Two asylum seekers who live in Israel will compete Friday in the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, as they seek spots on the Refugee Olympic Team in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed, originally from Darfur, Sudan, and Teklewini Melake Gebreyesus, from Eritrea, are both competing in the 5,000 meter race at the biennial competition, marking the first time that asylum seekers from Israel are taking part in the event.
A good showing at the competition will help their chances of being selected by an Olympic committee for Tokyo.
“They are some of the best refugee athletes in athletics in the world according to the results, so they have a very good chance of being included in the refugee team in Tokyo,” said Rotem Genossar, the manager of Tel Aviv’s Alley Runners sports club, where Mohammed trains.
סוף טוב הכל טוב!אחרי כמעט 20 שעות מורטת עצבים בשדה התעופה באיסטנבול, ג׳מאל ותחלואיני, יחד עם רותם, הצליחו לעלות לטיסה…
“They have until April to prove they are capable. The Olympics committee will watch them and will make the announcement in April,” Genossar told the Times of Israel from Doha.
“They are nervous and they are very excited. It’s a big honor but of course it is stressful,” Genossar said.
The Refugee Olympic Team competed for the first time in the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, games in 2016. Ten athletes from South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria competed in three sports under the Olympic flag.
The Alley Runners is a club in south Tel Aviv that caters to youth from disadvantaged neighborhoods and is home to Mohammed, 23. Gebreyesus, 21, is based out of a boarding school near Netanya.
The two entered Israel as unaccompanied minors almost a decade ago.
In 2003, Janjaweed militia associated with the Sudanese army attacked Mohammed’s village, killing 97, including his father. He tried to flee the country once but was turned back at the border, eventually reaching Israel after crossing the Sinai desert in 2010 at age 17.
Gebreyesus came to Israel alone at age 13 sometime around 2011, ending up in a boarding school, where he started his athletic training.
Mohammed found his way to the Alley Runners club after friends suggested he join.
“His friends told him ‘come run with us,’ and he came, was one of the best in the field and became addicted,” said Shirith Kasher, the club’s chairwoman.
They are competing in Doha separately from the Israeli team, which sent several athletes to the competition, including Kenyan-Israeli Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, one of the country’s top athletes. The pair knows the Israeli athletes well, though, having met at competitions regularly in Israel.
Mohammed has been competing internationally for several years, including in Portugal and Denmark for the World Cross Country Championships and a training camp in Ethiopia. The Doha event is Gebreyesus’s first international competition.
Since they are not citizens of Israel, they do not have passports, but temporary travel documents, which can make travel difficult. The two runners and Genossar were stuck in the Istanbul airport for almost 24 hours due to visa problems on their way to Doha, Genossar said.
Mohammed and Gebreyesus had to have their refugee status confirmed by the United Nations for eligibility to compete, which did not affect their status in Israel.
Israel’s government rarely grants refugee status to asylum seekers, but authorities have generally been helpful to the club, Kasher told the Times of Israel. It has found support from the Foreign Ministry, immigration authorities, Israeli sports officials and the Tel Aviv municipality, including for its trip to Qatar.
“The government policy is the government policy. You can’t go against it, but you can work with it, find the right way to work with it,” Kasher said. “Sometimes it improves, sometimes I get blocked by a wall and have to go around it.”
Only one of the club’s athletes has received Israeli citizenship as an asylum seeker, in 2014.
The club, which was founded seven years ago, at first struggled to secure funding, but now receives financial support from the Altshuler Shaham investment house in Tel Aviv, the Yarzin Sella company, and Volvo Israel. The trip to Qatar was funded by international sports authorities.
The club, which mostly comprises Israelis of Ethiopian descent, aims to support its athletes with education in addition to sports training. It helps its runners with the military and university applications, and has three alumni currently attending colleges in Israel and the US, Kasher said.
The club faces challenges integrating its athletes, but the situation is improving, and the club hopes to be a model to similar groups abroad. Kasher said she is not aware of any other running club that specifically reaches out to asylum seekers, in Israel or elsewhere.
“It’s hard to mix several cultures in one group but it’s definitely doable,” Kasher said. “We are swimming against the river.”
There are about 35,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the vast majority from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered Israel from 2005. Many are fleeing persecution in their homelands and civil rights groups in Israel and abroad consider them refugees, but Israeli right-wing politicians say most are only in the country for economic opportunities.
In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ramped up plans to forcibly deport almost half of the asylum seekers in Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, a program that had previously been undertaken clandestinely.
That April, he eventually agreed to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees plan to resettle refugees in other countries. But, bowing to pressure from activists, he canceled the plan hours later, and asylum seekers have continued to live in a legal limbo that allows them to work, live, and access social services in Israel with strict conditions.