LONDON – Glancing at the Olympic Stadium for the first time in five years, Zamzam Farah’s troubles momentarily wash away and she fondly reminisces about competing in the London Games.
“It was overwhelming,” the Somalian runner says. “It wasn’t like anything I had experienced before. The whole world was coming together.”
The London Olympics felt like a sanctuary from the suffering in Mogadishu, from the violent threats that failed to deter her from running those 400 meters in the 80,000-seat stadium as half of the two-person 2012 Somalia team.
Then came a knock on her bedroom door in the athletes’ village late one evening. A 21-year-old Farah was woken by a team official with disturbing information: Islamist extremist group al-Shabab had posted death threats on Facebook.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” Farah said. “I thought it was a joke.”
Until a call from Somalia.
“I don’t want to lose you, but you have to be safe,” Farah recalled being told by her mother. “It doesn’t matter how long we are separated from each other.”
It’s been almost five years now.
Farah had little choice but to pursue a new life in Britain. One that ultimately led her back to the Olympic Park on Wednesday, accompanied by The Associated Press, to look ahead to her fresh sporting challenge.
Farah is ready to run again. This time pounding the streets of the city that granted her asylum in Sunday’s London Marathon.
Permanent resident status was granted by the British government six months after the Olympics, on Feb. 28, 2013.
“The day I got the letter was so overwhelming,” Farah said. “I was jumping around. I couldn’t believe it.”
Starting a new life in London didn’t feel like a choice for Farah but a necessity. It wasn’t about collecting benefits from the state, but staying alive.
“It was a dark life,” Farah said. “Not to be going back to my country. Not having the freedom that anyone in this world would have of going back where he or she was born or belonged. It was really sad for me. But I still really appreciate being here and feeling more safe. I feel more happy. I can do what I want and follow my dream.”
Even as Farah seizes new opportunities in life — like taking a course in English and information technology — being separated from her family is a daily torment. And all because of the faceless, nameless extremists who endanger her life.
“It’s really painful to be running from someone you didn’t do anything wrong to,” Farah said. “If you do bad things to them or their family you would understand. But I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t know them (the extremists). I’ve never seen them before so it’s really hard. It’s painful how hard we lived.”
Perched on a bench in the Olympic Park, the tears begin to flow. She’s comforted by members of The Running Charity, the charity that found her in a London hostel and rekindled her passion for running.
Growing up in Somalia, Farah was a carefree teenager who lived for sports.
“Most of the people don’t like it that women do sport, they feel ashamed,” she said. “Some parents might disown you if you play sport. They think you would be a bad role model for the other kids.”
Not Farah’s mum who encouraged her daughter to pursue her dreams. There was soccer, handball and athletics, which involved training runs on the treacherous streets of Mogadishu to prepare for the 2012 Olympics.
“It wasn’t an easy journey, it was hard,” Farah said. “It was really like the ‘road of death’. Waking up in the morning and not knowing what will happen to you for the rest of the day. It was really dangerous.
“Sometimes there was a gunshot. My mind was on what I was doing but still I had the fear in my mind of whether I was going to come back home safely, or whether I would die today. That was my life.”
It is still the life for the rest of her family. Being so far from home as her 60-year-old mother underwent surgery last year was particularly painful, especially as her sister now has children of her own to look after.
“I felt guilty myself to be honest, because I felt I was responsible for everything that happened back home,” Farah said.
“It’s hard for me to miss my mum. What makes me sad all the time is not having my family here,” Farah said. “Everyone can see I’m really cool but I have a lot of pain inside.”
Farah dreams of the day it’s safe to fly home and use her British education to spread technology into the Somalian countryside.
“I can be a role model for other women who don’t have the power to do what they want to do,” she said. “I would say follow your mind and live by your heart, try to do what you want to do, don’t stop. Everyone has a time to die, you never know the day you will die but don’t die not doing what you wanted to do.”
Sport remains her passion. It’s why she will take on the 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) course around the streets of London in her first marathon. It’s why she wants to experience the joy of the Olympic spirit again in Tokyo.
“That’s my dream to do my sport,” she said. “I am planning to be back. The next Olympics coming, the one in 2020.”
Farah didn’t progress from the 400 heats in London. The 1,500-meter event is the target this time, but competing under which flag?
“Somalia is where I was born, where I grew up,” Farah said, “and Britain is where I live, which changed my life.”
They are both her countries now.
As the interview draws to a close on the Olympic Park, Farah is reflecting on how London provided her with a safe haven when a helicopter hovers directly above her.
“Hello,” she shouts up. “They are just making sure I’m safe.”
She heads off laughing, ready to return to what she loves: Running.
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports