• Runners take part in a marathon in Israel's coastal city of Tel Aviv February 26, 2016 | Photo by Flash90

The Long Run Home

Tal Hartuv - 1 June 2022

Most immigrants to Israel, no matter where they have come from, will readily acknowledge that while aliya – for most – can be a dream come true, it sometimes is very challenging. As far as aliya hardships go in Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community is certainly near the top of the ladder. Yet despite all the various trials, there are the likes of Ethiopian Knesset members, decorated soldiers, scientists, doctors, artists and athletes.

Girmaw Amare | Photo: Wikipedia

One such athlete who has succeeded against all odds is 35-year-old Olympic runner Girmaw Amare. Girmaw grew up in a village which had no electricity or running water. A modest and quiet man, as a boy he used to run around the village and the hour-and-a-half journey to school. The whole school had only one radio. When the sports races were on, the children would gather around the radio to cheer on their favourite athletes. It was his life dream to run in the Olympics, but not under the flag of Ethiopia, but under the flag of Israel. At the age of 19, the Jewish Agency helped him fulfil his dream by bringing him and his family home.

Arriving with his family in Israel was a major challenge. First Girmaw had to put aside his aspirations of running and grapple with learning Hebrew. He knew no Hebrew from Ethiopia so he had to learn the alphabet from scratch. But Girmaw was undaunted. Studying Hebrew for him was like training for a marathon. He set himself the task of learning 50 words a day. Late into the night he studied, drawing strength from his father and mother who had both given all that they had so the family could come to Israel. His parents were foundational in his life, and spurred him not to give up.

“Even though he did not own shorts or running shoes he was accepted to run without the gear at the Jerusalem Marathon”

One day, Girmaw saw someone training for a run. He approached the man who told him he was getting fit for the Jerusalem Marathon. With no delay, Girmaw enlisted a friend to help him register for the race, and even though he did not own shorts or running shoes he not only was accepted to run without the gear, but he breezed through the 10 kilometres leaving most competitors behind. A year later, he was being trained by an Israeli national coach and six years ago he smashed the Israeli national record for a marathon. His drive and success was unstoppable. His determination paid off when he represented Israel at the 2020 Olympics.

Many Ethiopian runners leave their country because they have been bought out by other countries who want them to run under their flag. His absorption into Israel has not been all smooth. But Girmaw tells whoever will listen that he did not leave Ethiopia for money or fame. His adrenalin is in the fulfilment of his dream that he left Ethiopia because he is a Jew, and wanted to run for his people in his true home.

“People know where he came from and his life is an example of what true grit and determination can do”

While he may not have picked up a medal, the runner has acquired an admirable following in Israel and abroad. He is an inspiration for many, and not just athletes. People know where he came from and his life is an example of what true grit and determination can do.


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