Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed knows more than most about crossing difficult terrain.
At the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019, he reached the line 85th among 140 finishers on what was widely hailed as the most difficult course in the history of the championships.
"Oh god, that race was tough,” said Mohammed, who was making his Athlete Refugee Team debut. “It was really hard. I never saw a cross country like that in my life.”
Eight years earlier, fleeing the violence of Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region, Mohammed spent three days crossing the Sinai Desert from Egypt to Israel on foot, where he was eventually granted refugee protection. In between, that difficult terrain has led him from the edge of survival to life as a full-time athlete with Olympic aspirations.
The war in the western Sudanese province of Darfur broke out in February 2003, a genocidal campaign that would take the lives of hundreds of thousands and displace millions more. The humanitarian crisis lasts to this day.
That was the backdrop of Mohammed’s formative years, one that impacted him directly on an autumn night in 2003 when members of the Janjaweed militia, a brutal faction aligned with the Sudanese army, raided Barde, Mohammed’s village. The attack left 97 dead and much of the village burned to the ground. Among those slaughtered was Mohammed’s father. Mohammed was barely ten at the time, but as the oldest of four siblings, it didn’t take him long to feel a sense of responsibility for his family. With no end to the violence in sight, he decided in his early teens to leave as soon as the opportunity arose.
“I told my mom I'm going to find a place to study to help my siblings,” he recalls. “And she said, 'No way, you are not going anywhere. You are too young'. But I said I had no choice.” Authorities sided with his mother the first time he tried to flee the country, turning him back at the border. He eventually left in 2010 at 17.
Mohammed said he spent a week making his way north through Egypt and eventually to an area in the Sinai Desert near the Israeli border. Traveling in a group of four, he spent three days with a man the group hired to help them cross. That 72-hour guidance, a cramped tent to sleep in and some food cost each $US 200.
“I was lucky enough to cross then,” Mohammed says, noting that construction of the Egypt–Israel border fence began later that year. “Nobody gets through now.”
His guide’s duties were done when he left Mohammed about a kilometre from an Israeli army checkpoint. “I didn't know Hebrew, I didn't know anybody there. So when I arrived I stopped.”
A new life
At the border he was taken into custody, processed and sent to a holding camp. After about three weeks - “I was there 17 days or 27 days, I'm not sure,” he says - Mohammed was released and given a one-way ticket for a bus bound for Tel Aviv.
“I didn't even know how or where to get out,” he recalls, laughing as he recounts his first few hours in Israel’s second largest city. “I stayed on the bus for a couple hours, and then another bus came and I just followed some people out." He wound up in a park where Sudanese and other African migrants gravitated towards. “Those with no other place to stay, stay there.”
But he didn’t stay there long. He was hired by a local man to work as a house painter and began to earn a meager living. “I told him I didn’t know how to paint. And the funny thing is, he said, ‘I know you don’t, but I will teach you’. So he was very good to me.” Just a few months after arriving, he was already able to begin supporting his mother, two brothers and a sister who were living in a refugee camp back home.
Crossing paths with the Alley Runners
He played some football as he settled into his new surroundings, but with talents more suited for running, his best friend suggested that he take up the sport with The Alley Runners, a local club founded in 2012 to provide athletics opportunities to young people in Tel Aviv’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The club has also welcomed migrants and asylum seekers to its ranks and has quickly become one of the most successful clubs in Israel.
“Because we've gotten so good, people from other areas in Israel want to join,” Rotem Genosar, the club’s manager, said. “If they are good, we say yes. But in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Tel Aviv and the area, we take everyone, no matter their talent.”
The club currently has 90 athletes in its long distance programme, aged 14 to 35. The refugee group consists of up to 40 athletes, mostly from Eritrea and Darfur.
“They won't be in a world championship but this is the best programme for them,” said Genosar, who teaches high school civics in the morning but manages the club “around the clock”. “They work from six (in the morning) to five (in the afternoon) and then come to training. They feel good.”
For Mohammed, who joined the Alley Runners in 2014, it was a perfect fit.
“I started running with them, and now I'm running at the World Cross Country Championships, and maybe the World Championships. This team means a lot to me, they are like my family. They've done everything to help make my dream come true.”
That extended second family has grown to include Bella, Rama, Hili and Asaf, owners of the building in which he lives and works. “Hili” is kind of like a mother to him, Mohammed says. “She calls me twice a day to make sure that I’m ok. I am so grateful to them.”
At first, Mohammed said, running gave him a valuable and necessary break from the difficult grind of carving out a living on the margins of Tel Aviv.
“I was working full-time - I didn't go to school because I left Sudan to help my siblings - and I was sending some little money to help my brother go to study.” Joining the club was a rewarding personal outlet.
But as he settled into the longer distances, he gradually got better. By 2017, good enough to receive one of 46 Olympic Solidarity Scholarships awarded by the IOC since its Refugee Athlete Support programme began, providing a modest but crucial monthly stipend that helped Mohammmed make his move to the next level a little over a year ago, when he began a seven-day-a-week training regimen that's beginning to bear fruit.
Running for his Tel Aviv club, Mohammmed finished 40th in his European Cross Country Champion Clubs Cup debut in 2017, 30th in 2018 and 22nd in the 2019 edition on 3 February in Albufeira, Portugal. Nineteen days later he improved his road PB to 29:37 when he finished second in a 10km in Tel Aviv.
Then came his first international appearance in Aarhus. He was pleased, but makes it clear that he wasn’t there as a tourist.
“Sure, I was a little bit happy, but not one hundred percent happy, but it was good. I was hoping to run faster.”
A four-week altitude training stint in Addis Ababa followed before his next competition, the Israeli national 10,000m championship in Tel Aviv on 24 April. He made another solid improvement, finishing fifth in 28:47.36 to bust through the 29-minute barrier. It was a personal best that also solidified his chance of earning a spot on the Athlete Refugee Team for the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. Inclusion there is based on performance, and the competition is growing more fierce year to year.
"Jamal has progressed through his four years of training mostly in terms of discipline and dedication, which allowed him to remain healthy and consistent," says his coach Yuval Carmi.
"He has always been strong mentally and he has a very positive attitude towards life and sports. This mentality also allows him to overcome obstacles and enjoy the hard training."
Carmi believes that if he stays healthy, Mohammed can break into the European top-ten in both cross country and on the track. "He was very satisfied with his first sub-29 but I still think that with better pacing he could have ran even faster."
Meanwhile, Mohammed is currently finishing up another four-week training camp at altitude in Ethiopia with one eye on October’s World Championships and the other on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Mohammed said that he hopes to return home one day, but not yet.
"After there is peace, yeah, why not? When peace comes, I'll go see my family." In the meantime, he'll continue supporting them. "That’s the most important thing." And so is his running.
“I'm taking it seriously,” Mohammed says. "Running is giving me the chance to compete, to travel, to improve my life and help my family. If I wasn't part of the refugee team, I would never be able to chase my dreams. My coach said if I work hard I could go to the Olympics. So that's why I'm taking it seriously.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF