Mekora Tarapeh would run up the steep, pine-covered hills on the outskirts of Addis Ababa for hours with friends, not realizing that his running talent would eventually help bring him to Israel.
Tarapeh, 19, along with several other Falash Mura teenage boys, was identified by an Ethiopian-Israeli running coach. Soon after, Tarapeh’s family’s immigration request was granted after an eight-year wait.
Tarapeh now rises at dawn for runs with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.
He’s training as a long-distance runner at Hadassah-Neurim, a boarding school near Netanya that helps immigrant students fulfill their athletic potential.
"Here I’m with other athletes all day," he said. "My dream is to reach the Olympics, with God’s help."
The school’s new athletic stadium and track were officially inaugurated as the Marlene Post Athletic Center with a track-and-field meet earlier this month.
As a former Hadassah national president, Post had the honor of choosing a project that would bear her name, and she decided the youth aliyah enterprise spoke most to her.
"In sports you think differently, you approach life differently," Post said. The boarding school, known in Israel as a youth village, is funded by both Hadassah and the Jewish Agency for Israel, and has about 500 high-school age students, many from homes struggling financially.
Most are immigrants from Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union, although there are also native-born Israelis.
Being an athlete can be an expensive pursuit. There’s little national funding in Israel for young athletes, so the school offers a rare opportunity to achieve.
Hadassah-Neurim athletes have won hundreds of medals in Israeli championships and abroad.
Among the school’s top athletes is Regina Abdurashitov, 15. She immigrated with her family in ‘000 from Uzbekistan, where her parents worked as physical-education teachers.
In Israel, Abdurashitov’s mother works in a chocolate factory and her father as an auto mechanic. It would have been impossible for them to support her training in track and field, where she is focusing on the javelin, Abdurashitov said.
At the school Abdurashitov has her own coach and training regimen. She is ranked first in the country in her age group in the javelin.
"It gives me a feeling that I can accomplish goals," she said. "There is a feeling that all this effort is worth something when you see yourself progress.”