Sixteen isn’t your typical age for starting high school. But for Mt. Hood Community freshman cross-country runner Tahir Chakisso, that was his only option after moving to Portland from the Arsi province in Ethiopia.
Change often presents challenge, and it’s never easy. Imagine the transition from a poverty-infested war zone to living in the United States, with no formal training of the land, language or culture.
The biggest heartache for Chakisso was leaving his mother Zetuna and one of his younger brothers Adam, 18, behind in Arsi. This made high school a living hell for the Ethiopian native.
Chakisso lives in Northeast Portland and attended Madison, where he was constantly reminded that he didn’t fit in.
“I wanted to go back to my country,” Chakisso says. “I hated life so bad. It’s really hard separating from my mom. We’re trying to get them over here.”
He was fortunate to have family in Portland, including his father Waritu, along with four of his five siblings: brother Mustefa, 23; sister Keriya, 22; brother Gutame, 17; sister Kume, 15; and brother Risku, 8.
His father, of the Oromo ethnic background, fled the country after a handful of (government-related) run-ins with the law in Ethiopia when Tahir was a boy. There has been a constant feud between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian government during the last 100 years. Oromo natives have been fighting for their freedom.
Tahir hadn’t seen his father for nearly six years, but his father was able to get the paperwork to be approved by the American Embassy in Ethiopia and settled in Portland because he already had family here who knew the area.
In summer 2006, just before Tahir moved to Portland, he remembers “gun shots and beatings” that took place in his village after a political campaign season.
“(That’s) scary when you’re young,” Chakisso says. “The soldiers came into the town and they were shooting guns. I witnessed (Oromo) people being beaten.”
Chakisso runs with a purpose, one deeper than seen on the surface. He says he runs for his family near and far, for the pride of his country’s people and for a higher power – Allah, whom he praises on high through his strong Muslim faith and five special daily prayers differing from month to month.
In Ethiopia, Chakisso was known for his soccer skills and agility. He gained strength in his legs from walking to and from school two miles away each day, no matter the weather.
The words “track and field” did not exist in his mind until his sophomore year of high school, the same year he competed in cross country for the first time.
At Madison, U.S. history teacher and cross-country coach John McNulty convinced Chakisso to run track after seeing his ability in cross country.
Chakisso’s decision to run paid off quickly in the Portland Interscholastic League. He won the Class 5A PIL district championship in cross country, along with the 3,000 meters during the spring track season.
Running has helped him set new goals. He would love to compete in the Olympic trials and become a professional athlete.
“If I become a pro athlete, I want to help my people (in Ethiopia),” he says. “I want to help build new schools. It’s not like here, where there are schools on every block. I want to contribute money to build new ones.”
He also would like to support building new hospitals. “In some villages, you have to carry people (sick and injured) to the nearest hospitals in big cities,” Chakisso says. “It breaks my heart. ”
As a dedicated Muslim, Chakisso prays five times a day and holds a special place for God not only in his heart but in his mind and soul.
“Allah is on my side,” he says. “Everybody is my brother and sister. Color doesn’t matter. We pray for thanks and for the poor people.”
From Aug. 11 to Sept. 9, Chakisso celebrated Ramadan, a fasting period where between dawn and dusk Muslims don’t eat or drink and must refrain from sexual relations in respect to Allah. It’s a period where they dedicate more time toward prayer than normal. This can be a difficult time for Muslim athletes.
“You have to do it,” said Chakisso on the importance of Ramadan. “I didn’t run at all this year during (Ramadan). Fasting is very important during that time period.”
While sitting out all competition during his junior and senior years of high school due to academic ineligibility, he focused on school and ran as an unattached athlete in certain meets.
He had a friend going to Mt. Hood CC who convinced him of the importance of education and staying in the groove.
“I didn’t plan on running here,” Chakisso says, with a bright smile. “I had been feeling a little weak, hadn’t run all summer.”
Chakisso found MHCC coach Matt Hart and asked if they had a cross-country team. He decided to give it a twirl and last week won the Southern Region championship with a time of 26 minutes, 42 seconds for 8 kilometers. He is ranked as the sixth-best runner in NWAACC (Northwest Athletic Association of Community College).
Hart couldn’t be more pleased with accidently landing an athlete such as Chakisso.
“In sports, there is a component of luck,” Hart says. “Having Tahir join our team this year was definitely a stroke of luck, or what we call a gift. To tell you the truth, I don’t know a whole lot about Tahir, and I hope to gain more familiarity with him by track season.”
Through all the adversity, Chakisso stays true to his testimony, and he promises that with the help of Allah that he will be reunited with his mother and brother Adam in Portland. But for now, he plans on making strides in his overall well-being by taking advantage of his God-given talent — running.
“Running means so much to me,” Chakisso says. “When I start thinking about my mother, I go on a run to clear my mind. It makes me stronger. I’m praying every single day to reunite with her. She gave me a lucky ring, and I wear it every single time I go running.”