Feyisa Lilesa knew when he raised his hands above his head and crossed his wrists at the Rio Olympics that there would be both consequences and sacrifices. For more than six months, he was separated from his family — his wife and two children — by nearly 9,000 miles of uncertainty. He missed birthdays, holidays, nightly dinners.
Lilesa, 27, felt it was too dangerous to return to Ethiopia after protesting his country’s government at the finish line of the Olympic marathon. He was unsure when — or whether — he would see his family again. They remained in Addis Ababa, while he settled down in Flagstaff, Ariz. At least physically. His mind and his heart were always somewhere else.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Lilesa, who won silver at the Rio Games, was at Miami International Airport, waiting for his family to clear customs, excited about a reunion that had been months in the making.
“It’s been difficult,” Lilesa said through an interpreter as he waited for his family to arrive. “Not only to be separated from my family, but I’ve been separated from my country, my people.”
Finally, Lilesa caught sight of his wife, Iftu Mulisa, alongside his 6-year-old daughter, Soko, and 3-year-old son, Sora. It was Valentine’s Day, a holiday that carries no special meaning back in Ethiopia and until Tuesday meant nothing to Lilesa.
“I just learned this morning that this is actually a lovers’ day,” he said. “That made me really, really happy. It seems like I have more reason to celebrate this day going forward.”
Lilesa made international headlines by crossing his wrists and speaking out against the Ethiopian government for its treatment of his people. Lilesa is part of the Oromo tribe, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Human rights organizations say Oromos have been murdered, beaten and imprisoned, and Lilesa went to Rio de Janeiro intent on drawing more attention to the abuses.
He knew by protesting, though, that he couldn’t return home. Lilesa is certain that if he returned to Ethiopia he would be imprisoned or possibly killed.
“It was a personal decision I made, and I was ready to take the responsibility for whatever happened,” he said. “Yes, I was separated from my family, but I knew that my family felt they faced the same fate as all the Oromo people in Ethiopia. I knew I could potentially not see them for a long time.”
Lilesa spent three weeks laying low in a Rio hotel room before flying to Washington in September, a temporary stop before eventually settling down in Arizona, where he can train at a high altitude.
For more than six months, his worst fear has been that the government would retaliate against his family. When the Internet in Ethiopia allowed, Lilesa was able to chat with his family, assuring them that lawyers were working to bring them to the United States. Their visas were finally granted this month, he said.
“I try to look at this as my family actually has this option and this opportunity to be able to leave,” he said. “But there are millions of Oromo people who are left behind, who don’t have the same opportunity my family has.”
Lilesa has competed twice since the Rio Olympics, turning in a fourth-place finish at the Honolulu Marathon in December and finishing a close second at the Houston Half-Marathon last month as he and the winner finished with identical times of 1:01:14. He’s planning to compete in the London Marathon in April.
Training, Lilesa says, has at times felt like an escape, but his family and the struggles Oromos face back in Ethiopia are never far from his thoughts. He’d hoped his family reunion would somehow take place back in Addis Ababa. He likes Flagstaff but says, “I don’t think it will ever feel like home.”
“My heart is always back home. The situation in Ethiopia doesn’t allow me to rest,” he said. “I think part of the reason is because my mind is always preoccupied with what is going on back home.”
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