Eritreans Pursue Two-wheeled Dreams In Exile

Mehari Haile, a member of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team, based in Addis Ababa

After representing Eritrea in cycling tournaments across Africa, Daniel Teklay took a journey of a different sort last year when he escaped across his country's militarised border to a new life as a refugee.

A year later Teklay is back on his bike, only now he competes in Eritrea's neighbour and bitter rival Ethiopia, where he is the top performer on a team of Eritrean refugees who have posted impressive results at events, but are struggling to find the money and permission to compete.

"I decided to leave Eritrea and I don't want to go back because I have a dream to pursue," Teklay told AFP as the team paused during a morning ride on the outskirts of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.

With a cycling tradition inherited from its decades as an Italian colony, Eritrea on Africa's horn has produced talents such as Tour de France riders Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane.

Members of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team ride on the outskirts of Addis Ababa

But hundreds of thousands of other Eritreans -- including many aspiring athletes -- have chosen to abandon the country for lives as refugees because of what they say are the country's repressive policies.

The 10 men of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team are among a lucky few that are able to pursue their passion even from exile.

"With my skills, I can do the best I can here in Ethiopia," Teklay said.

- Arch-nemesis -

Ethiopia is one of Africa's main hosts of refugees, the majority of whom are running from wars and droughts in countries such as Somalia and South Sudan.

Eritrea is more than just another one of Ethiopia's troubled neighbours: it's a former territory that voted to leave in 1993, then became Addis Ababa's arch-nemesis after the two countries went to war between 1998 and 2000.

Since then, the feuding countries have taken starkly different paths.

Muse Geirmay, a member of the Eritrean Refugee Cycling Team, based in Addis Ababa

Ethiopia's economy has grown in recent years along with its regional clout, while Eritrea has periodically skirmished with its neighbours and been sanctioned by the UN Security Council for supporting Islamic extremists.

Many of the more than 160,000 Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, including some of the refugee cyclists, are young people who escaped the country's national service scheme.

While the government says the programme is a way for Eritrean youth to serve their country, the national service has been likened to slavery by the UN because people end up trapped for years in jobs with terrible pay and no way to leave.

After watching other racers abandon their bicycles when they entered national service, Filimon Gebrezabihr left for Ethiopia, convinced that fleeing was the only way he could pursue a cycling career.

"From that, I learned it was impossible to achieve their dream," Gebrezabihr, who races for the refugee team, said of the cyclists he once competed against in Eritrean events. "So, I left."

- Back on the bike -

The cyclists, some of whom knew each other from the cycling scene in Eritrea, regrouped in 2015 in Addis Ababa after a coach based in the capital heard they were living in camps in Ethiopia's north.

Eritrea's Natnael Berhane competes in the 2016 Tour de France

Using bikes provided by relatives in Europe or by their team manager, they're now one of the top-ranked teams in the capital's cycling scene, with Teklay, a former member of Eritrea's national team, winning several races outright.

Their success has caused other Addis Ababa-based cycling teams to step up their game, said Makonnen Gebretinsae, a long-time Ethiopian race organiser and referee.

"The Eritrean team started to perform very well, which motivated the other Addis Ababa teams," he said.

The Eritreans have pulled this off despite numerous roadblocks that have come between them and competing.

No matter how good they are, as Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, they can't race for either country's national squads, and when an invitation to compete in Israel came recently, they had to skip it because they lacked travel documents, team manager Ben Jemaneh said.

- Uncertain future -

The racers scrape by on support from family members in the diaspora and the assistance of Ben, a businessman in the capital who has spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money importing bikes and spare parts that aren't available in Ethiopia.

"When I see them, they're refugees, there's no one to help them," said Ben, who drives the athletes to races in an old Nissan outfitted with homemade bike racks.

"Since that day, I'm always at their backs."

On the horizon for the team is August's Tour Meles Zenawi for Green Development, the only race in Ethiopia sanctioned by the International Cycling Union.

But Ben says they're not sure they have the money to travel to the northern city of Mekele to compete, and even if they did, they still don't know if Ethiopia's cycling federation will allow them to enter.

Though their future is uncertain, the team says cycling is a welcome distraction from a life of displacement.

"As a refugee, sometimes there is nothing to do but think," rider Michael Nuguse said.

"My aim is to achieve at the high level."

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