Protest hits home: Ethiopian runner’s gesture at 2016 Olympics resonates with Minnesotans

Awol Windissa
Awol Windissa of the Oromo Community of Minnesota makes an “X” with his arms, replicating the gesture by Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Windissa said Lilesa’s protest both inspired and saddened him.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Vancleave and Elezebet Mitiku)

Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa caught the world’s attention when he crossed the finish line in the 2016 Olympics marathon in Rio last summer with his arms over his head in the shape of an “X” to publicly protest against the Ethiopian government.

Lilesa, who is Oromo, also caught the attention of Awol Windissa of the Oromo Community of Minnesota, who said he had a mixed reaction to the gesture (which is a sign of solidarity).

“In front of the world, millions of people saw his gesture of protest. It inspired me,” Windissa said. “So many people are understanding, so many people will know and so many people will now know his cause.

“The sad thing is that it is a fight, there are killings and there is conflict. It’s not something for which we can be proud. I would just like people to live in harmony.”

Hundreds of people have been killed during protests against the government, mainly in Oromia, a region in central and southern Ethiopia, according to reports.

The Tigrayan ethnic group, which is 6 percent of the Ethiopian population, has the majority of power in the country. Other ethnic groups in the country, such as the Oromo and the Amhara, are fighting for more representation in government and say the government is marginalizing them.

“It’s a problem for everyone in the empire, everyone in the country,” Windissa said. “There is a history of marginalizing Oromos in this regime and in previous regimes for the country. They are targeting Amharas. They are targeting other ethnic groups except the Tigrays.”

It started in Oromia in November 2015 when people protested plans by the government to expand Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Since then, security forces have cracked down on protests that have been largely peaceful, according to Human Rights Watch. More than 400 people have been killed, thousands have been injured and tens of thousands have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch. And at least hundreds have been victims of “enforced disappearances.”

The government has disputed these figures, according to reports. Human Rights Watch says the government restricts independent media and NGOs from investigating the conflict in the country.

Lilesa’s protest on the international stage brought more awareness to the conflict in Ethiopia. Lilesa, who earned the silver medal, did not return to the country after the Olympics, fearing he would be imprisoned or killed, according to reports.

Many young adults in Ethiopia have been arrested for protesting against the government. But some young adults in the U.S., such as University of St. Thomas students Wako Wako and Bisrat Bayou, are taking advantage of their freedom of speech to spread awareness.

Bayou, a sophomore at St. Thomas whose parents moved to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 1996, heard about Lilesa’s protest after his mother texted him about it, he said. He later retweeted a video about Lilesa’s gesture as a way to increase awareness.

“I’m all about people standing up against oppression,” Bayou said. “So when I saw it, I was proud, proud because I know it’s hard to be brave, especially when the government can be so cruel.”

Wako, who was born in Ethiopia and is Oromo, later took part in a demonstration near the State Capitol Building in St. Paul.

“Being all the way here in America, being super far away [from Ethiopia], I never thought about what I could do,” Wako said. “It kind of encouraged me to try to figure out how I could help, being all the way over here.”

Windissa said teenagers can “do a lot of positive things” on social media to spread awareness about the Ethiopian conflict, and he encourages all people to get involved in human rights issues.

“If it’s an issue in the Middle East, if it’s an issue here – it’s all human rights issues,” Windissa said. “It will impact me, it will affect you, it will affect her. It’s all human rights, and it’s a very small world.”