend school from 8 am to 2 pm, then go home and wait for their father to finish work. At four, the three of them would travel on the bus to a stadium near their house and spend the late afternoon and evening training for upcoming marathons.
“I had mixed feelings being a father and a coach, as well,” Zakaria told us, recalling how his daughters would often cry from the physical exertion of the training. “I had to be tough as a coach and also soft as a father.”
At that time, Zakaria had three jobs but still did not have the means to buy his daughters the substantial food they needed for training, or the correct clothes. Eventually, he could not even afford the bus ticket to the stadium and stopped travelling there, using a park near where they lived, instead.
Despite this, in 2017 Abeer entered the marathon again and came second and, just one year later, she won gold. It was a victory for the family: “I was proud,” says Zakaria, “but I felt even more proud in 2016 when she won third place with no training.”
Zakaria decided that, after coaching her to first place, he could no longer afford to leave work early to train his daughters. In 2019, Abeer came third in the marathon. Then came the global coronavirus pandemic – as the whole world ground to a halt, Abeer and Fatima’s training became harder and harder to pursue.
Zakaria is from the Talchi tribe in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, and escaped the country in 1995 during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He passed through Khartoum, went on to Egypt, eventually arriving in Jordan, a journey that took him five years, in total.
There are roughly 3,000 Sudanese refugees registered with the UNHCR in Jordan, though many complain that the UN Agency has ignored them and is slow to process their claims. Others tell of racial discrimination. In 2015, the Jordanian government deported some 600 Sudanese refugees after they protested their treatment.
Although the Jordanian government initially gave Zakaria papers recognising that he was officially a refugee in the country, they later cancelled his residence permit. The government said they were no longer responsible for him and his family, and that the UN was, instead.
“With this decision I lost my right to work,” Zakaria says, “which directly affected our financial situation.”
Zakaria’s family is supported by the NGO, Green Kordofan, which is based in Folkestone on the UK’s south-east coast and helps refugees living in camps in South Sudan through sport. Green Kordofan directly supports the family’s friends and relatives in Yida refugee camp.
But the girls continue to face several ongoing obstacles, including lack of sponsors. Even though all three of Zakaria’s children were born in Jordan, they do not have Jordanian passports and, instead, are listed on their father’s refugee ID. This has made pursuing a career as professional runners difficult for Abeer and her sister, Fatima, as without a passport they can represent neither Jordan nor Sudan in international competitions.
“Is this our fate?” Zakaria asks. “The fate of the poor? Do we have no future? We want a different fate. Through my daughters’ efforts, I wanted to show my community that they can do something, that they can create a name for themselves. It is very hard for people in our community to be able to achieve something and prove themselves, and my daughters did it all by themselves. I don’t want my daughters to inherit the same fate as me.”