An Interview with Meb Keflezighi

An Eritrean refugee who moved to the United States with his family at age 12, Meb started running in high school and went on to become an Olympic silver medalist in the marathon in 2004. He is an elite American athlete, specializing in long distance running, and our featured speaker at Soiree 2013: Olympic Successes.

Ahead of Asylum Access’s 8th Annual Soiree and Auction on June 27th, we asked Meb to answer a few questions about his background and why he supports Asylum Access.

Many people know Meb the Olympic silver medallist, but few know that you are also a former Eritrean refugee. Can you tell us about your journey from Eritrea to the US? Why did you leave and how did your family arrive in the US?

Yes, my journey to the Olympics began as a refugee. My father led the journey when he left Eritrea during its war of independence from Ethiopia in 1981. My father escaped to Sudan, found a job within days of his arrival and after a couple of years, made his way to Italy.

After a couple of years in Italy, my father saved and borrowed enough money to bring his wife and 6 kids to Italy. This was in 1986, in the middle of war, famine and drought in Eritrea. With my dad in Sudan and Italy paving the road for his wife and kids, our journey was a lot smoother than other refugees.

Eventually, in 1987, we came to San Diego, CA. This journey from Eritrean to the USA was almost a two-year process, but in this day and age it is considered an expedited journey. My father dealt with all of the headaches and frustrations that refugees have to deal with, paperwork, redtape, etc. He was willing to deal with these challenges because of a vision he had for his family. Today, we are happy that his vision has become a reality.

You came here as a child and your family built a new life pretty much from scratch. Can you tell us how you overcame the challenges of adjusting to a new country?

When we came to the USA, I was 12 years old. I was shy, didn’t speak any English, had a big afro and dressed like a European. Some kids made fun of me and my siblings because we were African. My parents stressed the importance of education and told us that we had to take advantage of these opportunities they did not have.

When I started running for PE class, it was only to get a good grade in the class. But my coach and classmates (and I) found out I was really fast in the mile. All of a sudden, I made friends. It gave me confidence, and was an ice breaker. Running is just one ice breaker, for others it could be another sport, dancing, music, science, art, etc. Finding something you are passionate about will help you adjust to a new country and make friends. Having the right people around you is the key to success anywhere.

How has your background as a former refugee shaped your life? Has it made you think differently or approach things differently?

We are all a product of our experiences. My background as a refugee has definitely impacted the way I look at the world. I was born in one of the most remote and to a certain degree primitive parts of the world. I didn’t see a TV until I was about 10 years old. Now I am featured on commercials on TV. I don’t take any of these things for granted. What I now consider basic amenities and opportunities for myself, wife and kids, I know there are billions of people without them around the world. I not only know that is the case, I was one of them just over 25 years ago.

Why did you decide to support Asylum Access and our work with refugee rights?

There are many great causes to support in this world and Asylum Access is one that I am honored to support. Unfortunately, refugees are often overlooked in our world. For some time they are almost without a country to call home. Asylum Access is an advocate for those without representation. Having been a refugee, I respect the efforts of Asylum Access to support refugees in a critical and uncertain part of their lives.

For those who are not familiar with Asylum Access and our work with refugees, what would you say to convince them that they should care?

I am who I am because of many people that helped me and my family along the way. The best gift anyone can give is access, access to health, education, rights, opportunities, etc. That is what Asylum Access provides and why I am happy to support their efforts.

Join Meb at Soiree 2013: Olympic Successes in support of Asylum Access at The City Club of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27th, 2013, 5:30pm to 8:30pm. Early Bird tickets available till May 3rd. Get yours today!

Published June 2013.


  1. […] that enables a 12-year-old refugee kid to develop into one of the best runners in the world. Meb never took this for granted, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that neither should […]

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