The empty suitcase sat atop her bed. The weight of the situation bore greater significance than the items she would soon pack. Having lost hope in the concepts of home and belonging, and fearing for her safety, she was forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Facing the most difficult decision of her life, Mercedes Gomez packed up her life’s possessions and, together with her husband and 13-year-old daughter, fled her beloved Venezuela.
Since 2014, Venezuela has been in the throes of a severe political and economic crisis. Fraudulent conduct by those in power, combined with a decline in oil prices, led to a nation in despair. The situation dramatically worsened after their national election in 2018. Widespread poverty and shortages of food, medicine, and other basic necessities left its people with very little choice but to flee their homes in search of a better life. According to the UN, 4.5 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014, making it one of the largest displacement crises in the world.
As a woman with a disability, the situation proved more dire for Mercedes. Facing multiple barriers, including violations of disability rights and threats of persecution, made surviving the day to day virtually impossible. “It was not an easy decision,” she says, “but we were forced to leave, in search of protection of our rights.”
For Mercedes, escaping her country was another demonstration of her unwavering strength of character. Nine years earlier, she was involved in a car accident, which severely injured her spinal cord. “In one moment, all my plans for my life were gone,” she recalls. As Mercedes and her family adjusted to her new life in a wheelchair, mental and physical fatigue began to take hold. “I didn’t accept the disability, and when you don’t accept something you become depressed, sad, confused,” she says. “You don’t think you can go further.”
Recognizing the strain it was putting on her and her family, Mercedes realized she couldn’t give up. She had to rebuild her life. It was at this time, in 2012, that she discovered wheelchair racing, and the rebuilding process began. The racetrack became her sanctuary, and through the sport Mercedes found the passion to carry on. “I felt alive, and like my life had purpose,” she says.
In her first year on the track, Mercedes didn’t just compete, she dominated. Racing in distances of 10, 12.5, and 21km, she placed first in 14 of her 29 national level competitions… in her regular, everyday wheelchair. “I had no preparation or technique,” she explains. “My main focus was to start registering records.”
In 2013, she moved to Caracas to pursue a Master’s Degree in Hospitality and Tourism at the National Experimental University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA). While she was there, she received a donated sports wheelchair and immediately began training with the Paralympic team. That year, Mercedes made her first international racing appearance and won the International Marathon in Lanzarote, Spain.
In total, she has won more than 100 career medals, competing in 12 international marathons and winning numerous national championships. “After finishing my first marathon, I just wanted to compete in more of them,” Mercedes says. “I wanted to become the best athlete in my country.”
However, despite all the accolades, Mercedes began to feel that something was missing. Though she had been focused on competing, she hadn’t considered how sport could change the lives of others. “Life stops for many people after a disability,” she says. “Sport restarts it.” Mercedes felt it was her responsibility to give back to the sport that had changed her life, and soon she found the opportunity to do so.
In 2015, she was approached by Achilles International—an NGO devoted to creating racing opportunities for people with disabilities—about creating a chapter in Venezuela. The organization was interested in supporting the development of wheelchair racing from the grassroots level up, which would allow Mercedes to use her sport as a tool for empowerment. She partnered with an existing organization, Discapacidad Cero (Zero Disability), and ran Achilles’ Venezuelan chapter as an affiliated program. By providing sports programs for children, supporting racers in national and international competitions, and organizing social awareness campaigns focused around inclusion of people with disabilities, Mercedes and her team were creating real change. Since her involvement, Mercedes has helped 18 athletes with disabilities participate in a total of 8 international marathons while promoting universal accessibility.
Because of her tireless efforts, Mercedes was selected as one of 15 international leaders for the 2017 U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP). The five-week leadership development initiative, which is implemented by the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, matched Mercedes with three disability sport leaders from Chicago. Mercedes was mentored by Stephanie Kanter, business support manager for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), Derek Daniels, RIC sports and fitness programs manager, and Larry Labiak, disability policy officer for the Chicago Park District. Collectively, they helped Mercedes create a comprehensive social impact plan to develop strong partnerships with the government and private sectors and maximize her organization’s reach across Venezuela. While in America, she saw firsthand the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the opportunities it presents. “The GSMP was the best experience of my life,” Mercedes states. “Learning from an American sport environment personally allowed me to empower myself, while strengthening my management, leadership, and networking skills.”
Returning home after the GSMP, Mercedes quickly applied the concepts of the ADA to help guide her organization. Discapacidad Cero began to grow, while remaining committed to the disability community in different cross-sectional programs.
However, just eighteen months after the GSMP, Mercedes found herself packing to leave the community she had been dedicating her life to change. “You cannot live in a country where you work to advocate for human rights defenders under a dictatorial regime,” she says, “while at the same time trying to survive the constant violations of our rights.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), people with disabilities are at a higher risk of discrimination and violence during times of national crises and displacement. “Refugees with disabilities rank among the world’s most vulnerable as their experience of forced migration is compounded by the multiple and diverse challenges that flow from their impairment and the barriers they face when participating in society” (UNHCR, 2011). Procedures have been developed by UNHCR to ensure refugees with disabilities have fair access to the resettlement process. However, architectural and attitudinal barriers still exist, resulting in a lack of opportunity in their new communities and an increased sense of isolation.
The United States is one of the main destinations for Venezuelan asylum-seekers and many other refugees seeking resettlement. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 3 million refugees have resettled in the US since 1975. Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society (CSPS), has 120 countries represented by refugee and immigrant families. In an effort to use sport to create positive change for the wellbeing of refugees in the community, CSPS established a partnership with Knoxville Internationals Network (K.I.N.). “Sport has the power to rebuild communities and strengthen the bonds that connect us to others,” says CSPS Founder and Director, Dr. Sarah Hillyer. “Empowering global leaders in sports to make a positive social impact in their communities is the heartbeat of our work.”
University of Tennessee student and CSPS intern, Camryn Cupp, felt connected to the Center’s mission and, in a great example of thinking globally and acting locally, wanted to get involved in any way she could. “I wanted to make sure I was educated and understood the complexity of life for refugee and immigrant families,” she explains.
During the 2019 Fall semester, Camryn spent time researching refugee policy and learning about the immigrant community in Knoxville. “It’s evident that policy needs to be reformed and love needs to be extended,” she says. So she did her part to make a difference. CSPS partnered with K.I.N for their international Thanksgiving event and, with Camryn taking the helm, a sense of love and family was formed around the holiday of gratitude. She organized a variety of engaging sport-related activities that brought together 250 Knoxville natives and those who now consider it home.
After the success of the event, the partnership strengthened. Because of Camryn and the work of the Center, classes have been set up twice a week to teach fitness, nutrition, and engage in community hikes. The overarching goal is to continue educating and empowering students to make an impact in a community that is typically neglected. Camryn’s passion for bringing sport, peace, and community to Knoxville refugees made an impact on the people who have resettled in this country, but also made a lasting impact on her. “I gained a passion for social justice,” she says. “I truly feel like this experience changed me and molded me to become a more informed and active citizen.” Working with the Center, and specifically focusing on the refugee community, Camryn was able to see the positive impact sports has on society. By providing opportunities and resources, many of these people are able to heal from the trauma they experienced leaving their home countries. “Working with the Center, I learned the power of a smile and a high-five,” she says. “I also see the impact of community members becoming unified to provide refugees and immigrants in Knoxville a seat at the table.”
Similar to the work of the Center, Mercedes continues her mission of unifying her community through sport. Now resettled in Valencia, Spain, her commitment remains the same. She decided in 2019 to take a temporary break from her sports career to focus on opening the international chapter of Discapacidad Cero España. As program director, she advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities into Spanish society, while continuing to give back to her community in Venezuela. “I feel proud to do my best, using my tools as an empowered, resilient woman, athlete, mother, activist, and citizen by right,” she declares. Now, having experienced resettlement as a migrant with a disability, she plans to impart social change for the rights of migrants and refugees with disabilities. Her hope is to return to her professional career as an independent athlete while continuing to promote sport, empowerment, inclusion, and peace.
Mercedes and her family are adapting to life in their adopted country. While she works to build a solid foundation in Spain, her passion for her homeland remains steadfast. “We stay committed and determined to contribute from another country with our heart in our beautiful Venezuela.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act had a significant impact on international human rights laws, which led to the expansion of adaptive sport opportunities across the world. In May of 2008, Article 30, section 5 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities enabled people with disabilities in Spain to participate on an equal basis with others in recreational, leisure, and sporting activities.
The Center for Sport, Peace, & Society:
Global Sports Mentoring Program:
Knoxville Internationals Network: