Ethiopian Olympic runner Feyisa Lilesa reunites with family after settling in United States

Athlete who crossed wrists in protest against killings in Oromia secures American visas for wife and small children 

Charlotte England
Wednesday 15 February 2017 20:19
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Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa crouches to hug his daughter Soko, 5, while picking up his family at Miami International Airport
Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa crouches to hug his daughter Soko, 5, while picking up his family at Miami International Airport

The Ethiopian silver medalist who made an anti-government gesture as he crossed the finishing line at the Rio Olympics has been reunited with his family after settling in the United States.

Feyisa Lilesa met his wife, six-year-old daughter, and three-year-old son at Miami airport on Valentine’s Day, four months after he crossed his wrists in an X at the October games in Brazil, drawing international attention to the killing of Oromo people in his home country.

After coming second in the marathon, Mr Lilesa, who told reporters that if he returned to Ethiopia he could be killed or imprisoned, did not board the plane home, instead settling in Arizona on a special skills visa.

His attorney was eventually able to secure visas for his wife and small children, and they were finally able to fly out to join him, after what Mr Lilesa described as several "tough" and "lonely" months of worrying.

According to Human Rights Watch security forces killed hundreds and detained tens of thousands of protesters in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara regions last year.

Many of those who were released reported that they were tortured in detention, and the rights group accused the government of failing to meaningfully investigate security forces abuses or respond to calls for an international investigation into the crackdown.

At a news conference following the race, Mr Lilesa reiterated his defiant message.

"The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe," the 27-year-old athlete told journalists.

"My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

In Ethiopia, state television censored his protest, but many people who heard about his action described him as a national hero.

Feyisa Lilesa greets his wife and two children

On Tuesday at Miami International, Mr Lilesa's daughter spotted him first and ran to hug him. She was followed closely by his young son and lastly his wife.

As the family left the airport, his son perched on his shoulders and his daughter rode on the luggage, carrying the flowers he brought as a gift.

"The biggest gift is us seeing each other again — and me seeing them again," Mr Lilesa said. "It's all been very tough."

Mr Lilesa said he had worried constantly about his family while he was separated from them.

His daughter Soko and his son Sora had asked repeatedly when they would see him again, and for weeks, he said, he did not have an answer.

During the period of uncertainty, he said training had helped distract him from loneliness.

"I come from a very big family, and I've never lived alone,” Mr Lilesa said. “I've always been surrounded by people I know. This has been the complete opposite. Here, I'm removed from all of that."

He is now focused on settling his family into their new life in the United States. But he said he had not forgotten Ethiopia.

"My mind is pretty much occupied by what is happening back home,” Mr Lilesa said. “Whether I'm running or I'm sleeping or I'm laying back, my family and what is happening in Ethiopia — and what is happening to my people — that's constantly on my mind."

Despite the difficult months, he said he did not regret his protest.

"I think me taking the risk and putting family in that position and putting them potentially in harm's way, it was a good lesson for a lot of people that you need to sacrifice in order for you to win some concessions and change your situation," Mr Lilesa said.

"In that sense, it inspires people to fight for their rights and resist the government in Ethiopia. It also led to greater awareness about the situation in Ethiopia.

"Now, you see more coverage of the human rights violations. I speak with people wherever I go. Even outside the media limelight, people are interested in knowing. They heard the story because of my protest."

He said he hoped to go back to Ethiopia one day, but did not expect to be able to in the foreseeable future.

"As long as this current government is in power, I don't have hope of going back to Ethiopia," he said.

"[But] I do know change is inevitable."

He plans to run in the London Marathon in two months time, and hopes to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but he said he does not know if he will be able to represent Ethiopia.

"I'm not too hopeful the system will be changed in the next three years and I will be in a position to run for Ethiopia," he said. "We will have to wait and see."

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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