Toward the end of the interview in the Tel Aviv offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Tachlowini Gabriyesos is asked if there is anything else he would like readers to know about him. “That I’m a coffee addict,” he replies without hesitation, indicating the cup beside him that a short while before held black coffee, but in which only the “mud” – the sediment – remains. “As you can see.”
On the face of it, Gabriyesos, who goes by the nickname “Louie,” is an Israeli in every respect. He has the speech patterns, the approach, the humor, the chutzpah that’s not easily acquired if you didn’t grow up here. And he really did grow up here, to a large extent. “For the past two years I’ve been saying that I’ve been here seven years, but it seems to me I’ve been here 10 years,” he says. “I entered in 2012, when I was 13 and a half.”
Gabriyesos fled from Eritrea when he was a boy, on his own, leaving his family behind. One of the best runners in the country, he is participating in the Olympic marathon in the Tokyo Games (scheduled for August 8) – but not as part of the Israeli delegation. He’s a member of the Olympic Refugee Team, under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee. “I am going to represent them,” he says. “There are more than a million refugees in the world. I invite them to watch us – not to sleep! They are our strength. I want them to dream big and not limit themselves.”
Gabriyesos will not be the only Israel-based refugee in the IOC delegation. Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed, an asylum seeker from Darfur, will compete in the 5,000-meter race wearing the IOC logo. “It is really very important for me,” says Mohammed, “because on the one hand I understand how hard it is to be a refugee, and on the other hand, even if you are a refugee, you want to fulfill your dreams. When I present this, my thought is that I am lending my voice – so all the other refugees will think that everything is possible: to achieve things like this, reach places like these, to realize your dreams and not give up.”
Both athletes could be Israeli heroes. They could demonstrate the tremendous power that accrues to a country that welcomes the refugees who have arrived here. But Israel does not yet recognize them as refugees deserving of asylum status, certainly not as temporary or permanent residents, still less as citizens. Instead, they will be part of something bigger: the flagship project that is the refugee delegation. The story of each of them could fill a full-length documentary film. Life didn’t give them much in the way of opportunity, yet nonetheless, they are about to star on the biggest stage of the world of sports: the Olympic Games.
In the desert with ‘John Cena’
“In the past I used to say that ‘refugee’ was a curse – I took it hard when people called me a refugee,” Gabriyesos, 23, relates. But he’s become accustomed to the idea, and is understandably proud to be representing that global community on the Olympic stage. “What’s most important for me is for [refugees] to say, ‘Wow, that’s my dream too.’ I want to be an example to them.”
A 12-year-old boy doesn’t want to leave his mother, but you’re afraid. I just went. I want to live like a human being, to get up in the morning and carry out my plans, I want to live my life.Tachlowini “Louie” Gabriyesos
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His achievement is already history in itself. In March he became the first person on the Olympic Refugee Team – including the 2016 delegation to Rio de Janeiro, which was the first in history – to meet the international Olympic criteria in his sport. The other athletes (there are 29 in this year’s refugee team) were chosen without reference to the qualifying criteria, based on their results as compared to other refugees worldwide. In his qualifying race, in the Hula Marathon in northern Israel this past March 14, Gabriyesos’ time was 2:10:55 – 35 seconds faster than the criterion, even though he fell at the 30-kilometer point (a marathon is 42.19 kilometers, or 26.2 miles) – but got up and resumed running.
The Olympics were light-years away when he was growing up in an Eritrean village. His only connection to the world of athletics was a notebook whose cover had a portrait of the legendary Eritrean runner Zersenay Tadese, former world champion and world record holder in the half-marathon. “I always wanted to imitate him,” Gabriyesos says. “I didn’t know who he was, I only saw him in the picture, and I really, really admired him.”
Looking back, Gabriyesos finds it hard to believe what he endured in Eritrea. “It’s scary to think about it,” he says. “They just attack you in the street, come to you at home. You see them doing things to young boys and to girls – rape, murder.” He talks about what goes through a child’s mind in a situation like that: “If I grow up and get to the age of 15, 16, 17 – am I going to be like them, just to survive? That’s not what I want.”
Eritrea is under the thumb of a military regime that recruits boys and girls by force at the end of secondary school for army service of indefinite duration, a practice that has continued even following the end of the war with Ethiopia, in 2018. “They simply kidnap you, put you in a cage and recruit you by force – and you don’t know when you’ll be back. They’re just people with no heart. You see that a boy is being killed and the mother is screaming, lying on the floor, then you don’t know if she’s alive or not. You’re beaten like you’re an animal, you’re not worth a thing. Unfortunately, it’s still like that.”
Louie realized that he had no choice. “A 12-year-old boy doesn’t want to be away from his mother and for sure doesn’t want to leave her, but you’re afraid,” he explains. In the end he got up and left. “I just went. I want to live like a human being, to get up in the morning and carry out my plans, I want to live my life.”
The road to Israel wasn’t easy by any means. Like many refugees who fled Eritrea and reached Israel between 2009 and 2012, Gabriyesos underwent a multitude of ordeals and was a witness to the atrocities in the Sudanese desert and in the Sinai Peninsula. Local tribes exploited the refugees’ situation in order to trade them for ransom, abuse them and blackmail their families on the way to their destination, Israel. “There are so many people who died, unfortunately, and weren’t even buried,” he says.
Gabriyesos saw it for himself. He relates that he found a shady corner in the desert under a rock and tried to grab a few hours of sleep. When he woke up he realized that he had been sleeping next to a dead body. “I see a man with his mouth open, thrown there like that,” he recalls. “I look at him, and I weighed 37 kilos then, but I felt like I weighed 200 tons. I tried to move, and my body wouldn’t move. I just froze on the spot. My body shook. I felt as though I was pinned to the ground and couldn’t budge. You lose control. It’s a desert that never ends. Shout, and no one will hear you.”
The “kidnapper” who was in charge of getting the Eritrean refugees to Israel was a well-known criminal in Sinai. He called himself “John Cena,” after the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) champion. “Cena” and his people took advantage of his young age, Gabriyesos says. Even though he was the second of the 63 refugees in the group who paid them to take him to Israel, they tried to leave him behind. “I absolutely screamed,” he says. “There is a guy in Israel who makes fun of me because I cried so much.” At one stage, after a group of 30 refugees, with him among them, found themselves escaping from the kidnappers, and they were rescued by a Christian who hid them in a house behind a church – it was actually “Cena” who then arranged for their safe passage to Israel.
By a tortuous route, after being passed between a number of kidnappers and thinking many times that he was about to lose his life, Gabriyeso survived the journey. He still carries the psychic burden. “At first it was frightening to see those things,” he acknowledges. “But when you go on and you see a desert that never ends, and people [the kidnappers] who have no human feelings… then you’re already used to it.” He shares the frame of mind he developed in the desert: “Ah, sababa” – terrific – “he’s dead? I will be, too, in another day or two.”
In Israel he was sent to the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev desert for a few months, and from there to the Mishmoret incarceration site for juveniles. The state’s policy was not to leave minors who arrived as refugees without adult supervision – and there were hundreds of minors from African countries. Accordingly, Gabriyesos underwent a lengthy process involving medical care and integration in the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village, on the seacoast north of Netanya. An interview with the principal of the boarding school set him on the path that led to Tokyo 2021.
“They asked what I like to do: Computers? Soccer? Running? Art? I said running – that was a world that intrigued me very much.” The principal asked why running, and Gabriyesos told him about his admiration for Tadese, the legendary athlete he had never seen in person. “So he said to me: ‘Fine, here’s your coach.’”
Both athletes could be Israeli heroes. They could demonstrate the tremendous power that accrues to a country that welcomes refugees. But Israel has yet to grant them asylum.
From that time, Gabriyesos and the coach, Almayo Paloro, have never been separated. Not when he took his first steps as an athlete and not when he reached the 5,000-meter event in the world championships, representing the refugee team of the International Association of Athletics Federations (now called World Athletics). Today, too, though by now a senior athlete, Gabriyesos continues to live in the youth village, with his adoptive family, the Filosof family, whose residence has become home for him. The relationships are such that he feels at liberty to call his adoptive mother, Ayelet, and also Sharon Harel from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Agency, who gives him close support, at any time, day or night. His closest friends are the children he grew up with in the youth village, full-fledged Israelis.
“I gathered a lot of confidence and lots of friends. People love me and actually want to be around me, and I want to be around them – true friends.”
Nothing was self-evident for someone who escaped from the horrors in his homeland, certainly not prowess in athletics. “I always dream, and in the dreams I don’t limit myself. I dream of an Olympic medal, too. I have two hands and two feet, like everyone, and it’s possible,” he says. Meeting his idol, Tadese – at a training camp in Ethiopia – only served to give him more of a push toward the dream. “Someone told me once that there will always be obstacles, that ‘injuries and sports are a family,’” Gabriyesos notes. “That means not to break despite what happens to you.”
Zigzagging to stay alive
Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed, aka Jimmy, also arrived in Israel alone, when he was 16. Whereas Gabriyesos’ integration was organized by the state, Mohammed tried to fend for himself in Tel Aviv. He too achieved that goal through running, thanks to the Alley Runners project in south Tel Aviv, which works with runners from relatively weak population groups, many of them refugees.
Until 2003, Jamal Mohammed lived a comparatively tranquil life in a small village in Sudan’s Darfur region. He had no idea what the Olympics was or even what athletics meant. “I didn’t know I was going to run,” he says in near-fluent Hebrew. “When I told my mother that I was chosen to run in the Olympics, she asked, ‘What’s that?’ She didn’t know the first thing about it. As a boy in Darfur, other than soccer we didn’t know any sports. We played soccer with socks, by stuffing a few socks into each other. We broke legs, there were all sorts of horrors. Believe me, that’s the most fun there is in places like Africa, in villages, with all the chaos.”
Then his world fell apart. The Janjaweed, a group of Arab militias, joined the Sudanese army in order to quell a revolt of native tribes in the Darfur region, and they started to massacre Black African tribespeople. Mohammed’s father was killed in the conflict, and he remained with his mother and three siblings in an intolerable situation. “On the day my father was killed, they killed 97 people in the village,” he says. “And they kept on coming back and threatening us. They tried to kill as many men as possible and they raped women.”
He was left with almost nothing in Sudan. “I lost all my friends in that war – 75 percent of them died, they were killed,” he continues. “When the Janjaweed came in the night, [they] closed off the village from all sides, so there was no way out, and at 5 A.M. they lit a fire and started to shoot people. They burned the village from all sides. People die there easily. Whoever managed to escape, escaped; those who didn’t – that was that.”
Mohammed was only 8 when the situation deteriorated, but had no choice other than to adjust. “When you’re young, you don’t understand anything... and then suddenly something like that happens to you and you have to run and hide all day. If you’re a boy, even if they catch you they don’t just shoot you, they kill you slowly – cut you with a knife or beat you.”
One hand I understand how hard it is to be a refugee, and on the other hand, even if you are a refugee, you want to fulfill your dreams.Jamal “Jimmy” Mohammed.
Clearly he finds it difficult to tell his story. “It’s hard to explain what happened. I explain things very lightly, I don’t go [deep],” he says. “Sometimes it makes me cry, so I don’t want to go into it.”
The events led Mohammed, who effectively became the head of the household after his father’s death, to take the family to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. But that too didn’t work out. He and his siblings were victims of harassment; his mother decided to return to her native village.
Mohammed now decided that escape was his only recourse. Unable to board a flight unaccompanied, as he wasn’t yet 18, he paid smugglers to change his year of birth on his passport, from 1996 to 1993. He flew to Egypt and then crossed Sinai to Israel. After being incarcerated for a month at Saharonim, he was released and given a daily travel pass. He took a bus to Be’er Sheva, and without understanding where he was going, without speaking Hebrew or English and with his Arabic incomprehensible to Palestinian Arabs – he simply followed people who had been on the bus with him and went on to Tel Aviv.
Another Darfur refugee directed him to Levinsky Park, near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, where refugees hang out. But it started to rain and everyone left. “I was there alone, with nothing on me, and then a Sudanese man, really nice, showed up and took me to his house. He had a one-room place and there were seven of us.” For four months, Mohammed slept – head to feet to head – in the room with six more people who shared one double mattress and another smaller one. Somehow, he managed. In short order he found a job in construction under an Arabic-speaking Israeli. The wage was very low wage, but it was enough to scrape by on.
Another new chapter in his life began when he discovered running, almost by chance. “I played soccer in the neighborhood with friends, and a good buddy of mine, Abdul, saw that I was good at running. He told me, ‘Forget soccer, forget everything, just run. You’ll be good at it.’ At first I didn’t listen to him, but he started to drive me crazy.”
Finally Mohammed took his friend’s advice and joined the Alley Runners’ club. “I trained with them for a month, and then there was a competition. I finished fifth. Abdul said, ‘I told you that you have what it takes, so keep at it.’ Since then I’ve flowed with it.”
That flow carried him to places he never thought he would see – including the World Athletics Championships in Doha in 2019, in which he was a member of the refugee team – but also to true integration in Israel. “I learned a huge amount of things through running,” he relates. “I learned Hebrew from friends there, from the training, from laughs with the group.” He met his “second family,” Hili Avinoam and Asaf Roz, through the Alley Runners. And also Joey Low, a Jewish-American tech entrepreneur and philanthropist who has been assisting refugees in Israel for years, and has done a lot for Mohammed personally.
Jamal Mohammed’s professional breakthrough coincided with fears about his personal future. There have been various political initiatives to deport the asylum seekers, most significantly in 2018, and for a period they were being incarcerated in the Holot facility in the remote Negev. Mohammed was afraid that he would end up there, too. “It was really hard, also with the training,” he recalls. “You think that in another minute you’ll be told, ‘Yallah, you’re being sent back.’ And when you come for training you say, ‘What will happen in a little while, after the training? What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen tomorrow?’ You’re uptight, you don’t sleep properly. I didn’t think I was special. I never thought I’d be told, ‘You won’t be sent back.’ No.”
But thanks to some good people, he arranged a relatively comfortable life for himself, in which he can also devote himself to running. He lives in a residential unit on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street, in a seafront building, where he also cleans the stairwell once a week. In addition to a scholarship from the IOC and the support of the Alley Runners, he helps make ends meet by working as a beach cleaner in nearby Herzliya. “I didn’t give up, but in the end it was also people who help you here and there. That’s really huge. Huge.”
Hoisting the flag
What Gabriyesos and Mohammed are doing is no less huge. The IOC takes every opportunity to play up the Olympic Refugee Team, so it was scheduled to march in in second place, after Greece, which traditionally leads the procession of the teams at the opening ceremony of the Olympiad, slated to take place Friday. For both young men, it’s especially important to be part of the event. “There are so many talented people in the world whose talents are not being put to use,” says Gabriyesos. “When I saw the delegation in 2016, I said, ‘They are refugees, too – Sudanese, Ethiopians, Syrians. So why not me?’ They were my inspiration.”
If I didn’t have running, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have got anywhere. No one would know me, no one would know my story. Running took me far.Jamal “Jimmy” Mohammed
It’s thus important for him to work in refugee aid after he retires as an active athlete. “Everyone thinks I’ll be a coach,” he says, “but I want to study and be part of the supporters of the refugees. That’s important for me. I want to show the world the truth. Helping people will also make me happy. I want to work in the UN. Helping people is really great. And also to be an inspiration to others – I am today a full-fledged Israeli, and I was a refugee. I received so much from people, and I want to give to others, too.”
Sports not only helped these men to integrate, it is now also enabling them to raise awareness worldwide, to hoist the IOC flag in the name of all those who have no place. “With the running, it was like going from zero to a hundred,” says Mohammed. “If I didn’t have running, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have got anywhere. No one would know me, no one would know my story. Running took me far.”
They both feel connected to Israel. “I grew up as an Israeli, I have an Israeli adoptive family, I celebrate the holidays – Sukkot, Hanukkah – Purim is my favorite holiday,” Gabriyesos says. Still, neither he nor Mohammed have escaped the barbs of racism. “But it’s an okay racism, it’s logical,” he says forgivingly. “You can complain about everything, but there’s racism everywhere. Look at the bright side: When there’s a little racism in a country, there’s action, things aren’t boring all the time.”
Mohammed takes things less lightly. “In Israel,” he says, “people who are against [Blacks] – are against Sudanese. Every Black person who passes, they don’t know whether it’s an Eritrean or whatever – they just say ‘Sudanese.’” Still, based on what he’s seen and heard, the situation in Israel isn’t worse than in other places. “There are enough racists everywhere. Even in African countries where whites live, you have racism – like in South Africa. There are bad people, but there are good people, too.”
Possibly that’s why the two athletes both feel that the refugee team is the best place for them. “If I had the opportunity to represent Israel I wouldn’t say no, but in the meantime I’m pleased with what there is,” Mohammed says. “For that reason, I say to every refugee: I know that our life is hard, but you mustn’t give up, they you to hold onto your dreams. Even if they you only one meal a day, you mustn’t give up.”
Gabriyesos, too, doesn’t know the meaning of giving up. “When you’re a citizen you have a great many rights. As a refugee you’re limited, but you’re a lot stronger than everyone else,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with candies in my hand or food on the table. Refugees have strength of their own. Yes, yes, it’s important for me to have people say, ‘Louie is a refugee, I am a refugee, I can get there, too.’ That’s really important for me – you have no idea how much.”