- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

There are plenty of reasons to run a marathon.

Take Retta Feyissa and Tesfaye Taa Amenu. Just a few years ago, Feyissa and Amenu were world-class runners representing Ethiopia in international competitions.

After both were imprisoned and beaten for speaking their minds in a nation filled with political unrest and oppression, Feyissa and Amenu did what they do best: They ran.

In April 2000, the manager of their national sports federation sent them to a marathon in Cleveland, a race the two Army lieutenants started but never finished because they were not in contention. But instead of going back to Ethopia after the marathon, they stayed in Cleveland.

Tomorrow at the 27th Marine Corps Marathon, they plan to show their gratitude to the agency that was instrumental in their adjustment to life in America and, more specifically, Washington.

"We came here because we wanted asylum," said Feyissa, 27, a housekeeper at the District's Morrison Clark Inn. "Catholic Charities of D.C. helped us."

It was actually Amenu's idea to run at Marine Corps, but he said he bruised his right foot in training and asked his friend of five years, Feyissa, to run in his place.

"In my country, we had a problem with the government," said Feyissa, who was born in the large region called Oromo and made his first trip to the United States in 1998 to run the New York City Marathon. "There was a lot of fighting there."

Once in Cleveland, Feyissa (aka Ratta Hunde) and the 26-year-old Amenu, along with teammate Ratta Nagassa, lived and raced together, going 1-2-3 in the Plain Dealer 5K on May29,2000.

They sought asylum in the District and issued a press release July1 of that year: "We the undersigned are national marathon runners from Ethiopia, which we represent in international competitions with distinction. However, we are sad to issue this urgent appeal to draw the attention of the international community to the tragic situation facing Oromos in Ethiopia.

"Because of the ever-increasing repression against the Oromo people, it is becoming almost impossible for self-respecting Oromos to live a peaceful life in Ethiopia. The persecution of the Oromo by the TPLF minority government is affecting every sector of life. Even in a sector like sports, universally assumed to be free from any type of prejudice, the Oromos are routinely discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. Tigrean officials, who have neither the capacity nor the experience, staff the Ethiopian Athletic Federation from top to bottom. Oromo athletes who defy the authorities are intimidated and harassed as OLF members, expelled from competition, or sent to the war front. Oromo athletes who refuse to sell their heart and soul to the TPLF regime are leading a life in hell under the daily threat of imprisonment or expulsion from the Federation."

It was more than a threat for the three Ethiopians.

"I challenged the reason a Tigrean was selected to represent the country while I had a superior record but was labeled as 'a narrow nationalist infected with OLF virus,'" Amenu wrote. "I was imprisoned and readmitted to the Federation only after I was given a reprimand and agreed not to challenge such decisions in the future.

Wrote Feyissa: "I was also imprisoned for three months accused of cultivating Oromo nationalism in the federation. I was beaten and mistreated in detention even at the time when I was representing the country in international competitions."

Asylum was granted last year. Amenu returned to Cleveland in April 2001 to finish seventh in the Cleveland Marathon in 2:27 and placed second in the Sunburst Marathon in South Bend, Ind., two months later.

After being granted asylum, Feyissa and Amenu sought out the Catholic Charities' Refugee Service Center in the District, a program that helped them learn English and assimilate the American culture.

Last November, Feyissa and Amenu finished third and fifth, respectively, in the Montgomery County Marathon in the Parks. In March, Feyissa finished second in the inaugural Washington DC Marathon.

Since then, he has been an unofficial ambassador for aspiring Ethiopians who race here. He has been a translator for journalists and race officials as well.

Feyissa said he has a work permit, has applied for his green card and will apply for U.S. citizenship. Feyissa and Amenu live with another Ethiopian runner in a District apartment and hope one day to bring their families here.

Tammy Chaney had a different motivation but one no less inspiring. The Knoxville, Tenn., police officer was temporarily paralyzed in a riot training exercise at the police training academy two years ago.

"I was in the trauma unit for a couple of days, and the doctors told my family I'd never walk again," said Chaney, 35. "My mother refused to tell me that. I basically had to learn to walk again. When my neck was smashed, it caused a lot of swelling in my head."

She was hospitalized for a little more than a month, then endured two months of painful therapy. Her savior was the fact that she had been running for years and was a softball and basketball player in high school and for years after.

"Basically, the doctors said that had I not been in such great physical condition my neck would have broken," said Chaney, who was required to do 500 pushups at a time to graduate from the academy.

She finished her first marathon last October at Chicago in just over five hours. She was joined there by several friends from the police department.

"I've always been a runner," said Chaney, explaining why she attempted a marathon. "I thought in what I'd been through, I wondered how far I could push myself."

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