Oromo refugee and elite runner has plans for new life in Brisbane
By Jennifer King
Have you ever been on a crowded train with your face wedged into someone’s shoulder, or complained to friends about the lack of legroom on your flight to wherever you are travelling?
Spare a thought for Lamaa Kuruu and his fellow refugees, jammed into a vehicle, one person lying on top of another, for days on end with no food and little water.
This is what Lamaa endured to seek a new life for himself.
Now he has arrived in Brisbane on a humanitarian refugee visa and is grappling with learning English and trying to build a future for himself and his wife, Ayantu Daba.
Finding his feet
Lamaa is an elite runner. Prior to fleeing Ethiopia four years ago, he lived in a house with 60 other runners and two coaches, training twice a day on the track and in the forest.
Last weekend he entered his first Australian road running event, the Twilight Bay Run. He was confident of winning the 5km event but was nervous about deciphering the route.
His English is limited, and as a track runner road running is a novelty, especially in a new country.
Taking advice from well-meaning fellow runners, he followed the lead bike. But no-one realised the bike would stop before the runners went into the final finish chute.
So Lamaa stopped too, not understanding that the finish line was still 500 metres away.
It was not until the second runner and eventual winner, Patrick Hagan, yelled “keep going” as he ran past that Lamaa realised his mistake.
With a finish time of 16:53, he lost by just five seconds and was devastated. If he had finished as he hoped, he would have begun to lay down the foundations for a new running career in Queensland.
Lamaa is competitive and he wants to win.
“I love Australia. I want to win for Australia,” he said in halting English.
Escape from beatings
Pulling up his shirtsleeve, Lamaa reveals scars he says he received from the random beatings by government forces in Ethiopia which he says would occur at any time for any reason.
Eventually worn down by oppression, Lamaa says he joined a group of about 30 other refugees who had each paid a man $1,300 to be led out of the country.
In recounting the story, Lamaa refers to this person as “the manager” and says that once underway, he demanded more money but Lamaa had none to give. He had left with just the clothes he wore and one small bag.
Lamaa and the other refugees then walked to Sudan.
Communication with Lamaa is difficult. His English is extremely basic. He speaks two African languages – Oromo and Amharic – and is undertaking regular English lessons at TAFE.
Yet he is adamant they walked more than 1,000km from Addis Ababa to Sudan where they stayed for two months.
“Yes. We walked. It was very hot. Very hot. Very difficult. And no water. No food,” he said.
From Sudan the group travelled to their final destination, Egypt. They travelled there by foot and by vehicle.
Bodies stacked one on top of the other
Again, it is difficult to ascertain what kind of vehicle but Lamaa said it was not a bus. He tells of being forced to lie in the vehicle with bodies stacked one on top of the other so that 30 people would be packed in.
He says people died on the journey. There was no light or food and very little water. When not in the vehicle, the group walked until they reached Egypt, all the time avoiding capture.
In Egypt, Lamaa met his wife, also an Ethiopian refugee. They lived in Cairo in a house with others from the Oromo community.
The pair were assessed by the UNHCR, referred to the Australian Government and granted permanent refugee status.
The couple flew to Australia, arriving in Brisbane in July 2013. They have Medicare cards, receive a Centrelink payment and attend regular English classes at South Bank TAFE.
Their transition has been made a little smoother by the Multicultural Development Association which provided a case manager for their first six months here, helping them adjust to their new lives.
Lamaa is very keen to improve his English and find work, but most of all, he wants to run and win races.
In a gesture representing a positive running future for Lamaa, the organisers of the Twilight Running Festival have donated a pair of running shoes to him.