After 12 Years Of Slavery, Disc Golf Helps Refugee Heal

Alex Williamson avatar
Alex WilliamsonWriter, Editor
Mar 6, 2020 • 5 min read
nakout jpeg.jpg
Nakout Sylvia (right) and her friend Henry out on the course in Vaasa, Finland. Image: © UNHCR/Hereward Holland

Nakout Sylvia has endured traumas many people's imaginations couldn't even conjure up in nightmares. Among those were seeing her husband killed, being dragged away from her children, and spending over a decade as the sex slave of a violent central African rebel group. It was only an amazing mixture of resilience, daring, and luck that allowed Nakout, originally from South Sudan, to escape her own death and eventually begin building a new life in the coastal city of Vaasa in western Finland.

At this point, you may be wondering why Nakout's story is one we, of all media outlets, are telling. The easiest way to understand that is to watch the video from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that first alerted us to Nakout's harrowing experiences:

As the video shows, disc golf, which is extremely popular in Finland, has become one of Nakout's favorite activities as she seeks to recover from the physical and mental damage her recent past inflicted. With help from the UNHCR, we were able to contact Nakout to learn more about how the sport has become an integral part of her healing process.

Abduction, Slavery, a Desperate Escape

A native of South Sudan, Nakout was living in Uganda (between Kenya and the D.R. Congo above) when she was abducted.

To fully understand how astounding it is that Nakout can find joy in anything, be it disc golf or simply waking up in the morning, it is first necessary to have a clearer picture of what she's gone through. Also note that everything from here on in this section is based on articles about Nakout's life published by the UNHCR, and you can read those source materials in full here and here.

If it wasn't for the existence of Joseph Kony and his ultra-violent rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Nakout's life would never have been destroyed. According to the humanitarian group the Enough Project, Kony's group "has abducted over 67,000 youth, including 30,000 children, for use as child soldiers, sex slaves, and porters, and has brutalized communities since its inception in 1987" in central African countries.

One night in October 2003, members of this group broke down the door of the home in Uganda where Nakout, her husband, and three children lived. They killed her husband with a machete, threw her baby daughter against a wall, and carried her off while her two sons cowered under the bed.

For over a decade after that night, Nakout had to endure rape, bearing witness to unspeakable acts of violence, and countless other nightmares while trying to keep her sanity intact. She even caught the attention of Kony himself, eventually bearing his son who was taken away from her at the age of four and whom she has never learned more about since.

Amazingly, the weight of these experiences still hadn't fully broken Nakout. Using her body as currency, she procured the help of a man who sold supplies to the LRA camp she was in, and he helped her escape by hiding her in a grain bag in his truck as he left the camp in December 2014. The man drove her to Ethiopia, and from there Nakout, using the same means that had allowed her to escape from the camp, was smuggled onto various ships until she reached Turkey and, eventually, a refugee camp in Greece.

Though relieved to be in Europe and far from Kony's reach, the overcrowded Greek refugee camp offered very little chance for Nakout to recover from her ordeals. It must have seemed like a miracle when, in 2018, she was allowed to move to Finland.

Nakout's New Life in the North

Nakout in her kitchen in Vaasa, Finland. © UNHCR/Hereward Holland

The first impression Nakout had of Finland was of a place willing to help her heal.

"When I came to Finland, I was very sick," said Nakout, who is HIV positive as a result of the life she was forced to lead. "I think if I had remained in Greece, I'd be dead by now. Really. I came here on May 28th, and on the 29th I was taken to the hospital. The virus was up, there was a bacteria on my bum, and my left lung had a problem. But now I'm feeling better."

Finding herself in a safe situation for the first time in more than 15 years, Nakout has finally made progress down the road to physical and mental recovery. And with that road being in a country and culture so far removed from her own, it's been one that's led her to encounter many new things. Since moving to Finland, she's done her first sauna, learned to swim, seen snow in person, and, of course, taken up disc golf.

"The first time, I was like, 'What is this game?'" Nakout said, adding a suspicious tone to the question. "I didn't know anything, but I was following people and meeting new friends."

Nakout found that she liked the game, and because she could play as much and as often as she wanted for free on Vaasa's public courses, it soon became something she did nearly every evening. She quickly discovered that, along with providing exercise and social interaction, her daily rounds made sleep come easier for her, too.

"Before I had to take sleeping pills, but golf is great exercise and when you come home, you are so tired, you sleep like a baby," she said.

Though Nakout loves plenty of other things about disc golf, there's no doubt its competitive aspect is part of its allure for her. She is very driven to get better and begin challenging the more experienced players she meets on the course. She's even gone so far as to promise the group she often plays with that she will beat them this coming summer. Her other goals include adding distance to her throws and building her disc collection up from two to around seven discs.

Clearly, Nakout's life is far from revolving only around disc golf. She is currently taking classes to learn Finnish, and hopes that if she passes her language exams that she'll eventually be able to do the training necessary to work in elderly care. Additionally, she's discovered that all three of her children are still alive, and she's been slowly trying to build relationships with them through letters and phone calls.

"Building my new life is helping me forget the past," she said. "I'm just excited and I still have hope."

But, as part of the disc golf community, we can't help but be overjoyed that for someone who's led a life as full of tragedy as Nakout's, part of that newfound excitement comes from thinking about the snow melting and her return to the course.

"I'm just waiting for summer to come so I can begin again," Nakout said.

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