Awet Gebremedhin is an Eritrean whose employer is Israeli. The government has given African asylum seekers until April to leave the country or face indefinite imprisonment, but nobodys trying to deport Gebremedhinhim – hes never been to Israel. And if and when he does get here, his Israeli employer might want to try to pull some strings to get the government to let him stay.
This week he starts a two-year contract with Israels first pro cycling team, the Israel Cycling Academy. Almost five years after he fled from the Eritrean cycling team, Gebremedhin, 25, has become a member of the international squad preparing for the Giro dItalia, which starts in Jerusalem on May 4.
He recalls when club manager Ran Margaliot called him with the offer. He said: I have good news, do you want to hear? I said yes, of course and he said: We want to give you a pro contract for two years. I was in shock, I told him thank you and Ill get back to him because I wasnt able to say more, laughs the cyclist, speaking from Spain, where the team is training.
Gebremedhin didnt hesitate about accepting the offer – hes been focused on the sport since childhood. He first discovered cycling in his small village in Eritrea when his father bought him his first set of wheels so he could get to school. After going pro and competing on the Eritrean national team for three years, the political and humanitarian situation at home worsened and he had no choice but to flee.
I came in 2013 with the national team to Toscana, but I fled to Denmark and then to Sweden, he says. I had a visa from Italy and they tried to send me back there. At first I said yes, but then I decided to stay in Sweden with nothing. Life was hard, he says, because he had no legal status there. For a year and five months I stayed at my friends house and never went out. I couldnt work; hed sometimes leave me carfare so I could go to church on Sunday.
He eventually received a Swedish passport, which opened the door back to cycling. After such a long time confined to his friends home and unable to practice, he found an opportunity with the small Kuwaiti Marco Polo team. His good scores on some climbs in the summer of 2017 sparked the interest of the Israeli team. The try-out video he sent got him a place at the teams training camp. A spot opened up on the pro team after the Turkish rider Ahmet Orken left due to pressure from home.
I love the team, it really suits me, says Gebremedhin, a devout Christian. For any Eritrean its amazing to visit Israel because we believe in God from Israel – we read in the Bible every day, Israel, Israel, since were born, so for me this is also something special. If I talk with Eritrean friends, they say, Yah, youre going to ride in Israel, great! Its very special and exciting.
Gebremedhins first competition with the Israel Cycling Academy will take place this month in Majorca, Spain. Like his teammates, hes aiming to get picked for a spot on the national team in the Giro dItalia – if Israel makes it into the big race. Hell get his answer next week.
Aside from riding and seeing the Holy Land, Gebremedhin says hes looking forward to seeing his friends in Israel, especially a childhood friend named Daniel.
We started to ride together, we were always on the same teams, says Gebremedhin. I havent seen him for seven years, Ive spoken to him on Messenger and video and now we can meet face to face. Its just amazing. Theres also a brother and sister in my extended family who are in Tel Aviv now. Old friends are waiting for me.
For now. When he arrives, theres no telling if theyll still be here.