Ex-Ethiopian refugee pins next hope on Commonwealth Games

Bendere Oboya Source: SBS

At just 17 years old, Bendere Oboya is already Australia's third-fastest woman over 400 metres. And after winning two gold medals at the Commonwealth Youth Games earlier this year, the former Ethiopian refugee is now targeting higher honours. Adrian Arciuli reports.

Bendere Oboya cannot remember much about the African years of her childhood, even where exactly they played out.

After she was born in Ethiopia, her parents sought refuge elsewhere, and it all gets a bit blurry.

"I do know that I travelled a lot before I came to Australia. So, we went to, like, other countries. I know we went to Kenya before coming here. I still have an image of the hotel we actually stayed at in Kenya, but I don't have any memory of Ethiopia."

Oboya was just three years old when she arrived in Australia, along with her parents and five siblings.

Much of her wider family remains in Ethiopia.

"My mum has actually, like, talked about going back, but I don't think she'll, like, let me go back, maybe not in, like, that certain area. But, yeah, I don't think it's ... apparently, right now, it's not really safe, so it's best to stay here."

Oboya grew up in western Sydney.

She says that was not the easiest experience either.

"I was really a shy kid, so it was hard. So, like, someone would talk to me, I would just be like, 'Wow, they're actually talking to me!' But it was really hard to make friends. But once I got older, and I got out more ..."

In the meantime, at a young age, she developed a passion for athletics that would give her a pathway to success.

And it was the athletes from back in her homeland who caught her attention.

"I was watching with my dad, and I don't remember what year it was, but seeing those Ethiopians, their strides, how their endurance and stuff ... I was like, wow! It really inspired me."

She admits she was not always winning medals.

But it changed when she met experienced coach Greg Smith last year.

He rates Bendere Oboya as one of the best he has ever coached.

"Now, in terms of rankings, she's probably one of the top three best athletes I've coached. At the time when she came in, she was probably just one of the little (ones) that I had out here. In terms of her success now and the performances she's been doing, I'd say she's probably one of the top three I've trained in my 10 years here in Australia."

In July, the 17-year-old Oboya won the 400-metres event at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas, beating out fellow Australian Ella Connolly.

Smith was jubilant.

"I'm jumping and jumping, and, when she caught her and won the race, I actually had my Adidas slides on. They went flying everywhere. I fell. And it was just overwhelming joy to see how hard she worked to come back and win that. And so it was, to me ... even to this day, I pinch myself and say, 'Wow, I've trained a Commonwealth youth champion!'"

Oboya admits she did not expect to win that race.

"I think it took me a week to, like, actually realise that I won. So, it didn't process in my head that fast."

But now, she is just six-tenths of a second away from running the time required to qualify for next year's Commonwealth Games on Queensland's Gold Coast.

If selected for Australia, she says, she hopes to inspire other young African refugees.

"If you want to represent this country, you should do it not because, like, someone else told you to but because you want to."

Oboya has improved her personal-best time by three seconds already this year, leading Greg Smith to suggest it is just the start of a promising career.

"When you look at certain areas like her starts, the strength levels, and you look at all those areas and see that she's still a baby in those areas, you can see that she still has any amounts of potential to go even faster in this event."


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