WASHINGTON — In a pristine hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., if you squinted long enough toward some plush seats by a red spiral staircase, you might catch Feyisa Lilesa— the man who had defied his Ethiopian government, won a silver medal in Olympic marathon and became an international symbol of protest —- playing on his phone like a teenager.
He was seated between a scrawny translator in flip-flops and crooked glasses, Mohammed Ademo, and a member of the Oromo community acting as a liason.
Everything Lilesa did was purposeful. From the moment he crossed his legs to show off designer jeans and crisp Jordan Air Force 1’s, to the occasional raise of an eyebrow or show of apprehension answering questions. Or the times he bounced from his seat with conviction to cross his arms overhead, as he did in front of millions at the Olympics. And even when he sat back down to regain his composure.
Lilesa spoke to SB Nation for an hour in his first interview since coming to the United States. He’d arrived from Rio de Janeiro, where he’d been since the Olympics because he could not return to his native Ethiopia after protesting the country’s state sanctioned violence and human rights abuses.
The interview below, which has been edited for clarity, ranged from various topics including: the current state of American athlete activism by black athletes, how he got to the United States, if he’ll ever see Ethiopia again, and why he doesn’t fuck with American hamburgers.
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Take me through the entire process of what happened from the protest on August 20 to now. How did we get to you being in D.C.?
Feyisa Lilesa: The process has been that I’ve been trying to get a visa to come to the United States while waiting in Brazil. Basically, I applied for a visa and waited for it to be confirmed. I got a ticket and here we are in D.C.
Are you going to stay in D.C. for a long period of time?
FL: I’ll be in D.C. for about a week but then I want to move on for better training. That would be ideal. I want to get back to racing competitively.
But who would you race for? Ethiopia?
FL: Even if I wanted to run for Ethiopia, I wouldn’t expect the government or federation to choose me to do that.
So, provide me with a little bit more background for the day after the protest. Where were you? Where did you stay?
FL: I left the Olympic field after the final closing ceremony. Then I got a hotel in Rio. Representatives from the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry came in and saw me and asked me if I had any safety concerns. They promised and assured to check on me and make sure I was safe and comfortable where I was. Then I took a little bit of a break and started contacting people who could help me apply and start a process to get a visa.
Who’d you contact?
FL: People from the foreign ministry that came to my hotel and checked on me were sent to the hotel by friends from elsewhere. It was through that contact that I made the visa application at the embassy.
Who are the "friends from elsewhere?"
FL: I really don’t know the specifics of who was behind that and who was involved. But it’s my understanding that friends from the U.S. reached out to friends in Brazil, who then reached out to the foreign ministry. All I know is that the foreign ministry came to the hotel and called me and introduced themselves and asked me if I had any safety concerns, and that’s how they put me in touch with the embassy.
[Bonnie Holcomb, an anthropologist and author of The Invention of Ethiopia and Chair of the Oromo Studies Association Board of Directors, was a major bridge to getting Lilesa to America.
She told SB Nation she became aware of Lilesa’s situation on a Sunday when she was sitting in church and received a text about his protest.: "I literally cried. I reached out to friends in Brazil to make sure he was welcome, had translation and an introduction for security. Those friends explained the situation to others.
"Brazilian friends reached out to embassy people to get him asylum. He was very grateful to them. They had encountered the Oromo issue in the United States and there was an opportunity to help and they responded quickly."]
How have you kind of unplugged from everything that’s been said about you, your protest and all of the ramifications of crossing your wrists in front of the world at the Olympics?
FL: Ethiopian friends and Oromo friends from around the world were calling me on Viber and using Facebook for messages. That was my main mode of communication with people during those early days.
So, when was the moment when you knew you would do your protest?
FL: I always wanted to speak out, but I wanted to make sure I won. And I was on a bigger stage so my protest would be seen by people, and I hoped to win in Rio and looked forward to protesting, but I wasn’t sure it would happen but I’m glad it did.
But what was the breaking point for you? When was the moment when you were like "alright, this is what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna do it at the Olympics."
FL: I was one of the three people that was selected to run marathon for Ethiopia [in the Olympics] and that was three months before Rio. The day I got the confirmation to run, I knew then I was going to do this if I win. Winning to me, was getting silver. If I was in the 10’s or 20’s, no one would have paid attention to me at that point. But if I was second or third, I figured the top three was my best bet for them to successfully see the [protest].
When was the last time you talked to your family?
FL: This morning
Y’all talk often?
FL: I call often, yes.
After your protest, what were your immediate thoughts on your family?
FL: I took this time because it was my conviction and it was the right thing to do. I knew that they could get in a whole lot of trouble. They could get killed. But I also knew that they’ve been killing kids as young as 7 months old, and they’ve been killing mothers. I knew that my family was no different from the other families who’ve been killed and separated in Ethiopia. I felt responsible for putting them in that position, but I also felt it was the right thing to do.
Living in Ethiopia during these protests, seeing thousands of people get jailed, hundreds of people get killed just for exerting their basic human rights, how do you describe living in that fear?
FL: It was very stressful. You see this everyday: the killings, the mayhem, people getting arrested. It was definitely very difficult. But if you say something, you will get in trouble. You have to keep quiet. There were times when I was frustrated, and cried and felt helpless, but the reality in Ethiopia is that you don’t have much of an option. You either keep quiet or you get added to the list of people being jailed or killed.
Have you come to grips yet with the fact that you might never see Ethiopia again?
FL: I know that as long as the current government is in power, I’d be in a great deal of trouble if I were to ever go back. I hope that the day will come when the system will change and all of the people in Ethiopia will have equal rights and I look forward to a day like that where I too can go home and be part of the Ethiopian story.
I know you’re still acclimating to the United States, you haven’t been here for more than a few days, but have you thought about bringing your family over here?
FL: I have not had time to process all of that. But I have a visa for a few months. I hope that I’ll have time to start thinking about all of that, and what I want to do for the future.
Have you thought about becoming an American citizen, or are you seeking asylum here?
FL: I have no plans to seek asylum in the U.S. or elsewhere. I have not thought about citizenship. I love my country, the only problem I have is with the government. People are galvanized, and I have a sense that the government will go soon. People are demanding their rights and not backing down and I hope that change is on the horizon and change will come to Ethiopia soon, so I don’t have even go that far to seek a U.S. citizenship.
When was the first moment when you saw that your protest had blown up?
FL: I knew that this would be big because millions of people are watching the Olympics. But it is true as you said, a lot of people didn’t know what the protest was. But I was asked at the post-race press conference what the sign meant. I tried my best to explain at the press conference that there are grave human rights violations happening in my country. The people of Ethiopia are saying they’ve had enough of the killings and are tired of being exiled, imprisoned, beaten and we are done. We have had enough. We want peace now. I tried to explain that. It was good to see people at the press conference felt just how serious this was and encouraged me to have the courage to do this. I knew that if those people were in the room and heard the story and felt that way, I knew it would be big.
Big? Man, people are making songs about you. People are talking about naming kids after you. Did you think it would evolve like this where you’re seen as a symbol of change for this corrupt government?
FL: I knew that people appreciated the gesture and [would] be moved by it, but I didn’t expect all of this, this fast, that they would make songs and name kids after me. If you are sick and you have a wound and touch your wound or apply some kind of medicine, you know that you feel better. For me, this was like me touching a lot of people’s wounds and gave them a sense of relief that finally their voices were heard and their concerns were seen.
The world was talking about the injustices happening in Ethiopia for weeks and then it dissipated. Now, you can walk down the street in D.C. and nobody might know who you are or what you did. Is that not weird to you?
FL: I knew that could happen in D.C., but I also know because of that simple protest, the challenges and human rights violations the people of Ethiopia face would [otherwise] not have been known. Take it a step further. Because of that protest, the international community now know about the Oromo people, which they did not know until that protest.
Do you feel freer being here? The things binding you in Ethiopia, do they seem distant being here?
FL: I feel free. In Ethiopia, the problem is that you don’t know who’s who. You don’t know who to trust. You don’t have any freedom. Here, there are freedoms. No one will contravene on your rights or interfere, and your rights are protected. I feel free and relaxed.
What have you done since you came to America? You have a burger yet?
FL: [laughs] They let me eat one yesterday. I’ve been thinking about training a lot while sitting in Rio and it was not comfortable. So, I started jogging and running, not serious training, but at least I’m warming up and doing that a couple times a day so I’m prepared. But I’m worried about gaining weight. I’m trying to be careful as much as I can eating this American food. Burgers are heavy. So, I’m trying to minimize that as much as I can. Friends in the DMV area have been bringing me home-cooked food that I’m familiar with from Ethiopia, thankfully. I’m not trying to put on a lot of weight.
Right now, there are a slew of black athletes in America who are doing small protests. They are taking similar stands to what you did at the Olympics, so for you, what do you possibly think, if anything at all, about their protests?
FL: After I won, I saw people sharing pictures of me with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I started hearing more about why they did that and what drove them to do that, and I understood their grievances and protest was similar to mine. I’ve heard a little bit about the anthem protests once I got here to the U.S. and I don’t know enough of what exactly is happening. But from what I understand, the national anthem is representative of the people that live in this country, and it’s a very symbolic thing, and them protesting that obviously shows that they have legitimate concerns that they wanted to take an opportunity to raise. I sympathize with their cause. But I don’t know enough to comment on the specifics. I also appreciate the fact that they can do that in this country and not get in trouble.
Anyway, what’s next for you?
FL: The future is running. Sports are my life. It is my life but it’s also how I earn a living. I intend on continuing my dreams and my passion and take part in competitive racing in the future.
What about for protesting? Are we going to see a protest again, or have you said what you had to say?
FL: I’ll continue to protest, because the problems remain, as long as those problems exist. I want to be a voice for my people and I will continue to protest.
What else is there to know: about these protests, about Ethiopia, about you?
FL: What I want people to know about Ethiopia is that it is a country of nations and nationalities. Oromos are the majority. But Oromos have been so good to Ethiopia but have been marginalized for years. I want people to appreciate how serious the current situation is in Ethiopia. The situation has gone from very bad to worse and it will only get worse if the government doesn’t meet the people’s demands. My biggest fear is that this will take (another) dimension where people start killing each other. I just hope that it doesn’t get to that. That is my fear.
People have lost patience with the current government … they are not backing down, and the government has not had any answer except raining bullets down on protesters.