Six Eritrean refugees separated while in exile find hope in cycling as they rebuild their friendship in Addis Ababa. Despite financial difficulties and an unclear status, they dream of competing as a team in an international race.
Childhood friends who got split up when they fled their native Eritrea more than a year ago found each other again through their love of competitive cycling in Addis Ababa. Their story was picked up by UNHCR, the United Nation agency for refugees, and published on their website.
So far, the Eritreans have only been able to compete in numerous road races within Ethiopia, getting placed first and third in two competitions. But pedaling their aged bicycles, the six friends continue to dream of the day when they can race in international competitions.
We can't represent any nation
"As refugees, it is difficult to cycle internationally because we can neither represent Eritrea nor Ethiopia," says Filimon. The 24-year-old first arrived in Ethiopia unaccompanied in 2015 and lived in the Main Aini refugee camp in the northern Tigray region. He later moved to Mekelle, where he got the chance to cycle once again before arriving in the capital, Addis Ababa.
"Our team does not receive sufficient support that we need to perform our best, but we are cheered by everybody," they say.
Within their three day a week training routine, Filimon, Daniel and the rest of the team are cheered on by Ethiopians as well."Cycling is a key part of my life. It's the exercise - I feel happy and relaxed and don't think about anything else when riding a bike," says Filimon. He describes how he learned to ride a bicycle as a teenager back home. "I used to compete with my friends every Sunday in the neighborhood. My parents also supported me a lot."
Filimon never imagined that cycling would reunite him with childhood friends. "It happened by chance. We fled for different reasons and at different times, but then found ourselves reunited here in Addis Ababa, thanks to our coach," says Filimon with joy. While they are from different backgrounds, these motivated young refugees support and inspire each other.
Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia
"I used to be a professional cyclist." says Daniel, 24, another member of the team who uses his expertise to train his friends. "This team has become my family. We share everything, including money to tackle our financial problems," he adds.
Since 2000, Ethiopia has received and hosted almost 170,000 Eritrean refugees. Many of these are unaccompanied minors who were separated from their families, according to the UNHCR. The Ethiopian government allows refugees to live outside of camps, in urban settings if they can sustain themselves. Some 20,000 refugees have chosen to live in Addis Ababa.
However, access to jobs remains a challenge for most urban refugees. Filimon, Daniel and the rest of the team rely on their families and Ethiopian friends for support."The entire community is supporting us, especially the person who sells us equipment for half the price," says Filimon. "He does that because he used to be a refugee himself and understands us," he adds.
In September 2016, Ethiopia made nine significant pledges as part of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants to improve the living conditions of refugees in the country. These include, providing work permits to refugees to have access to jobs. This will be especially helpful for refugees like Filimon and Daniel who struggle to make ends meet.