Hiko Tonosa after receiving Irish citizenship (© Hiko Tonosa)
For Hiko Tonosa this was a finish line of sorts, an arrival and acceptance after a three-year journey that made the most arduous of races seem easy.
In Killarney, Ireland in early March, the Ethiopian-born 24-year-old received his Irish citizenship, which allowed him to look forward to realising a dream he’s harboured ever since arriving in Dublin in 2017.
“Now I can run for Ireland,” he says. “I’m so happy, so glad. It’s a big opportunity.”
Ahead of International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, few stories embody the power of running quite like Tonosa’s. For him athletics is not just a way to live a life or indeed make a living, but so much more.
It was a passage out of a precarious situation, a path to a new beginning.
Tonosa grew up in Shashamane, 150 miles from Addis Ababa, and like most in that region he is Oromo, the largest ethnicity in Ethiopia and one that has long faced marginalisation. In school he was a soccer fanatic but after a teacher spotted his talent for running he was pushed to enter a 1500m race, which he won, and after that his dream was to become a professional athlete.
Walk a mile in his shoes - from an Ethiopian prison to the podium of our national championships.— Cathal Dennehy (@Cathal_Dennehy) February 29, 2020
Hiko Tonosa will get his Irish passport next week, and few will be prouder to pull on the green singlethttps://t.co/5WK5Hdubqa
These days he is no longer living in direct provision and that’s a huge relief. “It was difficult,” says Tonosa. “Thanks to God I’m not in there still.”
By the age of 20 he was making that a reality, earning a scholarship to Japan where, through 2016, he competed in multiple Ekiden races, but injuries soon hampered his true potential. He returned to Ethiopia at the end of 2016 at a time when unrest was boiling over.
Protest, then arrest
Months earlier, the plight of the Oromo had been brought to the attention of the sporting world by Feyisa Lilesa, who, as he reached the finish to win silver in the Olympic marathon in Rio, crossed his arms above his head, a symbol of defiance used by anti-government protestors. After witnessing the injustice on his return from Japan, Tonosa joined his friends on the streets. “We protested about the young people that were killed, saying to the police, ‘don’t kill Oromo students.’”
Tonosa was swiftly arrested and spent almost three months in prison, where he says he faced regular beatings, his one request to those issuing them being to avoid hitting him on the legs so he could preserve his gift for running.
“It was because I (did) not support that government,” he says. “They just (left) us there.”
After being released in 2017 he began to chase his dream again and that July he arrived in Ireland to compete in two meetings: the Morton Games in Dublin and the Cork City Sports. But before the first of those he received a call from home that his friend, a fellow athlete, had been shot dead on the streets.
“They said: ‘Don’t come back,’” he recalls of that conversation with his family. “’If you come back maybe they will kill you or arrest you.’”
When arriving in Ireland, Tonosa had no intention to stay and at the time he could say only two phrases in English: What’s your name? How old are you?
But to protect his safety, he had little choice but to remain, difficult as it may be. He soon sought asylum and was placed in a direct provision centre in Dublin. While there an employee discovered he was a runner and put him in touch with Eddie McDonagh, a coach at Dundrum South Dublin athletics club, who guided his progress for the last few years, coaching Tonosa to the Irish 5,000m title last summer, the first asylum seeker to ever win an Irish senior title.
‘He's not just about himself’
After his form stagnated in the autumn Tonosa changed coaches in December, linking up with Feidhlim Kelly, who guides a host of promising Irish distance runners at the Dublin Track Club.
“He's definitely able to run under 13:20 for 5K and in a year or two he could run an Irish record in the marathon,” says Kelly. “There's not that many here that can live with him if he trains consistently but he can also bring a lot of people on and that's what he's into. He's not just about himself.”
► VIDEO: After almost two years in direct provision, Ethiopian runner Hiko Tonosa hopes to make it to the Olympics wearing an Irish singlet https://t.co/z1XjDkw9ro— Irish Times Video (@irishtimesvideo) July 21, 2019
Before the coronavirus brought the sporting world to a standstill, Tonosa was shaping up for a superb 2020. He beat the majority of Ireland’s best distance runners to win the Raheny 5-mile road race in a record time of 22:40 in January before winning silver in the Irish Indoor Championships over 3000m in March, clocking 8:03.55.
But in recent weeks, all has changed utterly.
He now lives alone in basic rented accommodation and given Ireland is essentially under lockdown, Tonosa leaves his home these days only to run or buy food. The former is done at times of the day where he has the least chance of being around others, so Tonosa is usually out the door before 6am each morning, the sun slowly rising midway through his run.
“Life now is at home, I can’t go anywhere,” he says. “For me it’s a big challenge, a big difference.”
He misses the company of his training partners, many of whom he became good friends with in recent months. While Tonosa typically likes to train twice a day, with so many flocking to Dublin’s parks in the afternoons his fear of contracting the coronavirus often keeps him at home. But he knows this too will pass.
With his Irish passport due to arrive in the coming weeks, he’s looking forward to the day when he can be reunited with his family, who he hasn’t seen since 2017. His parents still live in Ethiopia along with his siblings but such was the danger he faced due to his ethnicity, he felt unable to return home at any point in the past few years, even for his grandmother’s funeral.
Since arriving in Ireland Tonosa has taken multiple English courses and these days he’s relatively fluent. Down the line, he’d love to study sports science and work as a coach, but his chief priority now is to earn his first cap for Ireland whenever international competition resumes.
“He wants to get to Olympics, he wants to be a top athlete,” says Donal Hennigan, a coach at Dundrum South Dublin. “That was kind of his main motivation for staying here. At the time, he believed if he went back to Ethiopia, with the trouble going on over there, he wasn't going to be able to pursue that dream.”
While the problems have not gone away in Ethiopia, the situation has certainly improved in recent years, although Tonosa will be staying put in Dublin for the foreseeable future. To him it’s now home, a place where he has built a new life through sport and where he has the ideal platform to go after his dream.
“I want to be a professional runner but in running, but you never know what will happen,” he says. “I am trying my best.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics