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Still, as restrictive as P1 visas might be, they at least provide a modicum of security for immigrant athletes who, without them, are merely undocumented. For most of these runners, a P1 visa represents not so much a dream realized as a nightmare averted. As one longtime member of WSX named Girma Segni puts it, “Just getting to America is a reward.”

Segni is unusual among his teammates: He came to New York nearly 20 years ago, at 16, when his older brother got a job at the United Nations. Now 35, he is a CPA for the city. For him, running is a hobby—a luxury that few Ethiopians on WSX can afford. Segni says many of the runners on WSX never went to school; some can’t even read. Running is their only shot, he says. And while making it to America is a victory, staying is a whole other matter—especially during a pandemic. Several runners on the team are waiting for their P1 visas to be either approved or renewed, and without racing results to show for their time in the U.S., they may not be. It hasn’t helped that the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, which processes visa applications, was closed for much of 2020, bringing the gears of an already slow bureaucracy to a full and devastating stop.

Tadesse isn’t the only runner on WSX for whom deportation could mean death. Take the story of a 25-year-old named Urgesa Kedir Figa, who says he was detained in Ethiopia for three months, in 2016, for his family’s support of human rights. He says his uncle was killed by government forces. In prison, Urgesa says he was tortured at night with an electric cable. He has a deep, three-inch-wide scar that goes all the way around his left arm, just below the elbow, and a circular one on his right hip measuring five inches across.

A quiet, slight man with a gentle smile, Urgesa fled for the U.S. in the spring of 2019 on a tourist visa, to try to earn some money to send home to his wife and newborn daughter. That May, he finished 3rd in the Brooklyn Half Marathon, winning $500. It was his first race in New York. “Having that, while running, is heavy,” Segni says of Urgesa’s experience in Ethiopia. “So there’s a struggle here to make a living, right? And there’s a struggle mentally. The torture he has to carry.”


Tadesse and his three roommates live on the second floor of a six-story walk-up on a block of identical brick buildings. It’s a poor neighborhood in the city’s poorest borough, but Van Cortlandt Park, a bucolic urban escape of forests, fields, and lakes, is just steps away. The Ethiopians on WSX do most of their training there, up to 100 miles a week under normal circumstances, often before working 12-hour shifts at their cash jobs.

Such a demanding schedule does not leave much time for settling in, and Tadesse’s apartment has a spartan feel. In the undecorated living room, a single window looks out on a brick wall. Neighbors’ voices echo through the hallway and penetrate the apartment’s thin walls. When I visit for lunch one recent afternoon, I arrive to find the TV tuned to an Ethiopian movie, and one of the roommates, Tariku Abosete Bokan, fixing a spread of sauteed beef with hot chilis, spinach salad, and homemade injera, a traditional Ethiopian sourdough.

In 2011, the Philadelphia Inquirer identified Tariku as the favorite to win that year’s Philadelphia Marathon, but he tore his hamstring halfway through the race and didn’t finish. He got his green card cooking at an Ethiopian restaurant in Harlem; now he drives for Uber Eats and DoorDash. The hours are better than at the restaurant, he says, though COVID-19 has taken its toll on his livelihood. He barely worked last year.

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