TSEGAI TEWELDE, one of three Scots named for the Olympic marathon in Rio de Janeiro, has revealed that he risked his life five months ago to return to Eritrea to see his sick mother.

His is a magnificent story of glorious human endeavour and triumph over adversity.

The 26-year-old Shettleston Harrier received pro-bono advice from Easterhouse lawyer Frank Irvine and assistance including food, clothing and furniture from the club when six Eritreans sought political asylum after the 2008 World Cross-country Championships in Edinburgh. They were threatened with enforced conscription which could last decades. Now Tsegai has a British passport and on Sunday, he secured his Olympic berth.

Last November, his mother was: "very sick. She was phoning me, crying. I was very sad. It was very stressful," Tewelde told me. "I knew the risk of returning, but I needed to go. You can understand why. How would you feel? My mother, who gave me everything in life?"

He avoids comment about the Eritrean regime. "I'm not interested in politics. I am not part of the political system. I'm an athlete, but I am pleased I have got a life in Britain."

Yet, just months after a UN inquiry last year reported the Eritrean government was responsible for systematic human-rights abuse on a "scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere", he returned to the land of his birth, to the family home in Adi Gebray, barely 20 miles south from the capital, Asmara. During the asylum process, he had no papers. "It broke my heart when I could not go back for my brother's funeral when he was killed by a landmine," he says.

His brother, Tensgen, was nine, a year older than he himself had been when he and his friend detonated a landmine while herding sheep. His friend died, as did his own grandfather in a similar incident.

Tsegai was fortunate to survive. "I remember nothing. I was unconscious," he says. A metal plate was inserted in his skull, and he required further surgery years after arriving in Scotland. Medical care in rural Eritrea is basic. "There are small clinics, but no hospitals in remote areas. Appendicitis is frequently fatal."

Yet even carrying the plate and numerous shrapnel scars, he showed warrior qualities. Though still a youth, he reached the 1500m final at the 2006 World Junior Championships. He twice broke his country's junior record and finished fifth. He was 17, competing against 20-year-olds. The shepherd boy dreamed of the Olympics, but in the wildest of those never did he think it might be for Britain – until his GB passport came through last autumn. He'd wanted to compete in Glasgow 2014, and admits he was demotivated, both by the time it took and worries about his family. In more than four years he raced only three times.

Agostina Desta, an interpreter with the Glasgow Translation Service, advised him to carry on running, or risk death here: "because they realise they have effectively abandoned their families for life. Sometimes they are paralysed by freedom," he said.

Tewelde set an Eritrean junior record of 3:42.1 in that 2006 final. At the same age, Scotland's greatest miler, Graham Williamson, ran an identical time – a UK age-group record. Yet scant notice was paid by athletics officialdom to developing his talent as a change of allegiance ground slowly through the global body's process.

Despite winning national titles for Shettleston, it was seven years before he gained a first Scottish vest, last November. Within days he flew to Asmara and an emotional reunion with his mother and six brothers and sisters. He trained there at nearly 3000 feet, with Ghirmay Ghebreselassie, winner of the world marathon title last year. "He gave me advice, and helped me when we got to London," said Tewelde.

"I built up my training, and from December we trained 40k a day [150 miles a week], in a group of six."

He has worked as a kitchen porter and dish-washer, and most recently in a care home. He has also taken a coaching qualification. He is idolised by his young Shettleston clubmates.

Tsegai regards Mackay and his wife, Elaine (both former international athletes) as "mum and dad". They seem certain to raise sponsorship and land a shoe contract, but if not, the club will fund altitude training. The $7000 he won in London will take time to arrive. It represents almost 13 years' in Eritrean average wage terms – in excess of £300,000 by UK standards.

Tewelde's parents were farmers and he says the children "never went hungry . . . We had a tap in our house, and electricity."

His time in 2006 was the world best by a 17-year-old, yet as he stands on the brink of Olympic fufilment, he avoids talk of 10 wasted years, though he's aware of 2006 contemporaries' success: significant honours and money. The silver medallist, Moroccan Abdelaati Iguidir, was fifth in the 2008 Olympics and took Olympic bronze in London and then World bronze, plus gold silver and bronze at three World Indoor Championships; bronze medallist Bilal Mansoor (a Kenyan who switched to Bahrain) reached two Olympic and two World finals; and seventh-placed Spaniard, Alvaro Rodruigez, won the European U23 1500m title in 2007 and World Universiade silver.

"It's time to move on," says Tewelde. "I am just 26 – plenty of time left."

He gives gracious thanks to his club, Glasgow, Scotland and the UK for adopting him. And to The Herald for championing his cause from the start. We won the Scottish Refugee Council media award for that in 2014.