A refugee, an amputee, a marathon runner: Abdifatah’s story

March 5, 2012

Abdifatah Dhuhulow takes a break from some training in London’s Hyde Park, February 17, 2012. ALERTNET/Shanshan Chen

For someone who struggles to run a few metres before collapsing with a stitch, I’m constantly amazed by the skill of long-distance runners, and used to think crossing the finishing line of a marathon was the height of physical achievement — until meeting Abdifatah Dhuhulow.

An amputee, Abdifatah lost his left leg due to injuries sustained as a young boy fleeing the outbreak of civil war in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in 1991.

The actual surgery, however, took place in London where he arrived as a refugee in 1998. It went ahead on the recommendation of surgeons who saw amputation as the most viable option, despite several operations on the leg.

By a quirk of fate, it was during Abdifatah’s long, painful rehab, that he made a life-changing discovery: he had a talent for running. In 2008, he competed in the London marathon, outpacing many able-bodied runners to clock up a finishing time of 3 hours 14 minutes.

A year later he was presented with a “Heroes of Running” award from British Olympic gold medal winner, Kelly Holmes.

“To give my consent for my leg to be amputated 13 years after the injury was not easy,” Abdifatah, 31, recalled.

“But right now, I can say that it was the best decision I have ever made in my life because before I couldn’t walk properly without feeling pain or using crutches but now, despite losing the leg, I can run a marathon – with no problem at all.”

On a recent cold, grey day in London’s Hyde Park, Abdifatah spoke of his love of running, his hope of helping Africa’s war amputees and how different it would have been been had he stayed in Somalia with his injury.

“I have this plan to run 555 miles in Rwanda to highlight the difference between the living standards of the disabled community living in developed countries and those in war-torn countries in Africa,” said Abdifatah, whose easy smile belies a steely determination.

“People with disabilities in Africa – they don’t have the same opportunity as those living in the developed world. People tend to crawl on their bottom because they don’t have access to mobility devices like wheelchairs or prosthetic legs.

“Deep down I feel there’s some sort of injustice – where you live defines who you are and limits what you can achieve,” he said. “I’m no different to the people like me in Africa and I believe that they too can overcome their barriers and achieve their potentials if they are given the opportunity.”


The runner: Somali amputee defies limits from Thomson Reuters Foundation on Vimeo.


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