HONOLULU, HI, USA — It’s been nearly four months since Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line in Rio de Janeiro with his wrists crossed in an ‘X’ above his head, silently protesting after earning the Olympic Marathon silver medal. The 26-year-old hasn’t been back to his native Ethiopia, hasn’t seen his wife or children, and hasn’t been in contact with the nation’s political leaders.
ዝሕጉስ ዜና – ኤርትራውን ሶማላውን ንጅግና ኦሮሞ ሊለሳ ይድግፉ ኣሎዉ ንማራቶን ኣብ ሆኑሉሉ – ሃዋይ።
Standing poolside at a Waikiki Beach hotel, Lilesa clenched his fists and recreated the stoic pose for a photo. His face was a stiff mix of emotion, resisting the slightest hint of a smile and focusing his eyes deep in the lens of the camera. Lilesa has made the pose countless times since August 21, each day hoping it will help spur change back home.
Yet there hasn’t been any progress. He still fears for his life, misses his family, and prays for the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group facing severe oppression, violence, and death back home.
“My life is very good in the USA. But I am far from my family,” Lilesa said, his voice both halting and quiet. He has been in America since September, making stops in Washington, D.C. and Minnesota before settling in the running mecca of Flagstaff, Ariz.
On Sunday Lilesa will race the Honolulu Marathon, his first event since claiming silver at the Olympic Games. As tensions continue back in Ethiopia, Lilesa knows that racing here could provide another platform to further his message. With that in mind, he has been training at high altitude in Arizona. But it’s been hard to focus completely on running.
After 18 days in Rio de Janeiro, Lilesa came to the United States with much fanfare. He participated in a full media tour in Washington, D.C., gracing the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times. But once that was done, the tall harrier moved to Flagstaff, home to some of the best distance runners in America, and began to train again. In all he’d take about a month and a half off from hard running as he transitioned to American life.
His legs were moving again, but his heart and mind were half a world away back home.
Two elite athletes who quickly took Lilesa under their wing were Yonas Mebrahtu, a native of Eritrea who became an American citizen in October, and Abdi Abdirahman, a four-time American Olympian born in Somalia. Training with Mebrahtu, Abdirahman, and other local runners, Lilesa said he’s only running about 100 kilometers (62 miles) a week at the moment. Yet he’s still the favorite here in Honolulu, with a personal best of 2:04:52.
“They are very good people in Flagstaff. When I go to the gym, swimming, they invite me to dinner and are very lovely people, Flagstaff people…” he began before trailing off. Lilesa’s tone is vastly different when speaking of those in America compared to Ethiopia.
When asked if he believes his protest has spurred any change back home, Lilesa shakes his head in frustration. After a defiant “no,” he elaborates.
“For me, nobody has talked with me, not the Ethiopian government. If you support only him, he supports you. If you blame him, he kills you,” Lilesa said, referencing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
“If you are talking about somebody they will automatically kill you. After I come to the U.S., many people have been killed. Many people, after I showed the sign, many people have died.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint an estimated number of deaths due to the oppression in Ethiopia. Lilesa will not return unless there is visible and distinct change leading to democracy. He has tried to move his family here, and hopes to hear more information in the coming months.
“I will stay here until the region and Ethiopian government has changed. It is my decision to stay in the U.S.,” he said. “How could I go back to Ethiopia? If I go today, the government will kill me or arrest me. I cannot go back to the country ever again… I never can.”
“My hope is that Ethiopia, like other countries [which are] democratics, humanity is respected. I want respect in that country. I wish politically it is a democracy. It is my wish.”
Lilesa has experienced humanity in different forms since his protest: Ethiopians in America have sent tearful messages of support and approval, a constant reminder of the struggle and worthy cause. Professional athletes have reached out secretly to Lilesa and given encouragement as well.
“Sometimes they call to me, by messenger they talk with me. Everybody likes me, but they have to distance themselves for the government,” he said. “They [the elite athletes] are afraid. But everybody has a feeling like me.”
There is one subject that makes Lilesa smile: his Olympic silver medal. He remembers vividly the reaction of those at the American embassy when they first laid eyes on the medal.
“When I went to the American embassy in Brazil, they say to me, ‘Where is your medal? When you come tomorrow, bring your medal with you.’ When I showed [them] in Brazil, they are very happy, very, very happy. When they liked my medal, after that I liked my medal,” he said. Of course, Lilesa set out to win gold. “When I got the silver medal, I was not happy. But when everyone liked my medal, people liked it, after that it was good for me.”
Right now, the silver medal is safe at home in Flagstaff. But, Lilesa said, its eventual resting spot is in the heart of Ethiopia. He hopes to one day pass on the medal to his native land.
“In Ethiopia, when Ethiopian people will get their freedom, this will be my gift,” he said. “This Olympic medal, I give for the memorial for the dead people and for those to get their freedoms. This is my gift to the Ethiopian people.”
No matter what, whether he finishes first or second or fifth here in Honolulu, Lilesa said he will do the ‘X’ cross in silent protest at the end of Sunday’srace.
“Some people, political and sports are no different. Everybody exists,” he said. “I need peace. Anybody, why anybody kill in the world. This [sign] is to stop the killing. We need peace, we need to respect humanity in every way. This one is not for another way. It’s peace and a symbol of peace, to stop, to stop the killing. I wish peace for the world, not only Ethiopia.”