By Rick Maese |
Genet Lire locked herself in a bathroom stall at Dulles International Airport and hid. The clock was ticking. If she was found, she would have to get on the plane and eventually return home. She feared she surely would be locked up again, probably beaten, and her family terrorized.
The time passed slowly: five minutes, 10, 15, 20. Feet tapped on the tile floor. Doors opened and closed. Every noise and shuffle made Lire’s chest tighten.
This was supposed to be a quick layover. Lire was a 17-year-old sprinter from Ethiopia, here to compete in the junior world championships in Eugene, Ore. But she had no intention of ever reaching the starting line. She and her teammates flew in from Addis Ababa. They rushed to their gate, watched their bags board the big jet, and that’s when Lire saw her chance, slipping away to the bathroom as the flight began to board.
She didn’t know it at the time, but not far from Dulles, in and around the Washington area, there was an entire community of Ethiopian runners in similar situations. They were beaten and persecuted back home, almost all of them for political reasons. They feared for their lives and sought asylum in the United States, most putting their promising running careers on hold for the chance at stable and safe lives.
About three dozen Ethiopian runners have congregated in the Washington area, many in just the past three years, and 12 agreed to share their stories with The Post. Some requested their full names not be used, fearful that their families in Ethiopia would face retribution. The details vary, but some threads are consistent: They all had been imprisoned but never charged with crimes; most used visas they’d received through their track careers to flee; they were all beaten to some degree; and many have struggled to acclimate to a new life, far from family and lacking the time and resources to continue running competitively.
“They get here and they are physically and emotionally traumatized,” said Kate Sugarman, a Washington physician who has treated many of the runners. “Some of them can’t even run because of the injuries they suffered during their beatings. I think they’ve lost their confidence and arrive here without a lot of hope.”
The runners have varying skill levels, but most are long-distance specialists, having competed in marathons from New York to China. They’ve won big races in Europe and North America and claimed titles across Africa. One man in his mid-20s once completed a marathon in 2 hours 8 minutes. Only two American-born distance runners have ever run faster.
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