The 90-year-old WWII refugee using sports to change the lives of refugees

More than 1 in every 74 people on Earth has been forced to flee their home due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Image:

Gabi Thesing
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  • More than 1 in every 74 people on Earth is a refugee forced to flee persecution, violence and conflict.
  • The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, runs a sports programme for young refugees in mass refugee camps, helping them connect with their peers.
  • Ninety-year-old Claude Marshall, who was forced to flee Nazi Germany when he was four, has volunteered at the UNHCR sports programme for the last 30 years. In an episode of Radio Davos, he talks about the universal refugee experience.

“We are living in a world of people movement. And it will continue."

"Climate change will create more refugees. A population in a wealthy world will have to accept the idea that you're going to have an immigration of refugees, who had to flee for their lives in order to be saved."

Claude Marshall knows what he is talking about. He was four when his parents fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and made a new life for the family in the United States.

Now 90 years old, he is still a volunteer consultant to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He helps develop and find support for sports projects aimed at refugee youth, mainly in mass refugee camps or settlements worldwide. He joined the UNHCR in 1993 after retiring as executive vice-president of Europe for Young & Rubicam’s public relations division, Burson-Marsteller.

Radio Davos caught up with Marshall to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June and the publication of UNCHR’s latest global trends report.


How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

In 2022, 108.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations, the report says.

That’s a population bigger than those of Ecuador, the Netherlands or Somalia, and 19 million more people who had to leave their homes, family, friends and security than at the end of 2021. It is also the largest ever increase between years, according to UNHCR’s statistics on forced displacement.

Now more than 1 in every 74 people on Earth has been forced to flee.

Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

What difference do you think sport makes to young refugees in the refugee camps?

“Most of the refugee youth have not been in the camp very long. Some have, but many have not. You talk to these young people and they are totally at loose ends. They have gone through hell to get to the safety of a UNHCR refugee camp.

It's one thing they are safe. But they've lost their parents. They are maybe eight, nine, 10-years-old and heading alone towards another place that's going to take them two or three days to get to. Their framework of life is gone. So they're totally at loose ends.

At the sports programme, they meet other kids in their age group, and they get together and play football, basketball or volleyball, taekwondo or judo.

Not that they will become athletes, but suddenly, you have given them an interest in waking up tomorrow. They've lost their old crowd. They have to have a new one. Sports does that."

Does any particular situation throughout your involvement with UNHCR stand out?

“Yes, it was in Kenya. Our local team had organized a sports day for a bunch of boys of different ages to play all day long.

All of a sudden, I got a tap on my shoulder by a young woman and she said, ‘Mr. Marshall, Miss Gladys would like to see you. Miss Gladys is a refugee from South Sudan and she is in charge of teenage girls.’

We came into a hut and in the middle of the hut was a round table. And there were about 8 to 12 youngish girls. And the girls were knitting, sewing and crocheting. So after two or three minutes of dead quiet, she looked at me, Miss Gladys did, and said, ‘Mr. Marshall, what have you heard here?’

I knew I was being set up for some kind of a jab. She said, 'Did you hear the girls talking to each other?' Not a word. 'They arrived in the camp in Kenya three or four weeks ago, three or four months ago. And you guys in Geneva using an NGO that supplies knitting, sewing and crocheting equipment, you think you're doing the girls a favour because that's a girl's occupation.

‘These girls sit there and sew, and they don't have to talk to each other, and they don't talk to each other. Because what goes through their mind is the sheer hell that they have been through.’

And then Miss Gladys said, ‘If I asked any of these girls to tell you what they'd been through to get to this camp, you wouldn't sleep for a month. I want them to have sports just like those boys out front. The girls are no different. They need sport. They have to get out of their skin and laugh. They need a new life and sport will do it.’”

Graph showing the refugees, asylum-seekers and others in need of international protection displaced during each year, 1975 – 2022
Refugees, asylum-seekers and others in need of international protection displaced during each year, 1975 – 2022. Image: UNHCR

What was your own experience as a young refugee boy? Did your parents talk to you about their experience?

“My papa told me the story that stayed with me for the rest of my life. He was walking down the street in 1935 in a town called Wiesloch, near Heidelberg, and here comes Hans walking in his direction. All of a sudden, Hans crosses the street.

My father yelled across at him, ‘Hans, what are you doing?’ And Hans said, ‘I won't walk down the same sidewalk with a Jew.’

My father had known this boy since before they could talk. Hitler came to power in 1933. And by 1935, Hans believed his propaganda. Now, if Hans believes this propaganda, where do you think we're going in this country?

The first Marshall that we found was in 1747 in a cemetery. So we were in this town from, let's say, 1750-on, right? About. And my father said to the family, ‘We have got to leave this country.’”

Have you read?

Is there something that links the experience of all refugees?

“Yes. My biggest takeaway from refugee camp visits are not only the children, but the mothers.

Seventy percent or more of all refugees are women and children. And when I see mothers with children, I don't see a difference between a mother in Geneva with her children, her interaction with the kids, it's the same.

I know a fellow who came out of the Congo and he ran for his life to this camp.

But then one of the boys said to him, after three or four weeks, ‘My mother wants to talk to you. Come with me. To my hut.’ He introduces his new friend to his mother. ‘Welcome,’ she says. ‘I want you to eat with us.’ And at the end of the meal, she looked at him and said, ‘Not only that. I want you to live with us. I'm your mother now.’

The sentiment towards refugees is often not great. What would you say to people who may have understandable concerns?

“I would tell these people there's very little you can do about it. We are living in a world of people movement. And it will continue. But they will have to be accepted.

And, you have to talk about the pluses.

These are people who have much to give to the civilization of that country. Most countries today have been made up of refugees. You have an ageing population in most of the Western world. You need people to work. The refugees want to work. They're not criminals, they don't want to be criminals, they want to work and they want to contribute.”

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