Helping Ethiopian girls run to better lives

Ethiopian Girls Gotta Run
Ethiopian Girls Gotta Run

Petula Dvorak, Washington Post

Before, when she pumped her legs and pushed hard up that incline on 15th Street NW toward Meridian Hill Park, Etayenesh Asfaw was running for herself.

For a better time, for a clear mind, for her own health.

“Running is a luxury for me,” said Asfaw, 29, an environmental policy analyst from Rockville who will compete Sunday in the Marine Corps Marathon 10K race.

She does a three-mile loop downtown in the morning before work. On weekends, she does the Mount Vernon Trail. Nice and green, a lovely run.

It is nothing like the running that Ethiopian girls do back in her home country.

There the girls are running from marriage at 12 years old, from having babies before their bodies are ready, from a life of servitude that eclipses any chance of higher education.

If a girl can become a strong runner and get on a professional team, she has a chance to go to school, earn money and wait until she is a grown woman to choose the man she marries.

Asfaw knew it was bad for the girls there. She left Africa in 1996, at 14, but returned after grad school to visit family in the villages. Everything looked so different from the childhood pictures she’d been carrying around in her head.

She wanted to help those girls back home, the girls who run barefoot on the uneven, Ethiopian roads, whose only goal is to get enough money for food and sneakers – “calorie money” they call it – and win the attention of Addis Ababa coaches.

The woman who helped Asfaw do that is a very unlikely patron of athletes.

Patricia Ortman is a retired women’s studies professor who lives in Northwest Washington and paints lovely scenes of children with kittens and pansies and colorful abstracts.

Ortman has never been to Ethiopia.

“I knew nothing about Ethiopia, except I knew I loved the food,” she confessed.

She has no desire to go there – or to any developing country, for that matter.

“I’d get sick just getting over there, the trip alone would do me in,” Ortman told me.

She isn’t a runner, never has been. She’d never set foot in the world of Saucony vs. New Balance, heel spurs, anti-chafing BodyGlide, gel food, split times, personal bests and knee problems.

“I go to Curves,” she admitted.

But five years ago, she read a story in The Washington Post about the young girls trying to find a better life through running, and she was moved by their intensity. “These girls were pulling it out of their guts,” she said. “They are ambitious, driven, determined.”

She was so impressed, she began a foundation to help aspiring runners in Ethiopia, Girls Gotta Run.

And like many charitable Washingtonians, she held lovely wine-and-cheese fundraisers, where she sold art. It worked.

“Then the economy tanked, and we didn’t know what to do,” Ortman told me.

This has happened to charities all over, to foundations that rely on galas and art auctions, groups whose causes thrive by expunging the guilt of luxury indulgence with a healthy coat of do-gooding.

Problem was, fewer folks could afford the luxury, let alone the palate cleanser of charity.

So Ortman thought of the runners.

They’re all over the place, running for Crohn’s disease, breast cancer and cystic fibrosis.

I think I once ran for an AIDS/HIV charity, but I think the bloody marys served along the New Orleans route made it more of a stagger.

The point is, many runners do it for the run, not necessarily for the cause.

But imagine if the cause were simple enough? Not running for an intangible cure but running so others who also love to run can have shoes. And food.

“It’s a solvable problem. That’s part of why I like this cause so much,” Ortman said.

So she began selling the story of girls running for their lives to other runners.

The local runners were athletes and friends of Ortman’s – her student, her trainer at Curves, a grad student interested in Ethiopia, some runners in Annapolis.

It became a brilliant recession-era story of philanthropic survival and reinvention, uncomfortable as Ortman was dabbling in the world of sinewy carb-loaders.

Girls Gotta Run helps girls on three teams in Ethiopia – Team Tesfa, which started with four athletes and now has 20; Simien Girl Runners, which has 10; and Team Naftech, with seven.

The foundation came full circle when Ortman met Asfaw’s mom, who runs a local Ethiopian deli.

“You know, my daughter runs. She can help, too,” the woman told Ortman.

And that’s how she met Etayenesh Asfaw, who also got her sister, 28-year-old Alegneta Asfaw, to run with her Sunday to help raise funds for the girls.

“These girls who are running, trying to be professional athletes when they come from such disadvantaged backgrounds, they are like my sisters,” Alegneta Asfaw said. “I really see them as part of my extended family.

“I feel connected to these girls. In a way, I am running with them.”