Wednesday 20 November 2019

Missing Sierra Leone athlete was sleeping rough in London because Ebola killed his family

Jimmy Thoronka photographed before his arrest. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Guardian
Jimmy Thoronka photographed before his arrest. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Guardian
Jimmy Thoronka in Sierra Leone before he left to go to the Commonwealth Games in the UK

Lizzie Dearden

A Sierra Leone sprinter who disappeared at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last summer has been arrested after he was found living rough on the streets of London.

Jimmy Thoronka (20) said he could not return to Sierra Leone because of the Ebola epidemic ravaging the country had killed his entire family.

The Guardian interviewed Mr Thoronka before he was reportedly detained for overstaying his visa at around 7pm on Saturday.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said he was arrested on Friday for immigration offences and is now with the UK Border Force.

The Home Office refused to comment on individual cases, adding: “There is assistance available for people to return home when they are not entitled to remain in the UK."

The Guardian reported that when Mr Thoronka, Sierra Leone’s top 100m sprinter, left to compete in Glasgow a small number of Ebola cases had been confirmed in villages surrounding Freetown but the epidemic had not yet taken hold of the capital.

The death toll in the country now stands at more than 3,500.

Mr Thoronka said: "I was hoping to win a medal for my country. But during the Games I got the terrible news that my uncle had died, probably from Ebola. I couldn't stop crying. It was difficult to continue with competing but I tried to carry on."

It was not until the athlete was staying with friends in Leicester after the tournament that he found out his entire immediate family had been killed by the disease.

Mr Thoronka claims he was not working illegally or claiming any benefits or housing and understands the legal implications of remaining in the UK after his visa has expired but said his situation is hopeless.

Since travelling to London he has been sleeping in parks and on night buses, begging for £1 from passers-by to buy chips.

"Some days I get no food at all. I wash in public toilets and sleep in the park," he said."I wake up around 4am and if I've got a bus pass I get on the night bus and sleep there until morning. I met a man who sometimes lets me sleep at his house but I have to wait outside for him to come home at 10 or 11pm and I get very cold."

"We have a cold season in Sierra Leone but it is not cold like England. Some days I don't think I'm going to make it and just feel like killing myself."

"My dream is to become one of the best sprinters in the world but I don't see how that can happen now."

The Guardian said hundreds of people have been in touch to offer support, and a petition has been set up on change.org to support him.

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