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Feyisa Lilesa, silver medalist marathoner, is afraid to return to Ethiopia

By Rick Maese

Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa packed his bags and left his wife and two children last month, with plans to post a blazing fast time at the Summer Olympics, earn a spot on the medal podium, bring attention to the plight of his people — and most likely never be able to return home.

“It was very hard to say good-bye,” said the Ethiopian long-distance runner, “but I also knew that it’s not harder than what people are going through in my country.”

Lilesa indeed won silver at the Rio de Janeiro Games and made international headlines when he approached the finish line with his wrists crossed, flashing an “X” symbol that the world soon learned was a bold protest against the treatment of his people by Ethiopian government. He has lived in limbo since, convinced that if he returned to Ethiopia he would be imprisoned or possibly killed.

After nearly three weeks of uncertainty, living covertly in a Rio hotel room, the 26-year-old finally left Brazil and arrived in Washington last week, a temporary stop en route to a new life, one in which he’s indefinitely separated from his family, constantly worried for their safety and thrust onto a global stage as a visible lightning rod for political dissent back in his native country.

“I think what I did is good so far because the government has shut off the people’s voices and no one knows about the fight,” Lilesa said Monday in an interview with The Washington Post through an interpreter. “It’s almost as if I opened the shutters and now people can know, people can hear.”

Lilesa is part of the Oromo tribe, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. By most estimates, Oromos make up about 40 percent of the population, but few hold positions of power. In recent months, human rights organizations say Oromos have had their land seized and faced imprisonment, and more than 500 of them have been killed.

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Against that backdrop, Lilesa trained for the Rio Games, regularly hearing about friends or family members who had been swept up, imprisoned and beaten but never charged with crimes. He was an accomplished — and relatively well-off — runner who was distracted.
“My legs were running, but my mind was also racing,” he said. On his training runs, he said he feared authorities would leap from the bushes and attack. He said when someone knocked on his door, he raced to the roof to check on his visitors before allowing anyone inside.

For months he fantasized about using the Olympics as a platform.

“I debated for a long time, deciding if I take this stand and leave my family behind, what would I do about them?” he recalled Monday. “At the same time, the situation in Ethiopia was getting worse and worse, which only made my decision easier.

“I made up my mind that I needed to do this, that it was the right thing to do.”

Conflicting reports of safety
Lilesa’s gesture of protest elicited audible gasps from those in Ethiopia who watched the live broadcast on state television. Subsequent airings featured Lilesa as a footnote of sorts, and the “X” gesture was never played. Just a few independent newspapers in the country mentioned his protest, and Ethiopians flocked online for their news coverage. Many supporters used photos of Lilesa’s face and crossed arms as their Facebook profile picture.At a post-race news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Lilesa explained his action and the exact risks it carried. “If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” he told reporters that day. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison.”

Following his race, fear chased him back to the Olympic Village, where the athletes were housed. Not trusting the Ethiopian Olympic officials in his traveling party, he immediately gathered his belongings and snuck off to a hotel.

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Lilesa was initially alone, comforted by social media and thousands of well-wishers. “For me, it was a realization that it was just not me that was carrying that weight on my back,” he explained, “that a lot of people were going through the same thing, the same pain.”

But he said he was still scared to leave his room. Even worse: He had no idea what threats his family faced back home.

“Even at the beginning, I never really had any fear or worries about myself,” Lilesa said. “My fear and concern was always for my family.
“They were very sad because they didn’t want to lose me; they didn’t want to be separated. ‘How do you leave us behind? Why didn’t you consult with us?’ [My wife] was sad and emotional, but she understands why I have to do this because she understands the problems in the country.”

One day after the Olympics concluded, a government spokesman spoke publicly for the first time, promising Lilesa a hero’s welcome and ensuring him that he “will not face any problems for his political stance.”

“I don’t believe any of it,” Lilesa said Monday.

He pointed out that the day of his race, a local state-run television station called him a “terrorist messenger.”

“So which one should I believe? The government saying I’m a messenger for terrorists? Or the government saying I’m a hero?” he said. “How do I believe these people?”

Lilesa said his family in Ethiopia had not received any threats or intimidation. He remains in regular contact with them, but they’re careful about what they say, for fear that authorities are monitoring their communication.
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Growing support, movement
In Rio de Janeiro, it wasn’t long before the large network of Oromo sympathizers began helping and started to work on Lilesa’s visa application. In the meantime, he said, he was cautious when he left his hotel. Occasionally, Brazilians would spot him on the street and recognize his face. They spoke a different language, but they still flashed the familiar “X” symbol with their arms.

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Lilesa was granted a temporary visa to the United States for “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement.” He expects to be in Washington only temporarily and wants to explore a more permanent training base at a high-altitude destination, likely in the Southwest.

“I have not had the time to explore fully the options that maybe [are] available to me, since my visa was approved only a few days ago,” he said. “I love my people and my country. I don’t want to live in exile. I hope to go home soon once change comes to Ethiopia.”

A crowd-funding campaign initially sought to raise $10,000 last month. It reached that goal in an hour and in three weeks has raised nearly $162,000. Lilesa hasn’t needed to access that money yet, he said.
Already he feels his gesture has made a difference, sparking conversations from Addis Ababa to Washington, where elected officials have debated Congressional action. At the Paralympics last weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Ethiopian runner Tamiru Demisse won silver in a 1,500-meter race for the visually impaired and similarly formed the “X” symbol as he crossed the finish line and again on the medal stand.

For now, with his future uncertain, Lilesa will run. He’ll run to raise awareness and run to shine a light on the Oromo people. He’ll continue to run representing a country he loves, even if he feels he can’t safely return there anytime soon.

“I am not conflicted at all,” Lilesa said. “My protest is against the government. I don’t have any problem with the people of Ethiopia. I represent the people, not the government.”

source:-Washington Post

6 Comments

  1. Now we have another asylum seeker in our hands. His name is Tamiru Demisse who is also in Brazil for the paraolympic competition. He won silver in the 1500 meters. Like F. Lilesa, he showed the cross sign symbolizing Oromo protests. T.Demisse is Amahara and showed the crossed hands to show solidarity to Oromo protests and others.

    My question is “where is the drive for contribution that raised 150 000$ in less than two weeks for F. Lilesa?” Even his solidarity at the risk of losing his lie and liberty is not getting adequate coverage because of lingering F. Lelissa euphoria.

    Come on guy! Let’s take care of T. Demisse too as we did for F. Lelissa. He also deserves to be in the U.S. Maybe Lelissa should chip in some of the 150 000$ fortune he amassed.

    Please someone start the process.

  2. Now we have another asylum seeker in our hands. His name is Tamiru Demisse who is also in Brazil for the paraolympic competition. He won silver in the 1500 meters. Like F. Lilesa, he showed the cross sign symbolizing Oromo protests. T.Demisse is Amahara and showed the crossed hands to show solidarity to Oromo protests and others.

    My question is “where is the drive for contribution that raised 150 000$ in less than two weeks for F. Lilesa?” Even his solidarity at the risk of losing his lie and liberty is not getting adequate coverage because of lingering F. Lelissa euphoria.

    Come on guy! Let’s take care of T. Demisse too as we did for F. Lelissa. He also deserves to be in the U.S. Maybe Lelissa should chip in some of the 150 000$ fortune he amassed.

    Please someone start the process.

  3. As far as I’m concerned, what F. Lilesa did was simply cross his hands when he finished a marathon. Crossed hands symbolize the movement in Oromia and tens of thousands of Oromos protesting in the country have done it without expecting home in the U.S. or financial rumeneration of any kind.

    The first time F. Lilesa met the media right after the marathon, he said Oromos are suffering in the country (without making any reference about Amhara and other people’s suffering) and immediately added that he wants to go to America. There was something fishy from the start.

    How can F. Lilesa be a celebrity for doing which tens of thousands do everyday in the country? I can guess what you will give me as a reply: “He made the suffering of Oromos known by the whole world.” I doubt if that has really happened.

    One observer suggested that of the millions who saw the crossed hands, 95% didn’t know what it meant. The observer thinks that people might guess that crssing hands is somekind of religious gratitude for his win in the maraton. Though dramatic, such scenes are forgotten in less than five seconds after they happened. The 5% who knew what crossed hands mean started talking and writing about it and posted pictures on Ethiopian diaspora web sites which no foreigner opens let alone read. The few foreign reporters who picked up the story gave it a back page coverage for a day or two. So much for the seconds long event that was blown out of proportions.

    What’s surprising is the 150 grand contribution. So many Ethiopians in Africa and the Middle East are calling everyday for the support of Ethiopians in the diaspora, but ther calls invariable fall into deaf ears. And F. Lilesa in a week amassed 150 grand which by far exceeds the life time savings of the majority of Ethiopians in the diaspora. The kind of money thrown on the F. Lilesa also by far exceeds the fund top opposition leaders can raise in townhill meetings. One wonders what was going on in the minds of the contributors as they were opeing their wallets so fast to give generously. It looked like the diaspora was gripped by somekind of euphoria bordering collective madness.

    I don’t think the overnight celebrity will join any opposition political organization. He wants to be in America and run for America – that’s all he wants. A world class athlete as he is, he will soon get sponsors from big companies and become a millioner in a year or two. He will get his wife and children flown over from Buuraayya to Washington D.C. and live happily everafter. Once he reaches that stage, he will not even give back the 150 grand he squeezed from the euphoric diaspora.

    One point that needs mention is how quickly he made it to the U.S. So many Ethiopians in Africa and the Middle East with dire need for resettlement cannot get visa for the U.S. Even Ethiopian professionals the U.S. wants have problem getting entry. The thing is the quickness with which the U.S. gave a visa to F. Lilesa is to scold the Ethiopian government about its treatment of Oromos. That is a good thing.

    Now we have another asylum seeker in our hands. His name is Tamiru Demisse who is also in Brazil for the paraolympic competition. He won silver in the 1500 meters. Like Lilesa, he showed the cross sign symbolizing Oromo protests. T.Demisse is Amahara and showed the crossed hands to display solidarity to Oromo protesters and others.

    My question is “where is the drive for contribution that raised 150 000$ in less than two weeks for Lilesa?” Even his solidarity at the risk of losing his lie and liberty is not getting adequate coverage because of lingering F. Lelissa euphoria.

    Come on guy! Let’s take care of T. Demisse too as we did for F. Lelissa. He also deserves to be in the U.S. Maybe Lelissa should chip in some of the 150 000$ fortune he amassed.

    For the sake of fairness, it’s time to support the guy.

  4. As far as I’m concerned, what F. Lilesa did was simply cross his hands when he finished a marathon. Crossed hands symbolize the movement in Oromia and tens of thousands of Oromos protesting in the country have done it without expecting home in the U.S. or financial rumeneration of any kind.

    The first time F. Lilesa met the media right after the marathon, he said Oromos are suffering in the country (without making any reference about Amhara and other people’s suffering) and immediately added that he wants to go to America. There was something fishy from the start.

    How can F. Lilesa be a celebrity for doing which tens of thousands do everyday in the country? I can guess what you will give me as a reply: “He made the suffering of Oromos known by the whole world.” I doubt if that has really happened.

    One observer suggested that of the millions who saw the crossed hands, 95% didn’t know what it meant. The observer thinks that people might guess that crssing hands is somekind of religious gratitude for his win in the maraton. Though dramatic, such scenes are forgotten in less than five seconds after they happened. The 5% who knew what crossed hands mean started talking and writing about it and posted pictures on Ethiopian diaspora web sites which no foreigner opens let alone read. The few foreign reporters who picked up the story gave it a back page coverage for a day or two. So much for the seconds long event that was blown out of proportions.

    What’s surprising is the 150 grand contribution. So many Ethiopians in Africa and the Middle East are calling everyday for the support of Ethiopians in the diaspora, but ther calls invariable fall into deaf ears. And F. Lilesa in a week amassed 150 grand which by far exceeds the life time savings of the majority of Ethiopians in the diaspora. The kind of money thrown on the F. Lilesa also by far exceeds the fund top opposition leaders can raise in townhill meetings. One wonders what was going on in the minds of the contributors as they were opeing their wallets so fast to give generously. It looked like the diaspora was gripped by somekind of euphoria bordering collective madness.

    I don’t think the overnight celebrity will join any opposition political organization. He wants to be in America and run for America – that’s all he wants. A world class athlete as he is, he will soon get sponsors from big companies and become a millioner in a year or two. He will get his wife and children flown over from Buuraayya to Washington D.C. and live happily everafter. Once he reaches that stage, he will not even give back the 150 grand he squeezed from the euphoric diaspora.

    One point that needs mention is how quickly he made it to the U.S. So many Ethiopians in Africa and the Middle East with dire need for resettlement cannot get visa for the U.S. Even Ethiopian professionals the U.S. wants have problem getting entry. The thing is the quickness with which the U.S. gave a visa to F. Lilesa is to scold the Ethiopian government about its treatment of Oromos. That is a good thing.

    Now we have another asylum seeker in our hands. His name is Tamiru Demisse who is also in Brazil for the paraolympic competition. He won silver in the 1500 meters. Like Lilesa, he showed the cross sign symbolizing Oromo protests. T.Demisse is Amahara and showed the crossed hands to display solidarity to Oromo protesters and others.

    My question is “where is the drive for contribution that raised 150 000$ in less than two weeks for Lilesa?” Even his solidarity at the risk of losing his lie and liberty is not getting adequate coverage because of lingering F. Lelissa euphoria.

    Come on guy! Let’s take care of T. Demisse too as we did for F. Lelissa. He also deserves to be in the U.S. Maybe Lelissa should chip in some of the 150 000$ fortune he amassed.

    For the sake of fairness, it’s time to support the guy.

  5. He Prevail Our Speech Less Sound For Those Other People Who Seeking Our Day To Day Lives In Ethiopia. Everything Seems Fine But Not Fine. You Can’t Shade Fire By Blanket. It Destroy The Blanket & The People.

  6. He Prevail Our Speech Less Sound For Those Other People Who Seeking Our Day To Day Lives In Ethiopia. Everything Seems Fine But Not Fine. You Can’t Shade Fire By Blanket. It Destroy The Blanket & The People.

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