Eastern Michigan University
More Than a Runner
by Brian Calloway
Terefe Ejigu has made a name for himself as a runner for the Eastern Michigan cross country and track teams. The standout distance runner has been one of the top performers in the Mid-American Conference in both sports and was named the most valuable performer of the outdoor league meet for the second consecutive year last spring after winning the 5,000—and 10,000-meter runs.
But running hasn’t always been about navigating the terrain on cross country courses or a means of competition for Ejigu. As a child growing up in war-torn Ethiopia, it served as a means of survival and a better life.
“Every day, you would see a neighbor or close relative who had a son that passed away because they went to war,” Ejigu says. “As a kid, it was hard to handle.
“I believe it was a major issue that stayed in my head and affected me in a significant way. It gave me a view and has made me appreciate what I have now.”
With conflict raging in Ethiopia, Ejigu and his family were seeking a better life. The country also had a bad economy and a high unemployment rate—other reasons his mom decided to take the risk and flee.
Ejigu was too young to remember when she fled to a refugee camp in Kenya before escaping to New Zealand. It wasn’t until he was 13 that he and his sisters reunited with his mom in Wellington, New Zealand, through a family reunification process.
“It was one of my ultimate goals to be able to reunite with my mother,” Ejigu says. “Having the opportunity to reunite with my mother was really a huge thing for me. It helped me to live a better life. It was a big moment for me.”
Adjusting to New Zealand was difficult at first but was made easier when Ejigu became heavily involved in running. He joined a running club —something that’s big in New Zealand—and competed on school teams.
The sport provided him with opportunities that didn’t exist in Ethiopia. “(Running) was very important,” Ejigu says. “I think when you move to a different place you have to find something that connects you with the people and the community and running was kind of a key for me. It allowed me to meet people easily, not just at school but outside school. It allowed me to travel to different parts of New Zealand and run. It just gave me an opportunity to explore my options.”
And it was his running talent that brought him to EMU in 2009. Eagles cross country and track coach John Goodridge first learned about Ejigu from a colleague at Harvard.
The challenges from his childhood have helped Ejigu find success at EMU. Ejigu became the first runner in MAC history to win the 10,000 at the outdoor meet in three straight years. He was the conference cross country champion as a sophomore in 2010. Last season, he was the runner-up at the MAC meet while leading EMU to its 16th championship.
“He’s someone certainly the University can be very, very proud of,” Goodridge says. “It’s been a very interesting experience in seeing how he has contributed here. He’s made marvelous contributions athletically. He’s a fine, fine student. He’s going to be pursuing graduate studies. He’s gotten himself involved in the community. He’s an interesting young man.”
Much of Ejigu’s running success comes from constantly staying strong and motivated— things he had to do as a child.
“I think there are many people that have come through more difficult life situations than l did. Even with my experience growing up in Ethiopia and those challenges it has allowed me to apply it when it comes to running,” Ejigu says. “It’s such a tough game and sometimes you feel so tired and exhausted and you feel like you want to give up. Then I look back at the times and where I came from and I just kind of apply it to running.”
Ejigu graduated last spring with a degree in international affairs. His mother and sisters were able to see him graduate in person thanks to a fundraiser sponsored by Anna Cottrell, who is currently filming a documentary about Ejigu’s journey entitled “Running for His Life.”
“(Graduating) was one of the best experiences in my life,” Ejigu says. “With English being my second language, I’ve had to work extra hard on simple things that students that speak English take for granted. For me, stepping on the stage to accept my graduation certificate was one of the best feelings. When you work hard for something, it feels really great.”
With his degree, he hopes to give back and help others that have had experiences like he did as a child. Ejigu wants to help refugees and his ultimate goal is to work in the United Nations.
“I don’t think anyone should be a refugee,” Ejigu says. “The experience of any refugee or migrant is very difficult.”
But before he pursues that goal, he’d like to continue his running career. Ejigu still has one season left of track and cross country at EMU and hopes to add to his story by going to the national championship meet in both.
With Ejigu’s drive and what he’s overcome, it will be hard to keep him from achieving his goals.
“To compete at a high NCAA national level, it’s very, very strong competition,” Goodridge says. “He’s been exposed to that and he’s been very dedicated. From what I hear from him, he’s had a good summer of training in anticipation of him having his best year athletically at EMU.”