Dressed in a white button-down shirt and wearing a black velvet kippa, Avi Solomon sniffs the coffee I’ve just handed him.
“Does this have milk?” he asks. “I’m allergic to milk.”
Like many blind people, Avi, 38, has heightened senses of smell and taste. But unlike many other blind people, he also runs marathons, and he is currently training hard for the Abu Dhabi Marathon in late November.
In the Emirates, by the way, people with disabilities are called People of Determination, a label that clearly applies to Avi.
Avi sees his participation in the Abu Dhabi Marathon as part of the Abraham Accords which brought peace treaties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. His travel is being supported by Etihad Airways and Uncommon Giving, and he hopes to help organize a reciprocal group of runners from the Gulf to come to run a marathon in Israel.
Avi’s story is one of resilience. He was one of 14 siblings in Ethiopia and first lost his vision when he was six. He immigrated to Israel in 1990 at age 8 after a long trek. Before the family left, he lost five of his siblings to various illnesses.
Once in Israel, he underwent several operations and regained partial sight when he was 14, although he lost his vision, permanently, at age 16.
Avi is married to Tehilla, whom he met in Ethiopia and who had been a child slave from the age of five. He brought her to Israel, and they have seven children. Avi works at several jobs, including in a supermarket, giving sport massages and talks on leadership and empowerment and volunteering.
He trains hard, getting up most mornings at 3 a.m. to pray before heading out for a training session with his long-time trainer Daniel Ishta, who Avi says is “my brother.” Some days he works on speed, others on distance. He is intense, focused and disciplined.
Daniel not only trains Avi, he also coordinates a group of volunteers to run with him.
“He is exceptional,” Daniel said about Avi. “He doesn’t see and yet he provides for seven children. Not every person can do this.”
Avi recently ran the London marathon where he was tethered to Lior Barhanu, his long-time running partner. The tether makes it harder for both of them to run, but Lior functions as Avi’s eyes during the marathon.
Avi’s run raised funds for the Israel Guide Dogs Association. Avi is a fast runner, usually finishing a marathon in about three hours. Because of his disability, he is usually given one of the first starting times so there are not as many people around him. But this time, for some reason, he and Lior were given a much later start, and were surrounded by thousands of people.
“Someone went into me, and I fell once, got up and continued,” Avi said. “I fell a second time, following another elbow, after 15 miles. The third time at the 30 mile mark I fell, I hit my head and lost consciousness. There were a few amazing people who helped me, I wish I could thank them,”
Avi, Lior, and Avi’s guide dog Nike were all taken to the hospital. He was treated and released and was running again two days later. The X-ray technician in the hospital said that Avi’s body was the most perfect body he had seen.
Lior says that running tethered to Avi is a challenge.
“I can’t lose focus for a second,” he said. “I have to be constantly moving and I can’t even look at my watch (to see Avi’s time and speed). Avi challenges me and it is an amazing experience. I learn from him every day.”
In Abu Dhabi, Avi will be running to raise money for Afikim, an NGO that aims to fight poverty in Israel through helping at risk children, youth and their families break the cycle of poverty. There will a team of 15 people traveling from Israel, including Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan Nahoum. Several runners are also joining from the Emirates, US and London to run with “Team Avi.” There will also be a Shabbat dinner in Abu Dhabi hosted by the local Chabad Rabbi Levi Duchman and others with both Emirati and Israeli guests.
Anyone who spends time with Avi leaves inspired.
“Every time I leave him I leave strengthened,” says Justine Zwerling, the local representative of the London Stock Exchange who is helping Avi get to Abu Dhabi. “It’s a privilege to do this despite all the problems we have. He gives me energy to continue.”
Avi says he can’t imagine his life without running.
“All of life is running,” he says. “It’s a way of measuring so that I can see my abilities. Running gives me a feeling of freedom and I feel like nothing can stop me.”