Sun, Dec 09, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Ethiopia’s top Paralympian living as refugee in Brazil


Ethiopian paralympic athletes Megersa Bati, left, and Tamiru Kefeyalew Demisse pose on Nov. 20 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Photo: AP

Tamiru Kefeyalew’s life changed for the worse when he won Ethiopia’s only medal of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.

For the past two years he has lived as a refugee in Brazil, first in a camp, then a church, then a shelter for the homeless. He now sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a shared dormitory-like room, his meager possessions — including his silver medal — stuffed into a small wardrobe.

Still, he refuses to return home.

Tamiru protested the government of then-Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn by crossing his arms above his head as he finished second in the 1,500m for visually impaired competitors.

He was repeating the famous protest by Feyisa Lilesa when he won silver in the marathon at the Olympics a few weeks earlier.

Feyisa returned home a hero after two years in exile. Tamiru has turned his back on his country, probably for good.

He is wary of returning home after such a public act of defiance, but also confident Brazil can offer him a better life and career.

His friend and Ethiopian teammate Magersa Tasisa, another visually impaired runner, stayed with him in Brazil.

However, while Ethiopia found new freedoms this year under Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Tamiru and Magersa found hardship in Brazil.

The 25-year-old Tamiru said he feels stuck without citizenship in Brazil, the country he now wants to adopt. He cannot work to pay his bills because Brazilian law does not allow it and he has relied on a Sao Paulo attorney’s offer to represent him for free in his quest for citizenship. The process could take four years. He can speak some Portuguese and English, but communication is usually problematic.

Tamiru struggles to focus on training because he has no idea when he will compete again.

Despite the improving situation in Ethiopia, he still believes he must stay in Brazil to have a chance of success at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo and beyond.

“I lost my life,” Tamiru said in an interview in Sao Paulo, the city he moved to last year after spending six months in Rio after the Paralympics. “I defended my people in Ethiopia, I accept the cost, but I lost my life. Now I want a new life. I want to be Brazilian and work in a country where Paralympic athletes are important, too.”

Tamiru said he was shunned by Ethiopian team management the night he won the medal because of his protest, abandoned and left to sleep alone at the stadium.

Ethiopian team leader Kassahun Sitotaw denied the allegation, saying that the two athletes disappeared and chose to stay in Brazil for “economic reasons.”

Whatever the reasons, it has not worked out how Tamiru envisioned.

Still, he has no intention of returning to Ethiopia, even turning down an offer from Ethiopian distance-running great and former athletics federation president Haile Gebrselassie to pay for his ticket home.

“If I went back home I would qualify for the Paralympics in a second,” Tamiru said. “Government persecution is not like [it was] in 2016 and I miss my family, but I want my life to be here now. I want to be Brazilian.”

Tamiru spoke while wearing a Brazilian Paralympic team shirt. He is now training with Brazilian athletes and shares a room with some of them. It is small and cramped, but better than the refugee camp.

Brazil Paralympic team fitness coach Fabio Breda is helping him and thinks Tamiru can be a major success for his new country.

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