10/14/2016 05:18 EDT | Updated 10/17/2016 03:08 EDT

Ethiopia's Best Now Run For Canada And For Matthew House

Todd Korol via Getty Images
TORONTO, ON - October 18, 2015 - The top runners leave the start line during the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in Toronto, Ontario, October 18, 2015 Todd Korol/Toronto Star (Todd Korol/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Sitting in a living room in downtown Toronto, Mesfin watched his friend Fayisa Lilesa cross his arms in silent protest as he won silver in the Rio Olympics Marathon.

Hake's heart soared.

"He is my friend. We worked together training," the 30-year-old champion runner says, breakfast dishes at the Matthew House refugee shelter pushed aside to make room for conversation.

In Ethiopia, land of legendary long-distance runners, "the government's interest is to control the athletes. They want the athletes to speak good things about the government."

At least three dozen Ethiopian athletes are in Canada, asking for or winning asylum

And when the athletes don't, they know they have to leave or risk death, torture or imprisonment. Lilesa is hoping for asylum in the United States. Mesfin is asking for asylum in Canada.

At least three dozen Ethiopian athletes are in Canada, asking for or winning asylum; the same number are in the United States.

"The Ethiopian government loses its best athletes," says Mesfin. "But they don't lose their authority."

The Ethiopian people love their elite athletes even as the government tries to control them, he says. In turn, the athletes know they can seize their international stage to use the international media to break the silence imposed by the government.

feyisa lilesa

Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head as he finished the Olympic Men's Marathon even as a protest against the Ethiopian government's crackdown on political dissent. (Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported on more than 400 people killed and many more arrested and tortured, including children, as protests intensify against the Ethiopian government attempts to silence the Oromo people.

The documented repression dates back 25 years; since last November, the protests and the slaughter have come nearly every day.

Matthew House, a private charity started in 1998 to provide first-stop shelter to otherwise homeless refugee claimants in Toronto, is home not just to Mesfin right now but to three other elite Ethiopian runners, lithe and long-limbed young women whose laughter, intricate braids and long polished fingernails belie fierce competitive instincts.

All four will run for Matthew House in the Scotiabank Waterfront Toronto Marathon on Oct. 16, the charity's prime fundraising event of the year.

Just this once, they are tempering their expectations.

Retta, at 23 a champion half-marathoner whose personal best is 1:20:59 in a race in Pune, India, will run in the 5k.

The regular three-hour-a-day training of their professional lives is on hold along with so much else as they wait to hear if Canada will accept them.

"Next year, we will be the winners of the race," says Retta, her normal shy smile replaced with a definite shake of her head.

And then? "Maybe Tokyo" for the 2020 Olympics, she says.

"If we are citizens then in Canada," says Mesfin, "we will run for Canada."

They train most days in nearby Trinity-Bellwoods Park but the regular three-hour-a-day training of their professional lives is on hold along with so much else as they wait to hear if Canada will accept them.

"Life is day-to-day," says Mesfin. "I have lost my country, my friends, my family."

But he has found a new family at Matthew House and a new country in Canada and it already feels good.

"Sometimes I believe we're not refugees. Everything is so free here. The government pushes us to go to school. This country is so good."

matthew house People gather in the kitchen of Matthew House. (Photo: Matthew House)

Training for years as runners has helped.

"You have to be ready to lose a race," Mesfin explains of the mental and physical demands of marathoning. "You can always run another race. If you have patience, you start training again. If you train enough, you can win."

Being a professional athlete "is very, very, very hard work," says Retta.

Mesfin calls the younger Retta their coach as well as a colleague. Marathoners only need themselves, a stopwatch and an intense desire to win to pace themselves.

But Retta "knows the system," Mesfin says, who translates for her and throws in his own admiration.

"She knows when you have to be fast and when you have to be slow so you don't lose your power. You have to be brave, not only competitive. You have to be clever."

Both came to Canada as invited runners, Mesfin for the Mississauga Marathon and Retta for the GoodLife Marathon, and asked for asylum.

They know the competition is different in Canada. What was a full-time job in Ethiopia, a way to provide for their families with their prize money, may not be here. Retta, who Mesfin says has an amazing instinct for translating training, diet and rest into optimum health is hoping to become a nurse once she conquers English.

And her next 21k.

The names of the Ethiopian runners at Matthew House have been changed for their protection. If you would like to join or sponsor the Matthew House Scotiabank running team, follow this link.

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