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When the 2020 race season finally ended last November, Negasi Haylu Abreha couldn’t get home.
And it wasn’t the coronavirus pandemic that put a hurdle between the Qhubeka-Assos Continental Team rider’s European base of Lucca, Italy, and his home in Mek’ele, Ethiopia; rather, conflict between national government forces and the region’s ruling party rose sharply around that time and has continued unabated until now.
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The Ethiopian national road champion was in Bologna, about to board a flight to Addis Ababa when team manager Kevin Campbell caught wind of the rising tensions in Abreha’s home state of Tigray. Campbell enlisted the help of Martina Alessandri, a team administrator, to communicate with government and airline officials, and it was ultimately determined that there were too many uncertainties and risks for Abreha to fly back to Ethiopia.
So, Abreha returned to the team house in Lucca alone, as all of his teammates had already left, and stayed until the end of the month at which point the lease was up. With the situation over a return home to Ethiopia still unclear, he moved indefinitely into the apartment of another staff member, Damian Murphy, until there was an option for him to be hopefully be reunited with his family.
Nearly four months later, Abreha is still in Italy and has had little contact with anyone at home.
“It is very difficult [to stay in touch with my family] because all the network coverage in Tigray has been shut off,” he says. “I am sometimes able to call my mom on a Sunday. We keep the calls very, very short. It is usually ‘Hello Negasi, we are okay, everyone is fine and we love you. Ciao.’ My mother told me to never ask more about the situation over the phone out of fear for their safety.”
“I am very scared for my family and friends. I only see pictures of what might be on social media or what people send me. I know the places in the pictures from my home region, and I can see the death, destruction, and poverty happening there now.”
A young rider’s first season is never easy — Abreha was 19 years old when he joined the NTT Continental Cycling team last year. However, the immense physical and emotional distance that African riders who move to Europe endure make the challenge even greater. Now Abreha has more to worry about, yet he is managing to find positives among the devastation.
“For sure it’s difficult for me at the moment,” he says. “I have stress for my family but also, I am very grateful and happy because I have people around me from the team that are helping me a lot. The team give me a place to stay, provide all my food and make sure I am always able to train. I am still motivated to train because I know If I can be successful, I can help my family more.”