One Runner’s Journey to Freedom

One Runner’s Journey to Freedom

For 14-year-old Adam, who is waiting at a Libyan shelter for a clear path to safety, running might be his only way to escape.


Adam wakes up at dawn, before everyone else, and goes for a run, circling the house he shares in Libya with other migrants, most of whom, like him, are in their teens and from the Horn of Africa. The 14-year-old is always dressed in brightly colored sportswear. After his run—a time when you might catch a rare glimpse of his smile—he jumps rope a few times before returning to the house to do some cleaning. Once the others get up, they play foosball and table tennis. Adam is considered the best table tennis player in the house, having learned it in Ethiopia, where it’s popular.

During my short visit to the house in the fall of 2022, those were the two main games the residents played. There wasn’t much else to do; mostly, Adam and I talked.

Adam doesn’t dare walk beyond the walls surrounding the house. Since 2011, when the NATO-supported Libyan revolution ended the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi, there has been a constant threat of new fighting breaking out between rival governments and militias over control of the Libyan state. Yet the country seemed calm while I was there. When I visited the historical site of Leptis Magna, the birthplace of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, tourist guides and donkey hirers welcomed Libyan families as well as NGO staff and Texan oil businessmen, all there to enjoy the ruins and the view of the Mediterranean.

But for migrants, many of whom are undocumented, it’s another story. Some who are just passing through are stopped at checkpoints and asked for papers that they don’t have. Even the ones who have jobs nearby cleaning roads and buildings or working construction or at gas stations could be arrested by anyone with a gun and have their passports or refugee certificates torn up. In some cases, a kind local employer might get them released, sometimes by paying a ransom. For those without such protection, and without documents, it’s worse: Forced to travel on back roads in taxis that charge hundreds of dollars for journeys that would cost a Libyan a couple of dollars, they can be pulled over at any time. They may then be held in detention centers, some of which were once part of Gadhafi’s system of controlling migration flows from Libya to the European Union. The law still says that “foreign illegal immigrants shall be penalized by detention with hard labour”—in effect, legalizing forced labor.

Adam, who was born in Eritrea, doesn’t remember when he left it—he was just 2 or 3 years old. I imagine him in his father’s arms, being carried across the border into Ethiopia at night. His father was a soldier in the Eritrean Army who, he later told Adam, decided to leave the country after Adam’s mother died of disease. Adam’s only image of his mother comes from a photo ID that his father kept.

As of 2019, Eritrea had an army of more than 200,000 soldiers, whose length of service became indefinite after the country lost a border war with Ethiopia in 2000. In 2017, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea testified that its conscripted national-service program was “arbitrary, extended, and involuntary in nature, amounting to enslavement.” This is the main reason why nearly 15 percent of Eritrea’s population fled the country between 1998 and 2018. Eritreans have continued to flee since then, and those who leave cannot return, for fear of arrest or torture.

Adam and his father settled in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. His father painted houses whenever there was work, and Adam went to school and worked as well, starting at the age of 7, washing cars and selling “softs” (handkerchiefs) at traffic lights after school. “You have to run quickly when the traffic restarts,” he told me. “I was not playing like other kids. From a young age, I learned to do everything.”

He also discovered at age 7 that running wasn’t only a way to escape. One Sunday, Adam and his father climbed the hill up to the Entoto Maryam Church, which was built by Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century on the ridge overlooking his future capital. There Adam discovered the training ground of the great Ethiopian runners. “I watched athletes running and fell in love with that sport,” he said. From then on, whenever he felt “sad or lonely,” he ran. For 15 Ethiopian birr (less than $1), he bought jellyfish sandals, known locally as “Tigray shoes” after the sandals famously worn by rebel fighters of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who took power in Ethiopia in 1991. “[They feel] amazing if you wear big socks inside,” Adam said.

He used to wake up at 5:30 am to run from his hot and polluted Bole neighborhood, which sits at an altitude of 7,545 feet, to the fresh air of the Entoto Mountains, at over 9,800 feet. Then he would catch a taxi to be on time for school. After school, he worked on the streets or cleaned shops and hotel restaurants, where he was paid in small change. He could also take leftovers from the hotel, which he shared with his father. “My dad didn’t prepare my lunch box like other kids had but heated hotel leftovers and put them in a bag. It was a shame for me, so I ate alone in a corner at the school,” Adam said. “I thought I needed good food to run.”

In the Entoto Hills, he saw famous runners visiting—Haile Gebrselassie, the godfather of Ethiopian running; his heir, Kenenisa Bekele; and the British Somali champion Mo Farah. He also met a coach, Seyoum, who offered him a place at the Ethiopian Youth Sports Academy. But Adam and his father could not afford the entry fee of about $1,000.

His father said the only solution was to return to Eritrea to sell a house he owned there. “[He] was afraid of going back to Eritrea, yet he decided to go,” Adam said.

They walked six hours in the direction opposite the one that they and so many Eritreans had previously traveled and entered the country at night. Adam was reunited with his grandmother, who hadn’t seen him or his father since they’d fled and cried a lot. He asked his father to show him Asmara, the beautiful Eritrean capital. But his father refused, scared of what would happen if he were recognized.

Four days later, the family awoke to a loud knocking at the door. “There were four soldiers with a car saying they had questions for Dad,” Adam said. His grandmother told the soldiers that she wouldn’t allow them to take her son at night and that they should return in the morning. But his father told her not to worry, that he’d be back the next day. Neither Adam nor his grandmother were able to get back to sleep that night. His grandmother made frantic phone calls to anyone she could. Eventually, Adam fell asleep. He woke up late, at around 9 or 10 am. When he went outside to wash his face with a small water jerrican, he found his father’s dead body in front of the door. A crowd began to gather, and his grandmother hurriedly gave Adam about $60 and told him a man would escort him out of town. Adam and the man drove and then walked a full day. When they arrived at the border with Sudan, Adam gave his money to a samsar (a smuggler or smuggler’s agent) to take him back to Ethiopia. He traveled alongside Ethiopian migrants returning from a few years of working in Lebanon. At a river crossing on the border, they met still more Ethiopians, Somalians, and Eritreans traveling the other way, to Libya. On the other side, Adam and the rest of the migrants in his group were well received by the army and driven to the capital in a bus.

Back in Addis Ababa, Adam went to the academy and told Seyoum what had happened and that he couldn’t pay the entrance fee. A handball coach ended up offering to pay it for him. It was 2018, and Adam, now an orphaned 10-year-old, had found a place to live and train alongside other athletes, some already adults. Every day, they rose at 5 am, watched footage of Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, considered one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, and of Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, the first Black African to win an Olympic medal, running the marathon barefoot in Rome in 1960. Then they took a bus to the mountains of Addis Ababa, running in secondhand sneakers or a pair they’d bought as contraband.

In 2020, after training for two years, Adam, now 12, was selected for a local 5,000-meter race and came in first, with a time of 17 minutes and 22 seconds. “I won for my father,” Adam told me. “If he had been with me, he’d be very happy.”

The winner was supposed to get more training and then represent Ethiopia in an international competition. But Adam would again have to pay a fee—this time nearly $10,000, 15 times more than what he’d been awarded in prize money. It seemed like a scam, but Seyoum told him it was a “guarantee” that the young Eritrean would remain loyal to Ethiopia and not join a foreign team.

Adam decided to leave the academy and suddenly found himself homeless. “I thought my only choice was to leave,” he recalled. “I slept on Bole Michael Church’s benches [and] asked taxi drivers how to go to Libya. Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali brokers—you find them all in that [area].” He ultimately wanted to go to Europe, but he was told that a journey to Italy would cost $3,500, to be paid when he reached Libya.

Adam had only a small portion of the money from his race, but like many others traveling that route, he hoped that once he made it to Libya, he could escape without paying. He crossed back to Sudan with a group of migrants that included the first refugees from the war that had just broken out between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the federal government in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.

At the Sudanese border, the migrants were given big plows so they could pretend to be farming. Later, those headed to Libya boarded pickup trucks for a 10-day desert ride. They survived on water that tasted of gasoline because it was kept in a fuel jerrican. Once in Libya, they were taken to a trafficking hangar where more than 100 migrants were being held. It was time to pay. Adam was told he’d have to come up with $6,000 or he’d be killed. If he paid, the smugglers promised to deliver him to Italy.

Every day until Adam and his fellow prisoners paid up, they were beaten on the soles of their feet, a common form of punishment known as falanga, or tortured with electricity. “Still today, sometimes I wake up at night and see myself in that place again, when they woke us up at night to bring us phones,” Adam said. While they were being tortured, the traffickers would call the prisoners’ relatives or friends on WhatsApp, with the idea that the live video call would persuade them to transfer the money.

It took Adam a year to pay the ransom, thanks to an old school friend who succeeded in collecting the money bit by bit in their Addis Ababa neighborhood. But Adam wasn’t released. He was sold instead to another smuggler—a “pushman”—who launched boats from the coast. Adam was asked for money to board a boat—$2,000, to be transferred to an account in Turkey or a broker in Sudan. As an example for the others, the smuggler cut two of the Eritreans with a knife; all of them were threatened with death if they didn’t pay. “All paid, except me,” Adam told me. “For three days, I didn’t sleep…. It looked like it was 50-50 whether I would die or not.”

Then Adam managed to escape. He ran until he reached a checkpoint, where the soldiers forced him to smoke a hash joint at gunpoint. After that they let him go, and he succeeded in reaching a slum, where he was sheltered by an Ethiopian. “He cut my hair, which I hadn’t cut for a year,” Adam said.

But the area wasn’t safe. Armed men were arresting migrants and taking them to detention centers. “I was too scared to work,” Adam said.

He managed to get an appointment with a staff member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a Tunisian woman who looked angry while questioning him. When she asked why he’d left his country and Adam told her what he’d been through, her only reply was “This is not a reason,” he recalled. He nevertheless succeeded in getting registered by the UNHCR as a “person of concern.”

What’s next for Adam? When it comes to securing one of the UNHCR’s rare settlement slots (between 2018 and 2022, only some 2,000 people, on average, were evacuated or resettled by the agency each year), Adam has a few things working in his favor: Eritreans have a relatively high success rate for asylum claims in the Global North, and he is still young. Adults or even older minors (16 or 17 years old), or nationals from less predatory dictatorships (such as Cameroon, whose current strongman, Paul Biya, took power 40 years ago, 11 years before Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki), have less of a chance to be resettled. But the catchall humanitarian concept of “vulnerability” is slippery: The criteria for it are pretty subjective, especially in a context where every migrant can be arrested or kidnapped, and where the small number of resettlement slots are limited to those most at risk.

Like the nearly 43,000 other registered refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, 33 percent of whom are minors, Adam is waiting for a phone call. The best-case scenario is that he will be flown to one of the few European countries willing to accept “unaccompanied minors.” More realistically, if he’s lucky, he’ll spend a few months or even a year in a transit center in Niger or Rwanda waiting to be accepted by a resettlement country. If he’s unlucky, Adam may join the tens of thousands of registered refugees for whom there are no slots. He may be hosted by a settled migrant family, who will turn out to be either friendly or abusive, in a program paid for by the UN. Or the UNHCR may give him a onetime cash allowance so that he can try to survive by himself in one of Libya’s many shanty migrant shelters, some of which were destroyed in October 2021 after a mass roundup in which at least 5,000 migrants were arrested over concerns of illegal migration and alleged drug trafficking. He may also, like others before him, try to take to the sea—and, like nearly one-third of those who attempted the crossing in 2022, he may be intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard and then jailed in a detention center. “I don’t know if I’ll try to cross the sea,” Adam said, “but I know it’s better to die at sea than be caught” and sent to a detention center.

In the past decade, at least 20,000 migrants have died or disappeared while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. In 2012, it happened to another runner, Samia Yusuf Omar, who at the age of 17 carried Somalia’s flag and ran the 200-meter sprint at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Then, dreaming of taking part in the London Olympics but unable to get a visa, Omar took to the road. The lack of visas and the shortage of resettlement slots are key reasons that asylum seekers head to Libya, even knowing that safe and legal pathways to Europe are extremely limited.

Among Eritrean migrants, more and more “unaccompanied minors” are leaving for Europe. Not all of them are potential Olympic athletes, although in Libyan detention centers, in rescue boats on the Mediterranean, and on makeshift or proper sports fields along the routes, it’s not uncommon to meet skilled football or basketball players who have competed in Liberian, Cameroonian, or Somalian clubs. Some feel compelled to hide their talents and dreams, as if refugees need to abandon their past. But the motivations of these migrants and refugees are as diverse as their journeys. Some flee war and poverty; others simply have dreams they can’t pursue at home. And often, as Adam taught me, flight and dream are intertwined.

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