Much ink has been spilled on the deep disappointment of athletes who had trained hard for years, looking forward to competing in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, but then had their dreams put on hold when the Games were postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cross-country runner Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed feels as disappointed as any of them – but he dismisses the letdown with a sunny smile and a “What can you do?” shrug.
The Sudanese asylum seeker and member of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team says he has endured so much in his 23 years that being forced to wait a year to become an Olympian hardly seems reason to complain.
“When you see terrible things happen to you at a young age – things that are really much harder than what you might be going through at the moment – and you made it through them, it makes it easier to overcome obstacles. You know you’ll get through these things too,” says the wiry young man, speaking to Haaretz in the main sitting room of the small south Tel Aviv home that serves as headquarters for the Alley Runners Athletic Club.
Clad in a gray T-shirt and faded red shorts, he speaks slumped comfortably on a worn leather sofa, sandwiched between club co-founders Rotem Genossar and Yuval Carmi, the two coaches who have helped develop him into a world-class runner over the past five years and now watch on with an air of paternal pride.
Around them, the tiny clubhouse, with a multicolored pile of running shoes at its door, begins to bustle with afternoon activity – young runners filing in after work or school to begin training. A young Israeli soldier arrives in uniform and changes into training clothes. Two young Ethiopian teenage girls burst in, laughing and joking, dropping their school backpacks as Mohammed greets them. They tease each other in a familiar way, before heading off to the club’s tiny kitchen, to sit with a volunteer tutor who’s there to help them study for their high school graduation exams.
A middle-aged volunteer arrives, flops on a sofa opposite Mohammed and immediately begins quizzing him on Hebrew terms for parts of the body: “You learned everything for the test, right? You’ve been studying?” It turns out that alongside his work as a cleaner and handyman, Mohammed is studying for his certificate in massage therapy so he can become a trainer at the club.
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Pushing their top runner toward self-improvement is all part of the mission at Alley Runners, founded in 2012 with the goal of helping disadvantaged south Tel Aviv youth become “better students, social leaders and great athletes.” Today, some 100 runners and other track and field athletes, ranging in age from 12-25, train there.
Mohammed’s achievements in world tournaments and his status as a member of the Olympic-bound refugee team have shone an international spotlight on the club: he was recently featured in CNN Sport’s coverage of the team for World Refugee Day.
Sense of home
Alley Runners has given him something just as valuable as athletic prowess: a sense of being at home, for the first time in his short life. Mohammed was born in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, the region that grabbed the world’s attention in 2003 when the Janjaweed militia, allied with Sudan’s government, murdered thousands and displaced millions of people.
When Mohammed was only 8 years old, they swept through his village, raping women, burning homes and killing nearly 97 of its residents – his father among them. At age 16, he left his home and his country behind, seeking a better life for himself and a way to help the mother and four younger siblings he left behind.
He followed a path familiar to many Sudanese in 2010: traveling to Egypt, where he paid Bedouin guides to lead him on a journey across the Sinai Desert mountains to the Israeli border, where he surrendered to military guards.
He arrived in Israel a lost teenager. “I was 16 years old and couldn’t communicate with anyone. I had no Hebrew, no English, and my Arabic was completely different. They brought me to a Palestinian guy to speak Arabic to me. But I didn’t understand Palestinian Arabic at all, so I could only communicate with them using hand signals.”
After a few weeks at the Saharonim detention facility in southern Israel, he was released.
“They gave me a one-way ticket on the bus,” he relays. “I had no idea where I was going, I just followed people. I followed them onto the bus. We got to the Tel Aviv bus station. And then they all went their separate ways and I didn’t know who to follow anymore. I stayed in that station for four hours. I didn’t know where to go and couldn’t figure out where the exit was. Finally, I saw a Sudanese guy and asked, ‘How do I get out of here?’”
Making his way to a south Tel Aviv park, he sat alone until a fellow Sudanese refugee took pity on him and brought him to a tiny one-room apartment where he lived with seven other men. “It was crazy – there was one bed! But at least I was with other people and we were in the same situation,” Mohammed recalls.
He doesn’t remember feeling afraid, even though he was young and alone in a strange place: “When you see that people can come to your village, kill 97 people in one day, including your father, raping women – there is nothing worse than that.”
He headed to a park where employers picked up day workers. “I was sitting alone and someone came over. He asked if I was looking for work.” Brought to a construction site, the man gave him a tape measure and told him to measure and cut plaster for a wall. He had no idea what to do. “I was afraid he’d fire me on the spot. But he just laughed and said ‘OK, we’ll have to teach you what to do.’ A quick study, he rapidly picked up the skills of building, painting and carpentry, and worked with the same man for several years.
For recreation, he played soccer with his friends in the park. Carmi spotted him playing at an event for Assaf, an aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers, and invited him to join a training session with the Alley Runners. “I went the first time just to show off,” Mohammed laughs, but felt immediately that it for him. “I knew I loved running,” he recounts.
While his natural talent was clear from the start, it took time and hard work to get to where he is now.
“You could tell he was talented,” Carmi says. “But in running, talent is just a small part of it. It took a long time, it was no Cinderella story. He endured injuries, and it really took three years of hard work for him to truly stand out,” he adds.
Genossar agrees. “To get to a certain level in long-distance running, it takes a combination of talent, persistence and character,” he says. “Another intangible thing you really need is luck – and that’s something Jamal Mohammed has always had.”
Not playing around
Like its runners, Alley Runners has developed over the years. Originally conceived by its third co-founder, Shirith Kasher, as a place where Ethiopian-Israeli girls could pursue athletics, it evolved into a club that accepts anyone – but demands a great deal of its members. Genossar, a civics teacher at the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv, was key in bringing the asylum-seeker community into the club. Today, they make up nearly 40 percent of its members.
“It’s not for everyone, it’s very demanding,” Genossar admits. “People aren’t here to play around; it’s a serious athletic program. But for those like Mohammed who are suited to it, it’s amazing. We’ve always been a combination of personal development and running. But we’ve gotten better and more professional. Anyone can join, but they’ve got to put in the work to stay.”
Once Mohammed became serious about running, he left his physically demanding construction work so he would have more energy for his running and to avoid injuries. He took a job as a cleaner, although the hours and demands of full-time work still made it difficult for him to train at the level of a world-class athlete.
Around the same time, Mohammed’s coaches became aware of the Athlete Refugee Team. Formed in 2015 with a core group of athletes composed of South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Kenya, the team made its high-profile international debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics, representing some 70 million refugees around the world.
Since then, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the effort has expanded. Mohammed, along with refugees from countries that include Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Congo, compete in a range of events – from cycling and swimming to judo, Tae Kwon Do, karate, wrestling and boxing. They live in host countries across Europe and the Middle East, receiving modest stipends that allow them to dedicate their time to training. Recipients include another asylum seeker living in Israel: Eritrean marathon runner Thachlowini Melake Gabriyesos.
While the final composition of the team was never officially announced, Mohammed knew his achievements had left him Tokyo-bound. In 2019, he competed at the World Cross-Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, where “he was sensational,” Genossar says with pride, finishing 85th among the top 140 runners in the world.
The Alley Runners also paved the way for Mohammed to become part of what he calls his “second family.” Two years ago, one of his group’s volunteers, Hili Avinoam, made him an offer: live in her apartment building rent-free, in exchange for working as the building’s resident cleaner and caretaker.
“At first I didn’t think it would work out, but I said I’d give it a try – and it’s been amazing,” Mohammed says. He runs every morning for two hours, returns, cleans the building, and helps residents with repairs and other tasks, before preparing for his evening training sessions with his coaches at the Alley Runners.
The best part: He began spending his weekends – and even more time during the coronavirus lockdown – with Avinoam and her daughters Yuval, 13, and Maya, 11. They call him their brother, and he refers to Hili as “mom.”
Reflecting on Genossar’s remark about Mohammed being lucky, Avinoam says that, in her view, he has made his own luck. “Look at him: he has taken the bitterest lemons life can hand you and made lemonade. Also, I think those of us in his life are really the lucky ones. Speaking for myself, he has made my family bigger and better: he sits with the girls and plays board games; he plays soccer with my younger daughter. He celebrates the Jewish holidays with us and we celebrate Ramadan with him. Being with him is so much fun – he’s always optimistic and joyful. I love him, my daughters and friends love him, and he connects to my parents like they’re his grandparents.”
Whenever he makes it to the Tokyo Olympics, she vows that her family “will be there cheering him on.”
At the same time, she stresses, she knows her family can never be a replacement for the mother and siblings he left behind in Sudan, with whom he does his best to remain in contact. He normally speaks to them several times a month, but since the coronavirus crisis hit, he says his mother has lost internet services and he’s only been able to speak to her twice since March.
Like any Jewish mother, Avinoam says she worries about Mohammed’s prospects for a future beyond menial low-paying work, since he possesses only a Sudanese elementary-level education. She encourages him to take classes to improve his Hebrew and English: he speaks both fluently, his coaches continually correcting his errors.
“Someday, the running will end and he will have to move ahead in life,” she says.
Perhaps most critical for his future, Avinoam has also hired a lawyer to try to help Mohammed gain permanent resident status in Israel. Like some 30,000 other Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, he is stuck in legal limbo. The Israeli government rejects the premise that Darfur refugees are entitled to asylum and has stalled the process, meaning they are defined as temporary residents whose visas must be frequently renewed.
While he says he appreciates the way in which his coaches and adoptive mother are fighting for him, he tries to remain realistic. “Israel is a tough country. You never know what’s going to happen or what it will decide. I feel at home here, but I still know it’s not my country, it’s not where I was born. I am Muslim, not Jewish, and they can throw me out for any reason,” he says.
Other rising stars in Alley Runners have parlayed their athletic abilities into a launching pad to emigrate to countries offering them legal status and a more secure future. Last year, the club waved goodbye to another world-class runner and club member: Nazret Kobodom, a 16-year-old Eritrean refugee. Kobodom, together with her family, was able to emigrate to Canada through the Canadian Sponsorship Agreement Holders program, which helps private organizations to sponsor refugees – in her case, the Calgary track and field club.
“It’s not easy to be a coach who invests four to five years in an athlete and then they disappear,” Genossar admits. He comforts himself knowing that “a coach is waiting for them on the other side to welcome them and help them settle in, and they can continue to train and grow where they are.”
Genossar adds that Mohammed isn’t dreaming of a new home in Europe or Canada. “He wants to stay here – it’s good for him here in Tel Aviv.”
Adding the uncertainties of the coronavirus to that of his legal status, economic situation and worries about his family back home may be hard, but Mohammed says he applies the same positive attitude to these challenges as he does to his athletic training.
“In this life journey, you don’t know where it’s taking you,” he reflects. “You just have to work as hard as you can and hope for the best.”