Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wunetim Worku (Truly Gold)

By Haddis Tafari

When I recently discovered that Haile Gebrselassie would headline a half marathon race in New York City, I jumped at the chance and went to New York to watch the race. It was a rare opportunity to see Haile Gebrselassie in action and I did not want to miss it.

I was thrilled to see Haile, but I went home thinking about the other Ethiopian Athletes that were in the same race. I had often read race reports about Leteyesus Berhe, Kasahun Kabiso and Retta Feyissa. However, I was surprised to see that there are a growing number of over 20 Ethiopian athletes in the New York area.

Some are veteran athletes that are in their 30’s while others are youngsters that have made it to the US., through some form of Visa sponsorship and are attached to running clubs in the New York City area. As I made my way to the finish line to watch the end of the race I ran into a group of Ethiopians and Americans who talked about one of the local Ethiopian runners. They spoke passionately about Worku Beyi, a shy 20 year old guy who now runs for the Westchester running club.

As we waited for Haile to make his way down from the hotel for the award ceremony, we got to meet and talk to Worku. Worku had just finished 8th in the half marathon behind Haile in a personal best of 1:03.39. He talked about his race and the fact that he was not too happy with his shoes that day. He also joked about how Haile was impressed with his run. After the race Haile had quipped, “I am calling the federation to tell (report) to them the talent that is hiding here”.

Most of the Ethiopian runners that are in the New York area have gravitated to the Big Apple because of the New York Road Runners system that puts on multiple races a year. This allows the runners to earn a living while working small jobs. According to a recent New York Times article some of them work in nursing homes. Worku and Leteyesus work as pacers which involves taking some local runners on paced long runs in Central Park. Worku primarily survives on his race winnings which he uses to support himself and his family.

I was immediately scared to death when I heard how these runners are left to fend for themselves. Many of them live in the Bronx and room together in small apartments and their obligations likely exceed their means. What happens when they are injured? How can $500 and $1,000 dollar race checks cover rent, room and board? How do they communicate?

The most heartbreaking thing is that the thousands of Ethiopians that live in the NYC area are probably not aware off the plight of these athletes. There is no support system. From what I could tell the Ethiopian runners are supported by some coaches in the NYC area and some Americans who they have befriended. I felt a sense of shame that we (Ethiopians) are not helping each other because we are not aware of there plight. I felt so guilty that I made it a point to make sure I knew how to contact at least one of the runners … and how to provide whatever assistance I can afford.

As we headed to the Subway with Worku and his young Wife, we realized that we only had a $20 bill to purchase our subway ticket. Worku refused to let us use our credit card to purchase a subway card. He quickly scanned us through the turnstile and he paid for our trip.

I was fighting tears when I thought about this young man's generosity to random Ethiopians. If they can be generous to their countryman why shouldn’t we?

I vowed to myself that I will help Worku in anyway I can. I felt a need to return his generous favor 100 fold. I wanted to help make his dreams come true.

I urge the writers of this blog and others that may be reading this to help our local Ethiopian runners. Lets create a network to help them. It may be something as simple as providing them a place to stay as they race in your town. It may be paying their rent when they are injured. Whatever it is we should help these guys realize there dreams.

Here is a short list of Ethiopian runners in the east coast of the United States. I am sure there are more but this is what I am aware of:

* Worku Beyi
* Demesse Tefera
* Retta Feyissa
* Abiyot Endale
* Deressa Deniboba
* Genna Tufa
* Gurmessa Megerssa
* Alemtsehay Misganaw
* Leteyesus Berhe
* Atalelech Ketema
* Aziza Aliyu
* Tereza Yohannes
* Hareg Sidelil
* Maru Daba
* Bruk Debrwork
* Mohammed Awol
* Sentayehu Haile
* Tadele Worku
* Brehanu Adane
* Alena Reta
* Belyanesh Zemedkun (DC)
* Meskerem Legesse

Since I initially wrote this article Abiyot Endale and Worku called me before a race they ran in DC. I gave them a ride to and from their friends house and they finished 1st and 3rd respectively despite niggling injuries. Belaynesh and Atalelech Ketema finished 2nd and 3rd. We gave all the runners a ride back from the race. It was a pleasure to listen to them call the other runners who were running in VA, PA etc., to exchange news on how everyone did that day. It was a pleasure to do my part in helping my countrymen and women be as successful as they can be.

Roocha Note: We thank Haddis Tafari for joining our growing list of contributors. Readers interested to learn more about these local runners can do so by listening to a segment broadcast by Voice of America's Amharic service this past Sunday Sep. 30. The broadcast will be archived here until Sunday Oct. 7. Forward to 23:25 mark to listen.


Courtenay Redis said...

Wonderful to come across this blog and to read of your interest in supporting Ethiopian runners trying to eek out a living in the US (and in New York City, no less!).

Just a couple of notes to add:
1. the vast majority of the Ethiopian runners living and training in NYC are doing so with the support of Coach Mike Barnow, founder of the Westchester Track Club . He has coached Olympic athletes and teams (Somalia). Barnow provides rent money, registration fees, travel expenses, clothing subsidies and immigration paperwork expenses all out of his own pocket. He's not a wealthy man, far from it, but has been doing this out of his love of the sport and in his admiration of the men and women he trains. He also acts as sponsor on all of these runners' visa applications - a large and gracious financial and emotional commitment.

2. While you are correct that the New York Road Runners Club sponsors a large race calendar which does make it more likely for runners to earn cash prizes, the NYRRC only sporadically supports the Ethiopian runners, often not even comping them registration fees, while it pays multiple thousands of dollars in appearance fees, alone, to better-known runners. Again, If the NYRRC and other race organizers provided even small appearance fees to the Ethiopian runners, they could better support themselves and not run themselves into injury by over-racing while chasing small cash prizes.

3. The photo of Worku that you included in this blog entry is one I took...I'm sure that like me, other photographers would appreciate a photo credit in the caption of the image...these are copyrighted images and how we make our living. Thanks and keep up the good coverage of these amazing athletes.

Anonymous said...

I have run Miami Marathon with Worku Beyi and Tamrat Alalew - great people. As we were warming up and stretching together, I could see their humility and genuinity all together - as great athletes as they are. Despite downpour followed a 94% humidity that affected every runner on the course, our Ethiopian athletes came in 1st(2:17), 3rd, 4th and 5th in that race.


Haddis said...


I apologize that this article did not link to the picture on your site. It was not my intention that you would not be given the credit.

I should have used my own picture. However. I just did not have it loaded in my laptop when I sent my email.

I can ask for it to be removed and replaced or to ensure that you are credited for it. ASAP

Thanks for the additional information on the Westchester Track Club, NYRR and the issues around it. Coach Mike is amazing! i am in awe!

roocha said...

Hi Courtenay,

Thank you for reading this blog and thank you for taking the time to write informative comment. I apologize for not giving proper photo credit for your picture. I have now added a caption giving proper credit on Worku Beyi's photo. Best Regards.