Photo and Story by Matthew Sewell, NAU Media Relations
For brothers Futsum Zienasellassie and Bahlbi Gebreyohanns, running at Northern Arizona University as part of the cross country and track and field teams is part of their American dream, being lived out in the mountains of Flagstaff, a far cry—both in distance and in climate—from their home country of Eritrea.
The pair's story is unique, having coming from the African nation by way of Indianapolis, Ind., where both Gebreyohanns (2010) and Zienasellassie (2012) competed for and graduated from North Central High School.
"Our dad is an Eritrean Orthodox priest, so he came to the U.S. to serve the religious community [in Indianapolis] in 2003," said Gebreyohanns (guh-BRAY-oh-hands), who is in his third year as a Lumberjack. "When he came here, he lived by himself for four years, so he wanted his family to come and be with him."
Their father petitioned the American Embassy in 2006 to bring his family stateside for the purpose of reuniting a family separated by immigration. The process was eventually accepted, bringing Zienasellassie (zehn-ah-sell-AH-see), his mother, and his youngest brother across the Atlantic in 2007.
Gebreyohanns' journey to his family reunion was slightly more complicated—the young runner, unable to accompany the rest of his family to form their new life, found his way to an Ethiopian refugee camp across the Eritrean border, and was able to make the trip to America in 2008.
Life in the United States, as one might imagine, is vastly different for a person traveling from any home country, let alone those coming from a country with little to no freedom with regard to the media, politics, or human rights in general.
"We didn't have many choices back home," said Zienasellasie, who spoke about the five-subject curriculum of math, English, history, sport, and science that was taught to elementary school students. "The benefit here in America is that there is so much diversity among the population, there are so many options, and to be able to do whatever you like in America is a great opportunity."
One of the choices that did get afforded to them was running. Gebreyohanns took up the sport in 2005 after idolizing 2004 Olympic 10,000-meter bronze medalist and fellow Eritrean Zersenay Tadese with his friends. Zienasellassie, around 11 years old at the time, would go watch his brother run, sometimes joining in for 400 or 800 meters.
"I never took it serious," he said.
Gebreyohanns actually stopped running for a spell after moving to the U.S., but Zienasellassie happened to pick up the sport thanks to an unusual series of events following his arrival in Indiana.
"I actually wanted to play soccer when I came to the United States," he said. "I didn't have a ride to and from practice every day, plus the gear was too expensive for me, so the best choice was running."
Unlike their luck with getting to and from soccer practice, the brothers were able to find accommodations for rides to and from practices and meets, thus enabling them to feed their newfound addiction for running, and aiding them in becoming more integrated into a foreign culture faster than they might have otherwise.
"The first three or four months were very hard, because I didn't speak any English," Zienasellassie said. "I was struggling through those first months, but when I started running cross country and started to meet people, just the community of people that drew us in was able to help us excel in our running and education."
Before long, both brothers began to see great successes while competing at North Central. Gebreyohanns contributed to his team's fourth-place finish at the 2008 Indiana State Cross Country Championships as its captain in his junior year, but was unable to compete in his senior season.
"When Bahlbi and Futsum came to us in 2008, it changed the dynamics of our team tremendously," said Rick Stover, the pair's high school coach at North Central. "The team knew Futsum from middle school, but when Bahlbi joined us that summer he immediately gained everyone's respect. He brought a discipline to our team at a perfect time and everybody learned from him."
With his brother graduated and gone to NAU after 2010, Zienasellassie took the leadership role and performed even better, culminating with the prestigious Gatorade National Runner of the Year award in 2011 as a senior, an honor that got him recognition as the No. 1 high school recruit nationwide.
"Futsum's legacy—his school records, course records, and state records along with several state championships and Nike National Championship—earned him the respect not only statewide, but nationally as well," Stover recalled. "He definitely, in my opinion, earned the title of best ever distance runner in Indiana history."
Though many coaches waited with bated breath to hear of Zienasellassie's choice of school, the option seemed to be all but a no-brainer; after two more years of being apart , the brothers were going to be again reunited, this time in the high desert of Arizona.
"One of the reasons I chose Northern Arizona was because Bahlbi was here, and one of the biggest decisions I had to make was if I wanted to be at another college where I had to meet new people, or if I wanted to be in a place with my brother," he said.
Back home in Indiana, the brothers and their family belonged to a tight-knit group of native-Eritreans, where they gathered every Sunday in the church, St. John the Baptist, run by their father to share in faith and family. The rich tradition of their home culture had crossed the pond with them, so it's something that the two student-athletes naturally brought with them to Flagstaff as well.
Gebreyohanns and Zienasellassie room together at NAU and spend a good amount of time as part of Flagstaff's small "Habeshan" community—a group of people of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage that gather to share common faith and friendship. It's something that gives the feeling of home, despite being far away from their family and community.
"I think it's a privilege to have someone with you that speaks your own language, plus having your brother is just special," Gebreyohanns said. "The first year was especially hard being far away from home, but I'm comfortable right now and even though I don't have that group [from back home], I still have a small community in my house, like a small family."
One of the greatest comforts we have as humans is that of feeling at home, and it appears the brothers have found it in each other.
"Both Bahlbi and Futsum are outstanding young men. They have their priorities in the right order and both have bright futures ahead of them," Stover said.
Zienasellassie has emerged as one of the top runners on NAU's cross country team this season, having led the way to a Mountain Region championship a last weekend with a fourth-place overall finish. And though Gebreyohanns has been hampered by injury during the 2012 campaign, there is little doubt that he will perform well in the upcoming track and field seasons if he gets healthy.
"We are very comfortable with the history that NAU has in cross country and track and field," Zienasellassie said. "Our desire is to just keep this program improving every year, because this place—Flagstaff, the coaches, and the team are perfect for us."
Zienasellassie will compete Saturday at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Louisville, Ky. with the Lumberjack men's team, hoping to lead them to its 19th Top-15 finish since 1984.