Eritrean Riders and Eritreans in Richmond Win Big

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OCTOBER 4, 2015

By Amanuel Biedemariam,

On Friday, September 25, in a cool, cloudy morning with occasional drizzles misting the environment and winds blowing, Eritreans from all around the US ascended on Richmond, Virginia, to support Eritrean cyclists that participated at the UCI Road World Championship.

The event will stand as one outstanding achievement for the Diaspora Eritrean community that came out in large numbers to support Eritrea’s elite riders Mekseb Debesay. For the under 23 team, Merhawi Kudus, Metkel Eyob, Yonas Tekeste, and Manuel Gebregziabiher.

It is usually challenging to explain Eritrea’s makeup, psyche, and collective excitement to other nationals. On Friday, September 25-27, however, Eritreans did not have to explain. Eritreans surprised the participants and organizers in ways they did not anticipate.

Eritrea came and took over the sleepy capital city of Richmond, Virginia. Eritreans were all over the city in large numbers adorned with Eritrean flags, T-shirts, Scarves and, banging on the traditional Kebero (drums) through the entire road course and the finish line at The World Championship.

A grandmother, Weizero Kidan, with her daughter Helen Debrezion and granddaughter Semrai from Atlanta, a grandfather with his sons, Sunny from Oakland, friends from Seattle are amongst Eritreans that participated from afar. Many flew from the Midwest from Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. Some came in groups from the surrounding states such as Philadelphia and Boston. However, the majority came from the Metro DC area on busses.

And when I asked the participants why they traveled to Richmond, the answer, we would not miss it for anything.

The simple fact that Eritrea participated in the competition is a victory in itself. But when one adds the benefits and its implication, it becomes an incredible achievement for the athletes, the Eritrean Diaspora communities, and the nation above all Eritrea.

To understand the magnitude, one must look at the level of competition, the international nature of the UCI Road World Championship, and its global reach. Elite cyclists from around the world participate in this event. It is an important event that shuts down the sizeable part of downtown Richmond for nine days. It is a significant event held in the Convention Center where the latest cycling gear and technology are displayed. The state of Virginia and the organizers promote the event successfully, and it attracts significant cycling enthusiasts from around the globe.

It is an extraordinary international cycling event where a handful of nations that pass rigorous cycling tests can participate. Out of 54 African countries, only five participated, and they were Eritreans.

Considering the pain the US and EU inflict upon Eritreans, it is easy to be engulfed by emotions and lose sight of the big picture as a supporter. But this is an event that Eritrean Diaspora can be proud to have participated in the manner and ferocity.

Today, it appears that the world is divided. Across the globe, individualism and big money have taken over nationalism. Corporate sponsorships have made access to cycling difficult for many cyclists worldwide, particularly cyclists from Africa. Eritreans, however, have established a new trend without support from corporations.

Cyclists from less developed nations lack the institutional structures and resources necessary to compete at UCI World Championships. It requires years of experience, millions of dollars, and unprecedented material and human resources to participate in these events.

For example, team France has thousands of professional staff members and spends millions on technical and logistical expenses. In addition, the sponsorship dollars involved are significant. Compare that to team Eritrea that is only staffed by seven and with limited resources.

While the above challenges could prove challenging to overcome, Eritreans proved that Africans could successfully compete on a world stage. It is also an achievement for Blacks worldwide that have limited representation in this sport.

Why are Eritreans succeeding in a sport traditionally dominated by the West?  Eritrean cyclists and the people of Eritrea have found ways to flip the traditional approach and created a path that works.

It is a unique path that the rest of Africa can take to heart and replicate. The success demonstrated in Richmond is a result of the collective effort of the people of Eritrea, who have learned how to lift each other collectively by creating platforms used as steppingstones onto the following higher stages.

Recent athletic victories including, Daniel Teclehaimanot in tour De-France, Ghirmai Ghebreselassie at the 2015 IAAF World Championship competition in Beijing, the youngest and first-ever gold for Eritrea, are among the highlights.

These happen because of the people and the government’s determination. Eritrea has instilled a can-do attitude and empowered them with the mindset of self-reliance. Eritreans have the experience of making do with whatever they have while marching to success. These are dedicated, selfless, and committed individuals willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.

But what makes the Richmond UCI event more special is that it represents something more significant. For over seventy years, Eritreans have been forced to face successive US administrations that challenged the existence of Eritrea.

One can convincingly claim that the US never embraced the ambitions and aspirations of the people of Eritrea. Over the last seventeen years especially, US attempts to nullify, suppress Eritrean identity was unprecedented.

Eritrean Americans have faced tremendous scrutiny by the Bush and Obama administrations. They made to discourage Eritreans from supporting their people and government. The reality, however, these attempts strengthen the resolve of the people. Therefore, the unmatched presence, the unique affection and support Eritreans showed their cycling team is an example that no one can put down the people of Eritrea. One Eritrean man said,

“Eritreans are like smoke. Smoke always finds a way out. And like potatoes, because if you bury a potato, it grows in numbers. That is what Eritreans are, unstoppable.”

For the first time in over 17 years, Americans could see and enjoy Eritreans unfiltered away from the barrage of propaganda designed to demonize Eritrea. Governor Terry McAuliffe, who came to support the event, shook hands with Eritreans as he enjoyed the competition.

Editors of black newspapers expressed their solidarity and pride in the fact Eritreans represented Blacks gloriously. The participants from all around were enamored with the passion Eritreans displayed—many posed for pictures with Eritreans waving the Eritrean flag. How Eritreans participated was the biggest surprise of the event.

Eritrean cycling team participation in the UCI event was a gift and a boost for Eritreans in the diaspora on many levels. Because Eritrea has been in the spotlight for youth flight and fabricated maligning, it represented a welcome relief.

Eritreans have been trying to promote their nation. Still, the battery of bad news and the constant unwarranted travel warning by the State Department was a severe impediment to Americans that like to travel to Eritrea. They designed these warnings to deter Americans so that they could isolate Eritrea. However, the reality is that Eritrea is a nation that has a tremendous historical connection to the US and is amongst the safest places in the world to visit.

The cycling event opened the doors wide open so that the Eritreans with the Eritrean flag could march right into the heart of America’s power center in Richmond. In one weekend, the cycling world learned the tenacity, beauty, organization, and nationalism of the people of Eritrea.

The UCI event received coverage from over 500 media outlets. They streamed it live to be seen by over 300 million worldwide. Eritreans waving flags were visible in large numbers through the entire road course and the finish-line, soft power at its best.

The vast number of Eritrean participants aroused the curiosity of many that asked questions about Eritrea. The fact that Governor McAuliffe witnessed many Eritreans in one event will serve as a reminder that the people who supported him to power are united and one. He will also remember he can count on them on his next endeavor. One of the things that the Governor promised when he was running for office,  he said he wanted to establish trade relations between Virginia and Eritrea. I hope that he fulfills his promise.

The event reminded all Eritreans that time and patience will reveal the truth and that people are more powerful and successful when united. It is a reminder of the vast Eritrean diaspora that stood during the tough times; this is your reward.

The UCI event was a moment where parents could bring their children to witness fellow Eritreans compete on a world stage and instill pride in them. It is a lesson for the youth that determination, dedication, and hard work always pay off. It was an opportunity to experience Eritrean role models with love and for a purpose. To witness the level of admiration, love, and affection the diaspora youth displayed towards the team was proof that they have embraced the legacy of their parents.  It also brought the families closer in purpose.

CONCLUSION

At heart, the main message out of all these is that no one can bend the upward trajectory of Eritrea. During the farewell party in Sheraton Arlington, Virginia, Tesfai Mehary (Fhira) sang his famous song from the days of the armed struggle, Ketematat Koynu Measkerna. This song was popular when battles raged all over Eritrea, and the EPLF was controlling a city after another in victory. The song means that “cities have become our garrisons.” This time, however, Fihira was singing that Richmond is another conquest, as was Beijing.

Eritrea’s cycling achievement is proof that it is not hardware, money, and global power that propels nations to victory and determines winners. It is grit, determination; it is the heart and unwavering united vision. That is what represents Eritrea!

It is a promising beginning towards a new era of US Eritrea relations. And Eritreans managed to take full advantage by exposing to the American public the true nature of Eritrea. And we hope this to be a building block.

Eritreans in the Diaspora deserve tremendous praise for their commitment, love, dedication, and hard work. The Eritrean community in Richmond deserves to thank you for all the hard work to organize this sophisticated endeavor. They came through.

Most importantly, thanks to Coach Samson Solomon. His message was, “keep supporting us.” Mechanic Biniam Asmelash for outstanding work while under tremendous pressure. And the leader of the team, Tagdalay Asmerom Habtemariam, said that Eritrea has a lot in the pipeline, and we are not satisfied by participating. We want to compete and win. He also said he was pleased with the patriotism and warm reception he received.

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