Hiko Tonosa strides out from Ethiopia to Ireland
Exciting 5,000m prospect looking forward to representing Ireland with distinction
The plan is to run 10 quarters in around 64 seconds with an easy 200 metres recovery. It’s the textbook interval session for the 5,000m runner, only Hiko Tonosa gets a little excited and runs the first in 56 high.
Eddie McDonagh is standing trackside and straightaway calls him out: “Hiko, Hiko, too fast, too fast! We are not racing here.”
Then McDonagh turns to me and says: “Look at him run, the fluency, the perfect stride, the way he carries himself. He’s as good as I’ve ever seen, there’s no limit to how fast Hiko can run. Considering all he’s come through . . .”
Something about that stride is indeed familiar – maybe because he’s the exact same weight and height as Haile Gebrselassie, the man who set 27 world records – and Tonosa has unquestionably come a long way from the small Rastafarian town of Shashamane in the highlands of Ethiopia. About 4,000 miles, roughly.
It’s Wednesday evening at Irishtown Stadium, he’s also a lot closer to sea level – about a stone’s throw from Dublin Bay, actually – and in coming this far in his 23 years he’s already journeyed bravely through some lonely and terrifying intervals of life.
The murder and oppression of his native Oromo people; the peril of chasing a professional running career in Japan; the fear of being an asylum seeker in Dublin; the unknown of almost two years in direct provision.
He’s only just come out of all that, gaining refugee status in February, and living in private accommodation since the start of July thanks in one big part to McDonagh, the long-serving coach at Dundrum South Dublin (DSD) athletics club, who took Tonosa under his wing knowing full well from his own experience in Ethiopia just how grave the situation was.
From his own experience in athletics, coaching some 500 national champions across all age groups, McDonagh also knows full well what an addition Tonosa would be to Irish distance running, possibly as early as next year’s Tokyo Olympics if the next part of his journey is completed on time. Or better still ahead of it.
As is sometimes the case with such periods of despair, Tonosa looks back on how he got here with some gentle light-heartedness.
“I knew nothing about seeking asylum in Ireland. Where do I go? What do I say?” and with that throwing both hands up in the air as if in the moment of surrender.
Everything Tonosa says now is equally filled with an air of grace and thankfulness. Despite the stress and interminable waiting in direct provision – firstly in the Balseskin reception centre in Finglas, then in the now closed Hatch Hall off Leeson Street – he has nothing only kind words in his softly spoken English for those who helped him through it, trying their best to accommodate his training, eating and sleeping needs in the face of such restriction.
He hasn’t quite left it all behind. Not seeing his mother, Nuguse, in over two years is desperately painful, his five brothers and one sister still trying to make a life for themselves in Ethiopia, the population now touching on 110 million people – the second highest in African – and still relatively unstable despite the sweeping changes since prime minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April of last year.
In was July of 2017, Ethiopia still under the rule and serious unrest of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, when Tonosa first came to Ireland with nothing more to plan than two track races: the Morton Games in Santry on July 12th, and the Cork City Sports six days later.
He was 21 years old, and had already posted some impressively fast times during a difficult 10-month training and racing period in Fukuoka, Japan, including a best of 13:31.09 for 5,000m. He was invited out there on the back on his promising junior days in Ethiopia.
“It’s a kind of lottery, to get invited to Japan, where you can earn $2,500 a month. But it is very hard, ‘you must race here, race there, win all the time’, and for me the big difficultly was being injured, and still expected to race. In the end they asked me did I want to stay, and I said no.”
Tonosa was no less determined to make it in distance running; his father died a few years back, and it’s that still rare opportunity to help provide for his family in a country of widespread poverty. Via an agent based in Canada, he secured an invite to Santry and Cork, provided he paid his own airfare, with the promise of some $800. He was never reimbursed for the airfare, and only saw about half that amount.
Turns out that was the least of worries. On arrival in Dublin, he called home to discover his close friend and running partner had been shot dead on the streets Shashamane, in the heart of the Oromia region under such oppression at the hands of the Hailemariam Desalegn regime.
“They pulled him into a car, took him to an ATM to take out his money, then took him to another street and shot him.”
Tonosa is also part of the Protestant minority in Oromia, only in truth anyone was at risk. A year earlier, when Feyisa Lilesa won the silver medal at the Rio Olympic marathon, he crossed his arms above his head at the finish, a political gesture in solidarity with the Oromo protests in Ethiopia.
“My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed,” said Lilesa, beginning a two-year period in exile, before prime minister Abiy Ahmed invited him home.
Suddenly Tonosa’s life was under similar threat. He raced in Santry but was clearly off form, finishing 9th in 13:52.72, unable to eat or sleep in the days before. He improved in Cork, clocking a best of 7:52.03 for 3,000m, finishing second, then on his return to Dublin he had a decision to make. If it wasn’t safe to return to Ethiopia, where could he go?
“For three or four days I was on the street, and then I met guy from Somalia, and he told me about another Ethiopian, Wishu Bedilu Gebreselassie, who I contacted and stayed with for one week. Still I wanted to go back to Ethiopia, but I was told no, ‘you’re name is in the newspaper, if they see you, they will arrest you’, and that was when I went to Balseskin.”
By chance, McDonagh had also helped provide support for Gebreselassie, and his integration into DSD, and was tipped off about Tonosa’s arrival into Balseskin. They struck an immediate friendship partly because McDonagh had spent periods of time in Yirgalem, close to Shashamane, 155 miles and a four hour drive south of Addis Ababa, while working with the former charity Stride Ethiopia. This was also distance running country, home to other Ethiopian greats such as Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba.
“I knew from being in Ethiopia how treacherous the situation was for Hiko, had seen people thrown into jail for no reason. So the first thing was to get him into safe keeping here, then to get him running again.
“Originally he was being sent into direct provision down the country, which would have made even more difficult for Hiko to train and to race, but after some effort we secured him a place in Hatch Hall, where at least he was also able to train with us at Dundrum South Dublin.
“But it was a hard time, and I know were some periods of despair, because when you live in direct provision you have little control over what goes on around you. It was very hard for Hiko to eat the right food he needed, or sleep when he needed, and there is nearly always noise around, maybe people drinking beers into the night while he’s trying to sleep.”
Indeed very little about direct provision is fit for any purpose, Hatch Hall, before it closed, one of 36 such centres in 17 counties around the country, which according to the latest figures now accommodate 6,109 people, an additional 936 living in emergency accommodation. They’re provided with a bed, food and since March an increased weekly allowed of €21.60 for all other expenses, though only six of the 36 have facilities for self-catering.
Again Tonosa isn’t for one second ungrateful about any of it: “It is with thanks to Eddie, to the club, to all the very lovely people who helped me, I was able to focus more on training. There were limits, I understand, but running now is something I want to do more, I enjoy more. Before, running was more like a job. Now for me running is about being the best I can be.”
His discipline and dedication speaks in other ways too. He doesn’t drink any alcohol and attends a Protestant church every weekend in Rathmines, his English well above conversation level thanks in one big part to the Spirasi language school in Dublin.
Since September of 2017 he’s also been winning races in the colours of DSD, and last summer was the overall male winner of the Kia Road Race series, which did entitle him to the use of a car for the year, had he been entitled to hold an Irish driving licence. In last July’s National Track and Field Championships he was out-dipped on the line by Irish-American Ryan Forsyth, by 0.1, Forsyth winning in 14:30.78, and McDonagh has no doubt that was a tactical miscalculation.
With the National 10km road title to his name in April, making it 26 wins in 27 races, Tonosa is out to add another on the track next weekend. He will be entitled to an Irish passport 12 months on from getting refugee status and, having never represented Ethiopia before, McDonagh is openly excited about what might come next for Tonosa.
“In my opinion, if he can run 13:31, on the back on that slog in Japan, I think he has unlimited potential. But he still needs more help, in terms of sponsorship, more support, being about to travel for races and training, and we are hopeful too that Government officials can look more favourably on his status.
“And you see him with the other young members of the club, he’s so popular, sharing his warm-up drills which are just amazing. There is really is no telling how good he can be.”
On hearing this Tonosa breaks into a great white toothy smile not too dissimilar to Haile Gebrselassie.
“I just hope that I can do my best for Ireland someday, with some more help, to give something back also, running for Ireland, because this is my country now.”