On the fast track to success

A chance encounter creates new opportunities for a runner - and perhaps his country.

Eshetu Werku (third from left). (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eshetu Werku (third from left).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Seventeen-year-old cross-country star Eshetu Werku is remarkably humble. When we arrived at Tel Aviv’s Hadar Yosef Sports Center, it took a minute to find the quiet teenager decked out in Nike gear and a kippa, sitting at a corner table by the coffee bar. He sat close to his coach, Yuval Carmi, and was accompanied by Rotem Genossar, the director of the Alley Runners, Werku’s team.
Werku’s specialty is cross-country, and he has become a standout runner in Israeli and European youth distance running. He recently broke the Israeli youth record in the three-kilometer race, finishing in 8:25.
He also represented Team Europe at a major international cross-country meet in Edinburgh, one in which only the top six youth runners on the continent are invited to participate.
An immigrant from the village of Delgi in Ethiopia, Werku made aliya in 2012 with his father and stepmother. After arriving in Israel, he lived in Ashkelon for a few months before moving to a boarding school in Beersheba. At first, his sole focus was his studies. He ran recreationally, having joined a running club while living in an absorption center, but it was never a priority. His father was even hesitant to let him participate at this level because the practices ended so late.
A chance encounter on a Tel Aviv city bus, however, was the real beginning of his running story. While traveling across the city one day, he happened to strike up a conversation with a coach from the Alley Runners team, who put him in contact with Carmi, who coaches the distance runners on the team.
Once Werku secured his spot on the team, which is affiliated with the Yehoraz Foundation, it didn’t take long for him to prove his worth. The team was started about five years ago by Shirith Kasher to provide opportunities for young athletes from southern Tel Aviv who had come to Israel from Eritrea and Sudan. Since then, Alley Runners has expanded to training 60 to 70 runners from across the country, while continuing its focus on refugees and Jewish teenagers from East Africa.
“A particularly exciting victory was the European flat cross-country championship,” Werku recalls. He placed fourth individually, which according to Carmi is very unusual for a local athlete.
Despite this success, however, Werku’s path to the podium has not come without challenges. When he first began competing, he struggled to balance his academic and athletic commitments, “sometimes verging on despair,” he says. As a student at Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in Beersheba, he studies for hours a day and then practices with long runs in the desert. He also travels to Tel Aviv two or three times a week to train at Hadar Yosef with the rest of the team.
Fortunately, his school has been understanding of his busy schedule, he says. He works with a social worker and his teachers to help manage his school obligations, and sometimes receives private lessons when he has to miss regular classes for races and practices. He refrains from training on Shabbat, but sometimes makes time to squeeze in an evening run after havdala. On the rare occasions when competitions take place on Saturdays, he has generally been successful in securing permission from his rabbis to participate.
For him, though, his friends on the team are “the best part of traveling around the world to race, and they make practices all the more enjoyable. The team is more than just a group of people who run together. They support each other – both in their athletic endeavors and in everyday life.”
While his teammates and friends have become like a second family to him, he still cares deeply about his family members who came to Israel with him and those who still remain in Ethiopia. In recent years, his family has dealt with the challenge of bringing his 14-year-old sister, Kenu, to Israel. When the rest of the family made aliya, Kenu stayed in Ethiopia to take care of their grandmother.
Sadly, the grandmother has since died, so Kenu now lives on her own.
At one point the young girl strongly desired to come to Israel, and the family struggled to get government approval for her immigration.
Since then, however, complicating the matter, Kenu has changed her mind a number of times about whether she wants to leave behind her school and life in Ethiopia to move to Israel. Her family in Israel, hope that she will one day be able to join them.
As with any young athlete, Eshetu has lofty goals for himself – one day he hopes to represent Israel in the Olympics. In the meantime, his coach confidently calls him the “next big thing” in Israeli running.