BELGRADE – Tachlowini Gabriyesos fled his native Eritrea and walked through the desert to reach Israel when he was just 12 years old. He is now running marathons, sending a message of hope and endurance to all refugees like himself.
Gabriyesos, who turns 25 in July, finished 16th in the marathon at the 2020 Olympics and was the flag-bearer for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Games' opening ceremony.
On Sunday, Gabriyesos ran a half-marathon race at the Belgrade Marathon as part of a U.N. refugee agency team at the event. Gabriyesos finished in the top 10 in just over an hour.
He said that refugees have to try hard, hold on and be strong.
“It is a long journey and a huge challenge,” Gabriyesos told The Associated Press after the race in Belgrade. “It is not easy to leave your family, to leave your mother ... but one must never give up.”
Running in Belgrade was also symbolic. The city is the capital of Serbia, a country in Europe's southeastern Balkan Peninsula that serves as a land route for refugees and migrants trying to reach Western Europe.
Many who are among the thousands of people traversing the route come from Eritrea, like Gabriyesos, facing perils and challenges along the way. Gabriyesos's own journey back in 2010 lasted for months and was marked by hardship.
Born in a remote village in Eritrea, Gabriyesos won't even talk about the horrors he had witnessed while he lived in his home country, which was plagued by war, violence and repression. But it was enough to send him away from his parents at such a young age.
Gabriyesos says he made the decision to leave one afternoon while his family was away from home. A friend — who was 13 years old — came by and the two of them just set off toward what they hoped would be a better future somewhere safe.
Gabriyesos had an aunt in Israel, so he decided to go there. He went first to Ethiopia, then Sudan, Egypt and finally Israel. He had to sleep rough, walk for miles and stay in refugee camps.
“We went through the jungle, but this was no longer that scary as it had been when we were very small,” recalled Gabriyesos, who spoke through an interpreter. “We had already seen much worse.”
When he finally reached Israel, Gabriyesos was first transferred to a refugee camp there, and later started attending school. There, he told his teachers he could run and they provided equipment and training.
“I had been fond of running even before I left (Eritrea),” he said. “I got a coach, who is my coach now as well. He is like a father to me and a man who is part of my life.”
From that moment on, running became Gabriyesos' life.
“When I started ... he (coach) told me to run. And I ran and ran and he didn't tell me to stop,” he said.
As a young talent, Gabriyesos earned an International Olympic Committee Refugee Athlete Scholarship and a chance to compete as a refugee as part of a team of athletes who are unable to represent their countries because of their status.
Gabriyesos was eligible to run at Tokyo 2020 after finishing the Agmon Hahula Marathon in Israel in 2 hours, 10 minutes, 55 seconds, to fulfill his dream of competing at an Olympics.
Gabriyesos finished 16th in Tokyo with a time of 2:14:02, surprising many with his success. His “next goal” is to compete at next year's Paris Olympics.
Though the future looks much brighter now than back in 2010, Gabriyesos says his immediate hope is to receive Israeli citizenship before making any concrete plans.
“I have many dreams, many plans about the future,” he said. “What I can tell you now is that I would love to have many children.”