American runner Weini Kelati’s Olympic journey from Eritrea to Paris is a childhood dream in the making

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By Raquel Coronell Uribe, NBC

Kelati, who sought asylum in the U.S. 10 years ago after traveling to Eugene, Oregon, to compete, will now represent the country in the Paris Games.

Weini Kelati celebrates after she won the women’s 10,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore., on June 29 (Charlie Neibergall / AP).

Before Weini Kelati was running 10,000 meters to a finish line, she was running long distances to school in Eritrea.

Born in Tsada Christian, a small village in the central region of Eritrea, Kelati, 27, said it wasn’t unusual for kids to walk four to five hours to get to school every day — or to run, if they were tardy.

Running would eventually take her far beyond the African country to Oregon, where her journey to become an American Olympian started 10 years ago and where that dream was cemented last month with a first-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. 

Kelati’s father died when she was young, and she watched her mother struggle to raise her family. She knew she wanted to help her, but the “how” didn’t become clear until middle school.”In sixth grade I was in a PE class and sitting down and watching what everybody was doing,” Kelati said. “And my teacher comes to me and he said, ‘You need to run because that’s how you earn grade.'”

Kelati was confused — after all, she had run to school earlier that day and was sore. But her coach told Kelati to run as fast as she could, and she uncovered a hidden talent, outrunning her classmates and even older kids.

Kelati started competing, but to her, the sport was always about more than just winning a medal or getting on a podium. It was a way to help her family.

“Even though the life I had was a very hard one, she wanted me to stay close to her,” Kelati said of her mother. “She was just like: ‘It doesn’t matter. If we didn’t have anything, I just wanted you to be with me.'”

Eritrea gained its independence four years before Kelati was born, after a decadeslong war with Ethiopia. It is one of the least developed countries in the world, according to the United Nations, and one of the most repressive, restricting freedom of expression, opinion and faith, according to Human Rights Watch. The country has never held elections.

Kelati said that when her running prowess took her to the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in 2014, she saw an opportunity to stay in the U.S. and help her family from abroad. Afraid of being stopped, she didn’t tell anyone about her intentions.

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