Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed hopes to complete long road from Darfur

Mohammed fled war in western Sudan and found refuge in Israel as a teenager. Now he hopes to run for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo.
By Rory Jiwani

Eleven years after fleeing war-torn Darfur for Israel, Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed is hoping to compete for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Tokyo 2020.

For Mohammed, who turns 25 in June, taking refuge in Israel enabled him to support his family back in Sudan, and discover his talent for long-distance running.

In 2017, he earned an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship to allow him to train full-time, and his continual improvement saw him take part in the 2019 World Cross Country Championships.

Later that year, Mohammed was one of six members of the Athlete Refugee Team at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.

He came 17th out of 20 in his 5000m heat which is remembered for the spectacular act of sportsmanship from Guinea-Bissau's Braima Suncar Dabo who all but carried Jonathan Busby of Aruba over the finish the line.

Mohammed has been able to keep fairly active despite the pandemic, running in races from 1500m to 10km on the road over the past year and a half.

He is one of the Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders in contention for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team which will be announced in June.

"Remember that you are always stronger after the comeback." - Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed

From Darfur to Tel Aviv and beyond

In 2003, war broke out in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

That autumn, Mohammed's father was killed when members of the government-backed Janjaweed militia raided their village.

Seven years later, following a number of failed attempts and against his mother's wishes, he finally made it across the border to Egypt.

After a week making his way north through the country, he and three other refugees reached the Sinai Desert where they paid a guide $US 200 to help them across the Israeli border.

They entered Israel three days later, months before the construction of the Egypt-Israel border fence which would make future journeys of that type impossible.

"When you see terrible things happen to you at a young age – things that are really much harder than what you might be going through at the moment – and you made it through them, it makes it easier to overcome obstacles. You know you’ll get through these things too." - Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed speaking to Haaretz

Before the start of his new life, Mohammed was in a holding camp for around three weeks until he was handed a one-way bus ticket for the country's second largest city Tel Aviv.

He told World Athletics, "I didn't even know how or where to get out. I stayed on the bus for a couple hours, and then another bus came and I just followed some people out."

Having followed other African migrants to a park in the city, another Sudanese migrant took him to a one-bed apartment where he stayed with seven other men.

"It was crazy – there was one bed! But at least I was with other people and we were in the same situation," Mohammed told Haaretz.

He was also hired by a local man to work as a house painter despite having no skills in that area.

A quick learner, Mohammed was soon able to send money home to his mother and siblings in a refugee camp back in Darfur.

While playing football, he also discovered Alley Runners, a club founded to give underprivileged children in Tel Aviv the chance to take up athletics.

Mohammed recalled to CNN Sport, "I just came to Israel and one of my best friends told me: 'You can run after the ball for three or four hours -- I think you better start running with this Alley Running team.'"

Focused as much on their charges' social and educational wellbeing as athletic achievement, Alley Runners now has around 100 athletes with - according to World Athletics - over a dozen representing Israel in regional and European competition.

Among those is 18-year-old Adisu Guadia who won 3000m gold at the 2019 European Youth Olympic Festival in Baku.

The global pandemic and subsequent postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games has enabled Mohammed to give something back to the club which has done so much for him.

He completed his studies in sport massage last year, and now performs massage therapy at Alley Runners.

"This club means a lot to me, they are like my family. They've done everything to help make my dream come true." - Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed speaking to World Athletics about Alley Runners

Mohammed also has a stable home and work life, living with Alley Runners volunteer Hili Avinoam in exchange for being the cleaner and caretaker of their apartment building.

The pandemic meant he spent more time with Avinoam, who he calls "mom", and her two daughters who love being with their "brother".

Avinoam told Haaretz, "Look at him: he has taken the bitterest lemons life can hand you and made lemonade. Also, I think those of us in his life are really the lucky ones. Speaking for myself, he has made my family bigger and better: he sits with the girls and plays board games; he plays soccer with my younger daughter.

"He celebrates the Jewish holidays with us and we celebrate Ramadan with him. Being with him is so much fun – he’s always optimistic and joyful. I love him, my daughters and friends love him, and he connects to my parents like they’re his grandparents."

Having competed at two World Championships in athletics, Mohammed is now aiming for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Also based in Tel Aviv is Eritrean refugee Tachlowini Gabriyesos, who also ran the 5000m for the Athlete Refugee Team in Doha having made the same journey across the Sinai Desert.

While Gabriyesos is hitting the road for the marathon, Mohammed is targeting the 10,000m on the track.

"It's my biggest dream to be there to compete at the Olympics with all the best athletes, all the famous athletes. It is a big, big dream. Hopefully it can come true." - Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed speaking to CNN