In August 2016, Feyisa Lilesa won Olympic glory. His next challenge: keep himself and his family alive and safe in the face of Ethiopian ethnic purges.
Part 1: The Oromo
Part 2: The Reunion
After three weeks in a Rio de Janeiro hotel following the 2016 Olympics, Feyisa Lilesa moved to the United States in September 2016. He was granted an American O-1 visa, a status reserved for individuals with an extraordinary ability in athletics or other fields. He settled in Flagstaff, Arizona and continued his training. Almost 9,000 miles around the globe, his family and friends feared for their safety under the repressive Ethiopian government.
His brother-in-law, Tokkuma Mulisa, had been imprisoned in early 2016 and reportedly tortured. His younger brother Aduna, also a runner, was attacked by government soldiers in October. The soldiers struck Aduna in the head with the butt of a rifle, kicked him and threatened to shoot him unless he gave them information about Feyisa. Finally, Aduna lied and said his brother “is a terrorist; he is no good.” In addition, Aduna’s wife was suspended from her job with Ethiopian government radio following Feyisa’s Olympic protest.
Meanwhile, Feyisa’s wife Iftu Lilesa, five-year-old old daughter Soko Feyisa Lilesa, and three-year-old son Sora Feyisa Lilesa languished in Ethiopia after Lilesa’s daring protest. Lilesa managed to communicate with his family regularly but feared for their safety. After the Olympic marathon, he admitted, “I do have a concern for my family but what I’m thinking about today is not so much bringing them here, but change will come to Ethiopia so I can go home to my family,” However, he soon realized that goal remained far in the future.
Instead, Lilesa began to make arrangements to bring his family to the United States. They filed for immigrant visas for his wife, children and brother, but the U.S. executive order issued in January to block immigrants and refugees from entering the country put those plants in jeopardy.
Regarding the executive travel ban, Lilesa said, “The day I left my country is the day I gave up my rights. This is not my country. Donald Trump was elected through a process and he’s ultimately here to decide what he wants to do about his country and he is in charge. But, I do think it’s unfair to separate people based on their religion and it’s good to understand that people come to this country, refugees and immigrants, because they have problems like I did in my own country.”
When a federal a federal court overturned the ban in February, the U.S. consular staff in Addis Ababa approved Lilesa’s family for immigration. His family boarded a flight to Miami, where Lilesa met them on Valentine’s Day. Overjoyed at seeing his family once more, Lilesa remained mindful of the situation in his native country.
“Despite my physical safety here in the US and now a family reunion, the Ethiopian government’s ongoing abuse of the Oromo people gives me no rest,” he said in a press statement. “As I celebrate this small personal victory, I want to make sure that we don’t forget the plight of millions of Oromo and other Ethiopians who are still being killed, beaten, imprisoned, dispossessed and kept in poverty.”
Aduna Lilesa left his brother and his family and returned to Ethiopia in mid-March. The visas for Lilesa’s wife and children expire in July, but they hope to receive green cards before then. In the meantime, Lilesa continues to balance training and activism.
My biggest wish is to see the freedom of my people—all people, in every country.
Lilesa won the New York City Half Marathon in March, outsprinting the second-place finisher and flashing his crossed-arms “X” symbol at the finish line. He was also among the leaders in last week’s London Marathon before dropping back to twelfth place.
Through it all, his message has never wavered. Before the London Marathon, he exhorted Brits “to put pressure on their government because they do provide the biggest amount of aid to the Ethiopian government, to use that leverage not to cosy up to the Ethiopian rulers but to change their behaviour and to allow our people to have their freedom and rights.”
And even as he fights to keep his wife and children safely by his side, his thoughts remain with the struggle of his countrymen halfway around the world. “I will continue to speak out against injustice and its perpetrators using my platform,” Lilesa says. “My biggest wish is to see the freedom of my people—all people, in every country.”