August 27, 2021

Meet the Israeli Olympic star you may have missed

By Barbara Sofer

You might have missed him – the tall, handsome young man carrying the flag in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, even though his was the second flag in the parade with 17 million viewers. The second flag, right after Olympic founders Greece, was of the Refugee Team. His name wasn’t a giveaway either. Tachlowini Gabriyesos.

But Tachlowini Gabriyesos lives just north of Netanya in the Youth Aliyah village Hadassah-Ne’urim. He still speaks Tigrit, but the language he dreams in is Hebrew.

In Israel everyone calls him Louis Malaka.

Whenever I wrote about Louis in the past, including in this column, I was afraid to use his real name because of repercussions for his family in Eritrea. Now he’s all over the Internet, even in Wikipedia.

Twenty-nine athletes from 11 countries took part in 12 sports as part of the Refugee Delegation, officially called EOR, after the French Équipe Olympique das réfugiés.

Anyone who has had a child or grandchild seriously involved in sports knows what an investment in time, energy and money is required. Success requires not only inborn talent but determination and courage. That young refugees make it to the Olympics is astonishing. Each has a story.

I only know Louis’s.

FOR HIM, the Olympics wasn’t a childhood dream. He had few dreams, mostly nightmares of being forcibly conscripted into indefinite servitude in the Eritrean Army. Soldiers who serve an indeterminate time – sometimes decades – also dig mines and pave roads.

On a recent phone call, Louis and I laugh that his earliest running was to escape. His mother knew that Louis – the second of seven children in a Christian family – wanted to make a run for freedom and gathered whatever money she could to help him. One night, when he was 12 and the rest of the family was attending a wedding, he left, knowing torture or death would be the price of capture.

He endured the journey, by foot and truck, using his meager funds to pay smugglers, terrified of being kidnapped or being returned to Eritrea. A fellow refugee taught him a trick: go to sleep with your shoes pointed in the direction you need to travel in the desert the following day.

He made his way through to Sudan, then Egypt and through Sinai. The word among the refugees was that Israeli soldiers don’t shoot. When smugglers dropped him in the Negev, Louis was surrounded by soldiers. He was scared.

“They said they were Israelis, but I asked them to prove it,” Louis recounts. “They showed me the blue-and-white flag.”

At the Holot detention center he lied to the examining doctors that he was 19 because he wanted to work and send money home. They estimated his age as 13-14, and explained that in Israel he was required to go to school.

Louis was transferred to a detention center in Hadera, not far from Hadassah-Ne’urim, which was willing to take in refugees. The village head and a teacher who spoke Tigrit arrived with a video of the seaside campus with its own high school. Louis was among the dozen refugee kids who agreed to go with them.

At the youth village, like the tens of thousands of mostly Jewish children before him – from the rise of Nazism to the 1930s until today – they would get lodgings, meals and the education they’d all given up on.

Gradually, they began dreaming about their own future.

The newcomers needed to learn Hebrew, to get school tutorials and to undergo therapy for the traumas of their young lives. Hadassah-Ne’urim also features an advanced athletic program. The trainer who first met Louis was Aleyayhu Faloro, an immigrant coach of international champions back in Ethiopia.

Faloro saw Louis’s potential as the teen pounded the professional Marlene Post Athletic Track at Hadassah-Ne’urim. Faloro urged Louis to train harder. Soon he was winning races. Faloro predicted that one day Louis would run in the Olympics representing Israel.

After high school, he wanted to serve in the IDF but was turned down because of lack of citizenship. He was invited to continue living at Hadassah-Ne’urim in an apartment for graduates who are outstanding athletes.

“He’s one of ours, and he has a home here,” says Hadassah-Ne’urim director Ami Magen. “He also has an adoptive family in the village whom he sees daily and celebrates all the holidays with.”

Louis trains with Hapoel Emek Hefer, supported by an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship.

“Training was tough this year, with the coronavirus disrupting our usual schedules,” says Louis.

And then, on March 2021, running at the Hula Lake Park, our Louis was the first refugee athlete to clock an Olympic qualifying standard for the Tokyo Games.

Still, he couldn’t represent Israel, because his request for citizenship hasn’t been approved. He has no passport, and has to travel on a laissez-passer, travel pass.

He met refugee athletes like him from all over the world.

“Everyone was totally supportive,” he said. “I didn’t hear a single anti-Israel comment.”

Accustomed to hot weather, Louis nonetheless found the sweltering heat in Japan a challenge during the three weeks prior to the Olympics.

The heat was so brutal that the marathon was moved to Sapparo, north of Tokyo, which is usually cooler. It wasn’t.

On August 8, Louis’s heart was pounding with excitement and joy as he toed the line with 105 other men.

“It was amazing to be there among the world’s top runners,” he said. “Crazy and unbelievable!”

The marathon course is 42.195 kilometers through Sapparo, twice crossing the Toyohira River. Many of the athletes dropped out despite years of training. Not Louis. He finished 16th, timing at two hours and 14 minutes. Consequently, Louis is now ranked among the top-20 runners in the world.

Hadassah-Ne’urim village staff and students welcomed him home with ebullient cheering, hugs and balloons. Queen’s “We are the Champions” blared on the loudspeakers.

“Israel is my home, and I see my future here,” he says.

“It wasn’t a childhood dream to take part in the Olympics, but in Israel I learned to dream big,” Louis says, unwittingly quoting Henrietta Szold, the mother of Youth Aliyah.

Now he’s dreaming of carrying the blue-and-white flag in the 2024 Olympics in Paris as an Israeli. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked – please make this happen.