This Ethiopian runner was an Olympic hopeful — before he was tortured and fled. Today, he reunited with his family in the U.S.
Demssew Tsega Abebe was a famous marathon runner in Ethiopia and was expected to be on his country’s Olympic team. But his career was cut short when he was tortured for peacefully protesting his government’s policies. His heels and feet were so severely lashed he could not run for more than a year.
He fled to the Washington area in 2016, and he has been trying to bring his wife and two children to the United States ever since, in part to get medical care for his 5-year-old son, Dagmawi, who cannot speak. Until today, Abebe had never met his 2-year-old daughter, Soliyana, as his wife was pregnant with her when he fled.
Last week, Abebe learned that his family had won a humanitarian immigration petition to join him. Fittingly, they arrived early Valentine’s Day morning at Dulles International Airport. He held his daughter for the first time.
“Exceptional feeling,” he said in a text from the airport. “So thrilled, so happy.”
Yesterday, before they arrived, his voice broke with emotion as he thought about the moment he would see them. “I miss my family, my children. My son, he knows he waits a long time, but I am coming back to him.”
He said Valentine’s Day isn’t much of a holiday in Ethiopia, but he said he is proud to be reuniting with his family on a day that celebrates love, in a nation where he is free to express himself.
“I am so happy, I thank God,” said Abebe, 29, who lives in Silver Spring.
The past week has been a scramble for Adebe, who has been sleeping on a friend’s couch, as he searched for an apartment and other trappings of home life for his family. He works in food service at St. Elizabeths Hospital and recently left a second job as a clerk at a 7-Eleven.
In Ethiopia, Abebe was an elite professional runner and a well-known figure. He won 30 marathons, including the French Reims marathon several years ago in a personal best of two hours, nine minutes. He ran the Ras Al Khaimah half-marathon in the United Arab Emirates in an astounding hour and one minute.
Everything changed for Abebe in December 2015, when he was at a peaceful protest of what he described as a land grab by the government directed at his people, the Oromo. The Oromo make up Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Police recognized Abebe in a crowd of thousands and detained him for three days.
“The security forces tortured me harshly in detention by beating the heels of my feet, since they knew I was a runner,” he wrote in the petition to allow his family to join him. ”They were particularly harsh on me because I am a nationally known figure.”
Shortly after the beating, he was scheduled to run in the Houston Marathon. Barely able to walk, he boarded a plane to Houston with his team. But instead of running the marathon, he stayed and applied for asylum in the United States. His petition is still pending.
“I was forced to flee to the US in fear for my life,” he wrote in a personal statement seeking asylum.
Since settling in Silver Spring, Abebe has been continuing pro-democracy protests in support of the Oromo people. He said his family was not safe at home in Ethiopia, and he has worried for his kids and his wife, Nigat Teferi Mulat.
“My family is in grave danger,” he wrote in their petition. “Government cadres have barged into our home without a warrant on various occasions. … I speak with my wife every day. She wants to be strong for the children and me but I can hear the constant fear in her voice.”
Abebe said he is also fearful for his son, and while his son does not have a diagnosis, Abebe has already secured an offer from a hospital to evaluate him.
“I am terribly worried about the sickness of my beloved son Dagmawi, who cannot speak at the age of 5, and who is in urgent need of medical care,” he wrote.
The “humanitarian parole” petition Abebe’s family won is quite unusual. It is an “extraordinary measure sparingly used” to allow people into the country temporarily because of an emergency, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explanation of the program. Abebe’s family can stay for up to a year.
Several government officials wrote letters in support of the petition for Abebe’s family, including D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.). In her letter, Bowser said the D.C. area has the largest community of Ethiopians in the country, more than 200,000.
“While I do not know him personally, Demssew is a wonderful role model for people around the world,” Bowser wrote.
The D.C. office of the Three Crowns law firm took on Abebe’s case pro bono after it was referred to them by the International Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based organization that helps connect refugees with legal advocates. One of Abebe’s lawyers, Erin Klisch, said Abebe has been leading a running group in Rock Creek Park, which includes several elite Ethiopian runners.
“He has been able to run without pain,” Klisch said. “When he first got here, he could barely walk.”
Abebe said he wants to get back to regular distance running, and he already has logged a 20-mile run recently. But he also wants to run in the most quintessential D.C. race in his adopted home.
“I plan to run the Cherry Blossom,” he said of the city’s famed 10-mile race.
But first, he said, he wants to hug his family and make up for the two years they lost.
This report has been updated to reflect that the Cherry Blossom race is 10 miles.