SAO PAULO (AP) — Tamiru Kefeyalew's life changed for the worse when he won Ethiopia's only medal of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
For the last two years he has lived as a refugee in Brazil, first in a camp, then a church, then a shelter for the homeless. He now sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a shared dormitory-like room, his meager possessions — including his Paralympic silver medal — stuffed into a small wardrobe.
Yet still he refuses to return home.
Tamiru protested against the oppressive Ethiopian government of then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn by crossing his arms above his head as he finished second in the 1,500 meters for visually impaired competitors in Rio. He was repeating the famous protest made by Feyisa Lilesa when he won silver in the marathon at the Olympics a few weeks earlier.
Feyisa returned home a hero after two years in exile. Tamiru has turned his back on his country, probably for good.
He's wary of returning home after such a public act of defiance but also confident Brazil can offer him a better life and career. His friend and Ethiopian teammate Magersa Tasisa, another visually impaired runner, stayed with him in Brazil.
Yet while Ethiopia found new freedoms this year under reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Tamiru and Magersa found hardship in Brazil.
The 25-year-old Tamiru said he feels stuck without citizenship in Brazil, the country he now wants to adopt. He cannot work to pay his bills because Brazilian legislation doesn't allow it and he has relied on a Sao Paulo attorney's offer to represent him for free in his quest for citizenship. The process could take four years. He can speak some Portuguese and English but communication with locals is usually problematic.
Tamiru struggles to focus on training because he has no idea when he will compete again. Despite the improving situation in Ethiopia, he still believes he must stay in Brazil to have a chance of success at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo and beyond.
"I lost my life," Tamiru told The Associated Press in an interview in Sao Paulo, the city he moved to last year after spending six frustrating months in Rio after the Paralympics. "I defended my people in Ethiopia, I accept the cost, but I lost my life. Now I want a new life. I want to be Brazilian and work in a country where Paralympic athletes are important, too."
Tamiru said he was shunned by Ethiopian team management the night he won the silver medal in Rio because of his protest, abandoned and left to sleep alone at the stadium. Kassahun Sitotaw, the Ethiopian team leader, denied that, saying the two athletes disappeared and chose to stay in Brazil for "economic reasons."
Whatever the reasons, it hasn't worked out how Tamiru envisioned.
Still, he has no intention of returning to Ethiopia, even turning down an offer from Ethiopian distance-running great and former athletics federation president Haile Gebrselassie to pay for his air ticket home.
"If I went back home I would qualify for the Paralympics in a second," Tamiru said. "Government persecution is not like (it was) in 2016 and I miss my family. But I want my life to be here now. I want to be Brazilian.
"Haile is a legend. He has a place in history and I want mine, too."
Tamiru spoke to the AP while wearing a Brazilian Paralympic team shirt. He's now training with Brazilian athletes and shares a room with some of them. It's small and cramped but better than the refugee camp.
Brazil Paralympic team fitness coach Fabio Breda is helping him and thinks Tamiru can be a major success for his new country.
"He is very important for Brazil now, not only for the results he can deliver but also because of who he is," Breda said. "He became important for our group."
Tamiru's friend Magersa, however, is more willing to take up Gebrselassie's offer.
He had to undergo three surgeries in each eye in the last year, is living in difficult conditions, and depends mostly on donations to get by. He hasn't trained in more than a year.
"It makes more sense for me to come back home," said Magersa, who lives with other foreign exiles in a shelter in Sao Paulo. "But Tamiru can have better support here. Ethiopia cares about Olympic runners much more than Paralympic ones."
Meseret reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
AP video journalist Eduardo Duwe contributed to this report.
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