How an Eritrea refugee ran to daylight – and to Denver
By SEAN KEELER | The Denver Post | Published: November 2, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — To understand the runner, you have to understand the journey. The kid went to prison at age 12, after his family's first escape attempt from the east African country of Eritrea went south.
"They had us in one container," Yonatan Kefle, Yoni to his friends and coaches, recalls. "But I could see. I could hear the voices."
He could hear the screams.
"They burn plastic and they lay you down ... they put the plastic on your body," Kefle says. "And when you're screaming, they call your people. And you have to pay."
Some light. No heat. A little boy, a metal storage unit, and a fortnight that felt like forever. His mother and older sister eventually paid for the family's release.
"It was not raining, so I think it was summer," Yoni says.
"No one cared about time."
Kefle runs to daylight now, smiling with every step. A freshman on the Metropolitan State University men's cross country team, Yoni is a long-distance specialist who can speak on the subject of distance better than most.
A native of Eritrea, Kefle and his Roadrunners are slated to compete Nov. 9 at the NCAA Division II South Central regional championships in Canyon, Texas, fresh off the team's highest finish at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championships – fifth out of 16 teams – since 2014.
"He just has no quit," first-year MSU Denver coach Nicholas Lara says of Kefle, who's posted the Roadrunners' best time twice in the season's first five events. "His eyes light up. No matter how uncomfortable he looks, sometimes, at a race, he just keeps swinging those arms.
"A lot of people, when they're tired, they succumb to it. You'll see: He will not stop. He keeps fighting. And after you hear those stories (from Eritrea), you can understand why."
'No one wants to live there'
To understand the runner, you have to understand the path. Experts have described Eritrea, a nation tucked along the Red Sea with a square mileage of 45,000, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, as the North Korea of Africa.
Since gaining its independence from neighboring Ethiopia in 1993, no free elections have been held. The People's Front for Democracy and Justice is the country's only legal party and president Isaias Afwerki's power has been unchecked for 26 years.
Media, when available, is state-monitored, state-controlled. Soldiers are ever-present. Gatherings, even family ones, can draw authorities, official rebukes, and even arrests.
The Freedom House, a watchdog organization for human rights and democracy, this year graded out the Horn of Africa nation with a Freedom Rating – based on civil liberties and political rights – of 7.0 out of a 1-7 scale, the highest and most punitive score available. (The United States nabbed a 1.5 rating, the United Kingdom a 1.0.) Eritrea's 7.0 score was matched, notably, by North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan.
As recently as 2015, as many as 5,000 Eritreans per month were leaving the country. According to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center's database, almost 1,000 refugees – 914 – since 2002 have relocated to Colorado, with roughly 700 of those settling within Denver's city limits.
The state's first black Congressman, Democrat Joe Neguse, is the son of two Eritrean natives who fled their homeland more than 35 years ago. In November 2018, Neguse became the first Eritrean-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and earlier this year was part of the first U.S. congressional delegation to the country in 14 years.
"No one wants to live there," Kefle says of his native land, which he successfully fled, on his third attempt, in 2013, crossing with one of his sisters over a treacherous mountain terrain into Ethiopia, where he spent two years before emigrating to Denver in October 2015.
"Mostly, out there, it's like old people now. The young people, they're all over the world. Is there a place where there are no Eritreans? We're everywhere."
One of the key sticking points, and breaking points, for young adults in Eritrea is Afwerki's mandatory military service, or conscription, for those 18 to 50 years old. Work weeks in the military service can extend as long as 72 hours and can entail anything from custodial work to fighting. The pay is poor, an estimated $50 per month, according to the latest data, and the service time is indefinite. And despite a truce in 2018 with Ethiopia after more than two decades of bloody conflict and promises of term limits on conscription, little has changed.
"They're making most of the (students) fail and make them soldiers," Kefle says. "So no one wants to go to school."
In their last year of high school, students attend a boarding school that's essentially a military camp and are told they have two paths, depending on their test scores: College or military service. Kefle says more and more of his peers find they're being steered toward the latter, unable to push back against a system stacked against them.
"The world knows that we're all over the world, but I don't know why the world's not trying to solve it," Kefle says. "I don't know why the world's not doing anything about (the government). I feel like the world should do something."
Frustrations with conscription drove Yoni's father, Yohanis, to finally do something, escaping to Ethiopia in 2009 and charting the family's path to Denver, where Kefle's uncle and grandmother had already settled.
"He was ready to farm and they said, 'You're not farming, we're going to take (the land),'" Yoni recalls. "And he said, 'I'm here to farm, will you give me a break?'
"And then they give you only 400 (nafkas, or about $27) for rent, and that can't feed anyone. Especially if you're not farming, there's no way you can survive with that ... he was like, 'I've got to find a way (out).'"
'I'm lucky to be here'
To understand the runner, you have to understand the pace. At Denver South High School, where Yoni was a 16-year-old freshman, he fairly quickly took to running stairs and working out with a fellow Eritrean, Yohanes Alem.
"He would always talk about running, and it was always about running, running," Kefle says. "(He) said, 'I placed.' And I said, 'What's placing?'"
A few months after his Denver arrival – "Why did all the trees die?" he'd cracked, observing the palette of an American autumn for the first time on the ride into town from DIA – Yoni went out for the track team, which put him in the purview of South's distance coach at the time, John Walsh, a partnership that would lead to Kefle winning the Denver Public Schools championship in the 3,200 in 2017.
"I had never heard of (Eritrea) before I met those guys," says Walsh, now at Grandview High. "He's got a crazy story."
One he's told at school, at churches and, recently, at a fundraiser in Littleton for other Eritrean refugees, the next on the path.
"Yoni is the last person I would've guessed to have had to go through something like that," senior MSU Denver teammate Sam Berg says. "He's very positive, very upbeat, very outgoing. He's one of the toughest people I've ever met, absolutely. It really kind of shows his commitment to making something happen. And now that he's made it here, he can do anything."
Kefle's 26-minute, 13.2-second time at the Roadrunner Invitational on Oct. 5, good for 14th out of 112 participants, helped power MSU Denver to its first team title at a meet in two seasons. The next weekend, at the Lewis (Ill.) University Crossover on Oct. 12, despite a wet course, the Eritrean again posted the Roadunners' best individual time (26:22.0), finishing 54th out of 423 competitors.
"I was excited to go to Chicago because it was at sea level," Yoni says. "Then all of sudden, it was so muddy."
He's run through worse. Kefle's third attempt at escape, in 2013, began in the night, under cover of darkness, straight up a mountain, with the Ethiopian border waiting on the other side.
The descent, as steep as it was dark, was the tricky part. Finding a foothold that wouldn't send you tumbling into the abyss.
"(There was) like no way that we could go down. So we went back and we would try another way," Yoni says. "And the whole time, we couldn't find a way. Until the moon comes. And the moon comes out, the Ethiopian border keepers saw us really struggling. And they shouted at us, showing us, directing us the way (down)."
To understand the runner, you have to understand the joy. The blessings.
"Edlena," Kefle says in his native Tigrinya. "Edlena. Lucky. I'm lucky to be here."
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