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For Somali-born Charlestown track star, running is a way of life

Daniela Caride | 1/6/2009, 9:10 a.m.

Omar Aden has been on the run for quite some time.

It started in Somalia, when he was 6 months old and his family was escaping a civil war that killed an estimated 1 million people. Many of his family members were among the dead. After leaving his homeland, Omar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya until he found shelter in Ethiopia, where he stayed until immigrating to the United States.

Now a tall, skinny, spirited 17-year-old enjoying life here with his reunited family, Omar doesn’t have to run from conflicts anymore. Instead, he runs to win, and, most important, toward something he never had in Somalia — a future.

Just three years after his first official race, the Charlestown High School junior was named an All-American in track and field, and now ranks as the fourth-best high school miler in America.

“Track is mental,” he says. “You use your mind a lot.”

When Omar arrived at Charlestown High three years ago, track coach Kristyn Hughes saw his potential. But as a freshman, Omar trained and competed with little enthusiasm.

“I was not all that excited. I thought it was really hard,” he says, his English now nearly flawless.

On the track, everything was new to Omar.

“He had never been a part of anything like that, running-wise,” Hughes says. “Right away he excelled in the city meets, but there was nobody pushing his time up, so he did not qualify for the [state meets].”

A friendly push

During his first year in the U.S., Omar ran by himself for two hours every weekday. But that wasn’t enough to win every meet.

Things started to change when Omar made some new friends. In the spring of 2006, Ahmed Ali enrolled at Charlestown High and joined the track team. When he looked at Ahmed, Omar saw what others saw in him: a tall, skinny, spirited Somali.

There was another connection: Ahmed was a vigorous runner — one willing to train with Omar every day.

Two years later, both acknowledge the difference their training has made.

“I can’t run without him,” says Ahmed, now 18. “It’s just like that. We push each other. When somebody gives up, the other takes over.”

“He helps me a lot,” Omar said. “It’s very boring to run by yourself. But having him is really nice.”

Out of the training, a friendship grew. They started hanging out together after their workouts and studying together at the Northeastern University Library, close to their homes in Roxbury.

Out of Somalia

Both Omar and Ahmed were babies when they left Somalia.

Omar fled in 1991 in his pregnant mother’s arms with his father and five siblings. Somali President Siad Barre had been overthrown by opposing clans who failed to agree on a replacement, plunging the country into lawlessness and clan warfare.

The family drove through the dusty, bumpy streets of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, toward the countryside in search of safety. The new government was killing all male adults from the deposed tribe.

When the car broke down, the family pushed it for 100 miles, day and night, until they felt safer. Omar’s father, Abdul Yusuf, couldn’t help them — he was hiding in the car to avoid being shot.

“It was so scary because all you heard was gunfire,” remembers Abdul, now sitting comfortably on his couch at home in Roxbury.

Pushing the car, Omar’s family reached Prove, a small Somali village where they found peace. Months later, on the day Omar’s brother Mahad was born, military groups arrived and arrested all men present. They took 10 people from Omar’s house, among them Abdul and his cousins. It was a certain death sentence.

As Abdul was about to be executed, one of the soldiers recognized him as an old friend. The soldier grabbed Abdul by the arm and took him outside, lying to his colleagues, telling them Abdul was not from the rival tribe.

“Sometimes I dream of that day. They killed all my friends,” says Abdul, pausing. “I am very lucky.”

Abdul returned to his family with no money, nowhere to go and six children to feed. But his wife, Asha, knew he was going to die if he stayed, and ordered him to leave and hide.

“I don’t want to see you again,” she remembers saying to him.

Friends drove Abdul away.

“Back in Africa, it was really hard,” adds Abdul.

Liboya and a lucky break

Asha moved with Omar and the other kids to Kismayo, a port city close to the Kenyan border, where they lived in a hut. One day, in 1994, she left the hut to get milk. When she returned, everyone was gone.

Desperate, she walked for two days down the road towards Kenya, until she reached the border town of Liboya and its refugee camp. To her surprise, there she found Omar, his siblings — and Abdul.

The family lived for a year in a grass hut covered with plastic at the camp. Malaria and dysentery were among the many diseases that plagued the area, his parents remember.

In 1995, Liboya camp was shut down and the refugees expelled. Asha and Abdul again took different paths; she took the children to northern Somalia and he moved to Kenya. Omar wouldn’t see his father again for a decade.

The following year, Abdul landed in Boston as a refugee. Going back to Somalia was not an option — years of fighting spread famine and disease throughout the land, killing one-tenth of its population of 9 million.

“If you want to be a president [in Somalia], you form an army and declare yourself president,” says a dismayed Abdul.

Omar went to school in Garoowe, where he studied English and the Quran. He stayed there until 1999, when his father asked them to move to Ethiopia, believing it would make their immigration to America easier.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, Omar attended middle school and learned to speak Amharic and English. After classes, he would play soccer all day with older kids.

“He never stayed home. He played soccer a lot. He was a troublemaker,” remembers his mother, smiling.

But life in Ethiopia was precarious. Omar broke his right leg playing soccer in 2004, and no doctor in the neighborhood could treat it. When it got infected, they recommended cutting it off.

One day, Omar recalls, an uncle visited and said he knew a good doctor. After a week of treatment, the swelling lessened. Omar was safe.

“That was scary,” says Omar, sitting beside his father. He looks at the scar on his leg, now almost invisible.

Abdul looks at his son and adds, “I guess we were lucky again.”

New beginnings: “A whole new Omar”

In 2005, Omar moved to Boston with his mother and siblings. It wasn’t easy, with eight people living in a two-room apartment in Charlestown. But after all they’d been through, they were happy just to be together.

“I cried,” says Asha.

Omar’s leg injury, however, was still a reason to worry — at least for track coach Hughes, who fretted during Omar’s soccer games.

“Every time he gets the ball, I get nervous, and everyone laughs at me,” remembers Hughes.

Last year, though, Hughes didn’t feel so worried. Omar became more competitive in his running, even missing some soccer practices to work on his time in the mile.

When the 2007 indoor track season started, Omar, then a sophomore, won the city track and field championship. Even with soccer keeping him from training full-time, he also qualified for the state indoor championships, running the mile in 4 minutes, 29 seconds.

“We didn’t expect him to do that well,” says Hughes. “I knew the talent he had — the raw talent.”

Months later, a stint at the Foss Running Camp for cross-country runners pushed Omar to train even harder. Omar ran at the camp with his cousin Said Ahmed, a professional runner and his mentor, along with other high school students from across Massachusetts.

“He makes me run a lot,” says Omar of his cousin, who was a seven-time All-American at the University of Arkansas. “It was fun … Everybody went out running in the woods.”

When soccer season started that summer, according to Hughes, Omar was still talking about track.

“There was this whole new Omar,” she says. “His attitude was there, his focus was there; he had more mileage behind him; we were doing extras. There was really no one that was going to touch him in the whole state meet.”

Race for the future

During Christmas break, Said came to Boston and ran at a Boston University track and field meet with several youngsters from Massachusetts schools. Omar ran a 4:19 mile, qualifying for nationals.

“If there’s somebody to lead the race, Omar will stick right on your shoulder, and then beat you at the end,” says Hughes.

Omar followed his Christmas run with a great 2008 indoor season, going undefeated in city meets and adding first-place finishes in the state outdoor championships in both his school’s division and in the all-state meet.

“Omar laps people in indoor, like, three times. It’s ridiculous,” says Hughes.

Omar won first place in the New England Indoor Track and Field Championship, as well, where he ran a 4:14 mile “looking like it was no problem,” says Hughes.

Then Omar placed fourth in the nationals, running the mile in 4:13. While he improved his time over the regional meet, he was upset that he didn’t win first place.

For her part, Hughes sees his performances as nothing short of phenomenal.

“But really, to look at the progression he made from sophomore year to junior year is amazing,” she says. “I think he’s going to break 4:10 in outdoor right away.”

Now, Omar is fully focused on the mile. He doesn’t miss training sessions and didn’t play soccer this year.

“All these colleges are calling now,” says Hughes. “We’re getting inundated with letters. They are all asking what he’s going to do.”

While she knows that a runner with Omar’s ability could get a professional contract, Hughes wants him to go to college. She says she strongly believes in education, “no matter how good you are in anything,” and that Omar isn’t just a runner — he’s very smart, too.

On top of that, Hughes doesn’t see any need to rush into the pros, since “a lot of the [distance] guys get good in the mid-20s.”

“If he goes to the right college that focuses on distance, it will be a great step for him,” she says.

Omar agrees. Even though he is putting a lot of effort into training, he is also studying hard to go to college, where he may study criminal justice.

“I’m having fun, I guess,” says Omar. “I’m going to school, I’m learning, I’m running track. I guess everything’s worked out.”