August 25, 2016

Feyisa Lilesa: From Olympian to Symbol of Proud Resistance for Entire Community

In the midst of celebrating one of the chief successes of his athletics career, a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Feyisa Lilesa symbolised the tremendous sufferance of his people, the Oromo by crossing his arms over his head in a gesture of protest. In the following days, his gesture has reverberated around the globe making headlines in many countries as one of the images of the 2016 Olympic Games. While the fate of Lilesa remains unknown as the outcome of the act of protest moves on, the gesture of solidarity has given reasons of hope to many and definitely helped raise awareness of the struggle of his people.

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which for several years has been advocating for the Oromo and other ethnic groups oppressed by the Ethiopian regime, praises Mr Lelisa for his brave gesture and hopes that it will help convince the international community to take a bolder stand on the issue.

Following his gesture, the athlete might face problems if he goes back to Ethiopia, where the authorities have been violently repressing protests for months. The protests began several months ago as peaceful demonstrations regarding development plans, before the government's harsh and ongoing response led to the death of several people. Many in Oromia now live in fear, and gestures like the one Lilesa made are essential symbols of resistance and solidarity. 

During the protests, the government had blocked internet service and scrambled social media apps to stop people from collaborating or expressing dissent. She said Lilesa’s feat exemplifies how fearful a lot of the Ethiopian diaspora is to speak out on this subject.

Lilesa's silent statement while crossing the finish line in Rio instantly reverberated worldwide. Rule 50 of the Olympic charter bans political displays or protests and the IOC have confirmed that they are gathering information to better understand the case. Ethiopia's government has said he will be welcomed as a hero for winning a medal, but state media is not showing photos of him crossing the line. Ethiopian state-owned television station EBC Channel 3 covered the race live, including the finish, but did not repeat the clip in subsequent bulletins - focussing instead on the winner, Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge.

Information Minister Getachew Reda told the BBC the government had no reason to arrest him and it respected his political opinion. He also said none of Mr Feyisa's relatives had been jailed over the Oromo protests.

Lilesa’s agent Federico Rosa stated that the runner would not be returning home after staging his protest, despite Ethiopian government assurances he would not face any problems if he went back.

A crowd-funding campaign to help Feyisa Lilesa seek asylum, has raised more than $136,000 (as of time written), to the surprise of its California-based organizer, who had initially set a target of $10,000, exceeding it within an hour.

“Among his compatriots, including those in the diaspora, Lilesa's protest was welcomed with tears of joy,” said Mohammed Ademo, the founder and editor of OPride.com, a website that aggregates Oromo news. “A hero was born out of relative obscurity. […] I have no doubt that it will be remembered as a watershed moment in the history of Oromo people.”

Ethnic Oromo athletes have often been erased from Ethiopian lore, yet they were the first black Africans to win Olympic gold, Ademo said. Abebe Bikila did so in the 1960s while running barefoot and Derartu Tulu followed in the 1992 and 2000 Olympics. Yet, behind the scenes, these same athletes faced implicit and explicit biases. For example few Oromo athletes spoke Amharic, the language of power in Ethiopia, but Oromo translators rarely accompanied them.

“In the context of this long and tortuous history, Lilesa's protest was revolutionary. Beyond the politics within the Ethiopian Olympics federation, his gesture brought much-needed attention to escalating human rights abuses in Ethiopia,” Ademo said.

You may find below a list to some of the news sources that covered the story:

BBC: Ethiopian “runner” gets asylum donations

Guardian: Feyisa Lilesa fails to return to Ethiopia after Olympics Protest

SB Nation: Olympian stood up to Ethiopia and became a national hero

Mashable: Crowdfunding campaign for Olympics “hero” passes $100K

LA Times: Silver medallist shows solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia