Of the Eritrean refugees in Europe, 30-year-old Yohannes Hadgu Girmay is a step ahead. He can run 10 km in 29.03 minutes. He was born to run but was forced by his country into the military and jailed for being an evangelist. On his release, he had the chance of a lifetime: to leave for a race in Europe. It was his passport to freedom.
I met him, with his coach Giorgio Rondelli, in a bar on the outskirts of Milan. He was wearing the Italian national football shirt and sports sunglasses. His tall, elegant figure is almost regal. When he takes off the glasses, you can see there’s no shadow of desperation in his eyes, just determination.
We begin to talk in a hybrid language, a mix of Italian and English, on an afternoon with pollen coming down like snow.
How long have you been in Italy?
For more than seven months, I arrived on 20 October 2014.
How did you get here?
By air, legally, with Eritrean documents to participate in a race in the Netherlands as an Eritrean athlete. But, after the event, I chose not to return home and I sought asylum. Not in the Netherlands, but in Italy. Now, however, I live in a limbo. I’m classed as an ‘article 15′: that is, I’m waiting for the hearing of my request for political asylum, which I filed in October. Then, if all goes well, I will be able to apply for a residence permit.
Why did you decide to apply for asylum in Italy?
In Milan I have Eritrean friends who I knew would give me a hand. And they have.
Did you leave family or friends behind in Eritrea?
My girlfriend and my parents. I miss them all. I wish my girlfriend could join me. I’m doing well here and there are some very interesting possibilities for my work. For the first six months I didn’t race. Then I met Giorgio Rondelli, my coach, and we now have a great relationship.
No one knew you were an athlete?
No, I didn’t tell anyone at first. Then, by talking to people I trusted, it came out and I started training with Giorgio. I regained my passion and desire to run and now it’s even stronger than before.
Do you have problems living here?
I still haven’t got official documents. They are waiting for the official status of political refugee. I’ve got room and board at a reception centre in Milan. Thanks to them I’ve got a visa in my pocket, so I can move freely around the city. The waiting-times are long and the process is complicated, but luckily I’m not alone. I have a strong reason to stay here: to run and win. I have found good people who are supporting me and I’m learning Italian.
So you need official documents to participate in an official competition?
Yes. I have to be a member of an official federation and for that I need a residence permit.
How do you feel? Are you happy or afraid of the future?
I’m not afraid. I’m determined. In my mind there is only running. I always say: Yohannes: just run! This is my future.
How do you train with Giorgio?
I train every day with a group of runners. In particular, with Marco, an Italian boy and Goran Nava, an Italian-Serb who made the Olympics. There’s a nice atmosphere and we share the same passion.
We say goodbye with a vigorous handshake. He starts his training and I stay for a few minutes to watch. Yohannes starts with three others and after 100 metres, he’s left them behind over a distance that, from where I’m standing, seems endless.