Ethiopian athlete represents Israel worldwide - but half his family can't enter the country

Promising runner represents nation but his family can't enter country.

Ymar Getahon 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy of Temesgen Arega)
Ymar Getahon 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy of Temesgen Arega)
The discovery of one of Israel's most promising young athletes, Ethiopian immigrant Ymar Getahon, is a tale of dedication, struggle and triumph. At 17, he is the country's speediest long-distance runner in the under-18 category, draping the Israeli flag around his shoulders as he accumulates gold medals at athletic competitions around the world. But Getahon's family cannot celebrate his victories with him. Two of his brothers and his sister are being denied entry to Israel by the government. Getahon was born in Ethiopia in 1991 and arrived in Israel at the age of 10. When he was 16, he beat the Israeli record for the men's 800-meter run. At the Maccabiah Games last week, Getahon outran all his competitors in the 1,500-meter and beat the previous record of 1979. This week he is representing Israel as he competes in the 3,000-meter event at the European Youth Games in Finland. Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz, whose organization has been watching Getahon since he arrived in Israel, said, "Ymar is destined to compete in the 2012 Olympics, and many people expect he will win a gold medal." However Getahon's story is not entirely a happy one. When he came to Israel in 2001, he, his parents and twin brother were allowed in, but his three older siblings were not. Getahon and half his family were integrated into an educational and cultural program at the Jewish Agency's Mevasseret Zion absorption center. In the evenings, while his parents learned to speak Hebrew and studied Jewish culture, Getahon and his twin brother, Shago, took part in cultural and athletic programs run by the center. Amir Aviran, the center's cultural and enrichment program director at the time, explained, "We had to find projects that interested all the students and allowed them to utilize their natural abilities." The Jewish Agency and other organizations - particularly Beit Ham, a group that specializes in providing opportunities for disadvantaged youth - received several large donations to establish a new program providing a wide range of activities during the evening hours. "We developed athletic programs in self-defense, track and field, table tennis and gymnastics, as well as a preexisting soccer program," Aviran said. It was at this extracurricular club that Getahon's talent was discovered by Abebe Gessae, who later became his coach. Gessae has a remarkable story of his own. "I came to Israel in 1999 for the 42-km. Tiberias Marathon. I represented Ethiopia and won first place in that race," he recalled. After the competition, Gessae told his teammates to return to Ethiopia without him, because even though he had won many gold medals for Ethiopia, he was refused reentry due to political differences stemming from his time as an officer in the Ethiopian army. "I was granted political asylum in Israel, where I set up my new home," he went on. "I came to realize that without Israel, I would not be alive." In order to give back to the Jewish state, Gessae started to work as an athletic coach for Beit Ham. While working at the Mevasseret center, he met Getahon and spotted his talent. For the past eight years, Gessae has nurtured and developed the young athlete's running skills. They train together three times a week, though Gessae says that once Getahon starts training for the Olympics, they will need to train twice daily. Although Gessae has not converted to Judaism, he feels he owes his life to the Jewish state. To date, he has coached between 300 and 400 of the country's greatest athletes. Gessae credits Beit Ham with fostering Getahon's athletic capabilities. According to Aviran, Getahon did not follow the path of most of the youth who immigrate from Ethiopia. The majority tend to go to boarding school after their first two years at the absorption center, he said. However, Getahon did not go to boarding school because his talent had already been noticed by Gessae. Once Getahon and his family left the absorption center, they moved to Jerusalem. Jankelowitz explained that this was also not the usual path for Ethiopian olim. However, Getahon's family wanted to ensure that he could continue to attend training at Beit Ham. Beit Ham "caters to children who are less fortunate and have not had a good education," said Aviran. "The center provides an opportunity to study in central Jerusalem as well as develop their cultural and athletic abilities." This year, Getahon moved to the Ben-Shemen Youth Village to live and study. Youth village director Dr. Ilana Tischler explained that Getahon had moved there because "we were the only place that could offer him the opportunity both to practice and study." This means Getahon can run twice a day, as well as take extra classes whenever he misses the scheduled ones as a result of competitions. Each week, Getahon leads a group of 10 other Ethiopian students running in Ben-Shemen. Tischler explained that Getahon was proud to represent Israel around the world, but that he remained upset that his brothers and sister could not share his achievements. "It is illogical that Ymar can do so much for Israel, yet the state won't reward him by allowing the rest of his family to come and live with him," said Tischler.