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Tsegai Tewelde will represent Team Great Britain at the Olympics in Rio | © Facebook/Tsegai Tewelde
Tsegai Tewelde will represent Team Great Britain at the Olympics in Rio | © Facebook/Tsegai Tewelde

Tsegai Tewelde Goes From Asylum Seeker To Olympian

Picture of Luke Bradshaw
Sports Editor
Updated: 30 August 2016
Born in Eritrea, marathon runner Tsegai Tewelde will compete for Great Britain at the Rio Olympics.

This, however, is not a story of a sporting governing body poaching foreign talent to bolster their own credentials. It’s about survival.

Tewelde has a noticeable scar on his forehead from being hit by shrapnel from a land mine when he was 8 years old. That same explosion killed his friend and Tewelde still has shrapnel in his chest to this day.

After competing in the 2008 World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Tewelde was one of six Eritrean athletes who sought political asylum in Scotland. They were worried their failure to finish higher than they did meant they would face torture upon their return to the war-torn African country.

‘We went out and asked someone where the nearest city that was cheapest to get to was as we didn’t have much money,’ Tewelde said. ‘That’s how we got to Glasgow.’

The fact that Tewelde, 26, has a far safer life now that he is settled in Scotland doesn’t mean the fear of his home country has disappeared. There is still family in Eritrea, and when Tewelde’s brother died, going back still wasn’t an option meaning he had to miss the funeral.

Getting to Glasgow was the first step on a far longer road for Tewelde. Once there, the athletes went to a police station and asked for political asylum. Their lives were deemed to be in danger enough to be granted asylum and their lives in Scotland began.

It didn’t take long for the Scottish Refugee Council to put Tewelde and his compatriots in touch with a local athletics club.

‘The six that turned up were world class, they’d run in the World Championships at cross country,’ Shettleston Harriers coach John Mackay said. ‘But life has been hard. It’s certainly not easy to come to a country in their circumstances. Culture, language, settling in, working, all these things you have to learn — and it’s fantastic he’s managed to do that.’

That same group of asylum seekers who took the bold step to jump on that train to Glasgow can still be seen to this day training together. It is not uncommon to see them running along the banks of the Clyde, fueled by a ‘diet of macaroni, meat, fruit and black tea with six spoonfuls of sugar.’

It’s a diet slightly removed from the stereotypes of Scottish cuisine. There is no talk of haggis, battered Mars bars or ‘smokies.’ There is however a love for Scotland’s favourite beverage — Irn Bru — which Tewelde claims ‘he’s really taken to.’ Perhaps not the biggest surprise given the preference for six-sugared tea.

It took six years for Tewelde to be granted a British passport, receiving it in fall 2015. During his time in Scotland he has worked as a kitchen porter and dish washer, and most recently in a care home. Tewelde now makes up one third of the British marathon runners in Rio, along with brothers Callum and Derek Hawkins.

All three have taken the long flight to Brazil, but Tewelde’s journey has been the greater.