Eritrean refugee could be an unlikely local hero in Sunderland
After seeking asylum in the UK after the London Olympics, teenage distance runner Weynay Ghebresilasie has settled in Sunderland and is aiming to win the under-20 men’s title when the Saucony National Cross is held in the city’s Herrington Park next month.
The 18-year-old competed in the 3000m steeplechase during the Games last summer but was one of four Eritrean Olympians who jumped ship and he has since been embraced by Sunderland Harriers in north-east England.
He won the junior race at the North of England Cross Country Championships in Knowsley last Saturday and now has his sights set on the National Cross in Sunderland.
These are not his first races in Britain, though, and he has already popped up in the results pages of Athletics Weekly several times. After finishing sixth in the 3000m steeplechase at the IAAF World Junior Championships last year, together with 30th at the last IAAF World Cross Country Championship under-20 race, it means he will start as favourite in Sunderland.
Despite his name bearing a likeness to the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, the young Eritrean was part of an army that has been at odds with Gebrselassie’s Ethiopia in recent years. In fact, one of Ghebresilasie’s brothers died in the Eritrean-Ethiopian border dispute several years ago and Ghebresilasie believes he could be executed for treason if he is forced to return to his native land.
The story has already featured on BBC’s The One Show and the Sunderland Echo is also naturally following the story closely as it evolves. The latest twist, for example, has seen Sunderland Harriers’ president, George Cockburn, sponsor the athlete by giving him food together with access to his gym.
Cockburn, a former butcher and 2:52 marathoner, said: “Weynay is an exceptionally talented runner and he has joined the Harriers.
“We are doing all we can to ensure he is not lacking anything when it comes to his training. The club have rallied round him and are going out of their way to help him. I’m just doing my bit.’’
Club secretary Michael Hill added: “Weynay has joined us for training for the last three weeks. He started out with the veterans, but he was a bit too quick for us. He is now training with athletes who are a bit faster. He is ever-present at the Harriers’ training base at Silksworth and has been warmly welcomed by the members.”
Ghebresilasie, who spent time in Croydon and Huddersfield before moving to Sunderland, said: “Everyone is so friendly and the Harriers have been so good to me. They are so kind and helpful. In Eritrea I was always being told to do this and do that, but here in Sunderland I have freedom and I have made some new friends at the Harriers.’’
Suffering from a chest infection, Ghebresilasie was 10th in his steeplechase heat at the 2012 Olympics in 8:37.57, but his best is 8:28.92 and he has run 3:40 for 1500m, 7:54 for 3000m and 13:53 for 5000 metres.