Date: Monday, 30 October 2017
Yes, Russom Keflezighi knows the date. Of course he knows the date. There’s nothing that erases the kind of ache and prolonged pain rooted in leaving the ones you love behind.
There’s nothing that muddies the details when you’re pried apart as gunfire, death and hour-by-hour uncertainty swirl.
“July 1, 1981,” he said. “I’ll never forget. Never in my life.”
The father of decorated distance runner Meb Keflezighi recently revisited that troubling day in his son’s Mission Hills home. His heart begged him to stay, but Ethiopian soldiers threatened to kill anyone supporting Eritrean freedom fighters during a bloody civil war — putting families in jeopardy, as well.
His wife, Awetash, demanded that he go. Consumed by guilt, Russom asked for the permission of his father-in-law. As he left unannounced, his oldest son Fitsum approached in a farm field.
“I told him I was traveling,” Russom said. “I didn’t tell him I was traveling to the Sudan.”
Fitsum replied, “Don’t be late.” The tortured father turned his head to conceal the emotions rushing across his face. It would be five years before their eyes met again.
“It makes me cry when I remember that, because I wouldn’t leave my family but my wife pushed me to save my life,” said Russom, tears flowing anew. “It was terrible, a terrible time — leaving a pregnant lady with five kids.”
Russom walked 225 miles as the crow flies, through terrain that included dangerous, chest-high river flows, wild animals and the constant threat of enemy soldiers.
The seven-day trip covered far more miles, though, considering the weaving, undulating route the Eritrean countryside dictated. Was it 50 miles more? Was it 100? The fleeing father likely covered the equivalent of a marathon and a half every day, for a week.
Once in Sudan, Russom followed the trail of other refugees to Italy. He settled in Milan, to be near a daughter named Ruth. He cleaned offices, sending money back to Awetash and his family.
The tangled immigration process required the family to enter Greece. When the group exited the plane, Meb led the pack, just as he routinely would as a champion runner. Russom asked if the boy in front of him was his younger brother, Merhawi. The years apart and strain of weight loss in a strife-ridden country fogged the memories.
When he finally caught a glimpse of them all, Russom burst into tears at how thin they looked.
“Just count the number of kids here, the number who are alive,” Awetash said. “Don’t worry about their size. They’re alive.”
The large group and commotion attracted the unwanted attention of immigration officials, who were mindful of verifying that everyone who entered could sustain themselves financially.
As a menacing supervisor approached, a phone rang. He grabbed it. The conversation tied him up long enough for papers to be stamped and the family to slip through.
“If that phone hadn’t rang,” said Meb’s wife, Yordanos. “Who knows?”
As a younger man, Russom saw a magazine with a picture of a Florida beach while he lived in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. The image captivated him. The water, and the stunning sense of peace it provided, never left him.
“I said, ‘God, don’t kill me before I see this beach,’ ” he said.
When a daughter married in San Diego, Russom attended the wedding and she became his sponsor in the city. He had found an ocean and a beach, though it was on the other side of a country that shaped an incredible, unflappable family.
On July 2, 1998, almost 17 years to the day Russom walked into his life’s biggest unknown, Meb became a U.S. citizen.
Who could forget?