Thursday, July 3, 2008

Add Lopez Lomong to my List of Heroes

Update on Aug. 7, 2008: a video from Beijing of Lopez Lomon on The Today Show:


From the International Herald Tribune, I saw this story on the Today Show this morning and bawled. How people overcome unthinkable situations and still smile at the end of it all, I don't know. Lopez Lomong is one of my heroes!

Link to article:

It was last Christmas when Lopez Lomong finally returned to the village where his parents buried him 17 years ago.

A small pile of rocks still marked a memorial, he said.

"No, I'm here," Lomong, 23, told himself. "I did not die."

His attempt this week to make the U.S. Olympic track team in the 1,500 meters will culminate a heart-wrenching journey from child prisoner in war-torn East Africa, to refugee among the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, to American citizen and elite middle-distance runner.

"After all he's been through, he's not easily rattled," said John Hayes, who coaches Lomong, a favorite to claim one of three Olympic spots in the metric mile. "He doesn't fear anyone."

At age 6, Lomong was swept into Sudan's long-running civil war. He and other children were abducted in 1991 by a government-backed militia as they attended Catholic Mass in the southern village of Kimotong. Lay on the ground, the soldiers ordered the parishioners. When Lomong's father tried to resist, he was hit with the butt of a gun. The boys were placed in a tarp-covered truck and driven away.

His parents futilely searched the area, then held a funeral in absentia. Lomong presumed his father and mother were dead, too, along with two brothers. For 12 years, he considered himself another orphan in a war between the Arab-dominated north of Sudan and the tribal black south. Eventually, two million people died and tens of thousands of children were enslaved.

Lomong remained in the militia's hands for three weeks. Nearly 100 boys were thrown into a room, he said, given sorghum mixed with sand, beaten when they tried to leave to use the bathroom. He watched others die around him from dysentery and lack of food, fearing he would also be left to waste away.

One moonless night, Lomong said, three teenage boys who knew his parents came to him. They had found an escape route from a work camp. One took his right hand, another his left.
"We are going to see your mother," they told him.

For two or three days the boys ran. They carried Lomong when he could not keep up and hid him in caves while they searched for water, bringing it to him cupped in leaves.
They trekked southward and encountered the Kenyan border patrol. Lomong was taken to the sprawling Kakuma Refugee Camp. He does not know what happened to the three teenagers, the ones he calls his angels. The Kenyan camp would become his home for 10 years; other lost boys would become his family.

They gathered firewood, shared rations of corn, played soccer with balls of wrapped paper, cleaning their compound, attended an informal school. A teacher stood at a blackboard placed in a tree, while the boys scratched letters and numbers in the sand. Relief workers began to call him Lopez, which supplanted his birth name of Lopepe. At night, the boys lay under the sky and the older ones told stories to the young.

"If the stars are together, that's how the family is," Lomong said, repeating a frequently told story. "They love each other. They rely on each other. Nothing will separate them."
In the summer of 2000, Lomong said, he and his friends ran 8 kilometers, or 5 miles, and paid five Kenyan shillings - an American nickel - to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television. Michael Johnson circled the track to win his second gold medal at 400 meters.
"I said, 'I want to run like that man,"' Lomong recalled.

A year later, Lomong learned from missionaries that approximately 3,500 residents of the Kakuma camp would be relocated to the United States. As instructed, he wrote a letter, told his story, had it translated into English. Weeks later, he received a reply. A friend read it to him: "You are going to America."

As part of a resettlement program, Lomong was sent to live near Tully, New York, outside of Syracuse, with Robert and Barbara Rogers. From the time he landed at the airport, Lomong was overwhelmed.

"When I told him we had to get our car, he thought I was kidding," Robert Rogers said. "He had walked to the airport in Kenya. He assumed we were walking home."

That first night at the Rogers's home, Lomong slept with the lights on because he did not know how to turn them off. He also did not know that a shower could be controlled for cold and heat.
"I was shivering so hard," the ebullient Lomong said with a laugh. "I thought that's how white people get white, they shower in cold water."

He enrolled in 10th grade at Tully High and showed a propensity for running. Rogers said that a neighbor told Lomong, "You're going to run in the Olympics." It stuck with him as he became a three-time New York state champion.

"He's never turned his head from that goal," Rogers said.

In 2003, still in high school, Lomong received a phone call from a friend in Syracuse, who was relaying a message: A woman who said she was Lomong's mother was looking for him in Kenya. Rogers thought it was a scam, someone seeking money.

"He was so excited; I was cringing," Rogers said.

Days later, a call came from a woman who had never before used a telephone. She kept asking to speak to her son, not understanding that a child's voice had become a young man's voice.

Lomong asked questions. The woman knew his name, his father's name. He grew convinced that the caller was his biological mother, Rita Namana. The family that he thought was dead was alive. He began crying. Even after he hung up, he kept asking himself, "Is it true? Was this a dream? Did I really speak to my parents?"

He had no money to visit his family, which had grown to four boys and a girl. Lomong was not yet an American citizen, so he had no passport. He focused on his running, attended Northern Arizona and won the 2007 NCAA outdoor championship at 1,500 meters, running a personal best of 3 minutes 37.07 seconds, before turning professional.

He was naturalized last summer and was also reunited with his biological family with the assistance of the HBO program "Real Sports." Last Christmas, Lomong traveled to Sudan and also visited his mother in Juja, Kenya, where a number of Sudanese refugees have settled outside the capital of Nairobi.

Many questions needed more complete answers: How had Lomong's family survived? How did his mother know he was alive?

The militia had left his parents alone, his mother said. She and his father, Awei Lomong, a farmer, then shuttled between Sudan and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. In 2003, Rita Namana had by chance heard someone mention her son's name, saying he had survived. Through the years, mother and son had been in the Kakuma camp at the same time, but scattered among 70,000 refugees, their paths had never knowingly crossed.

"I had no pictures," Lopez said of his family. "I didn't know what they looked like."

His mother now rents a room outside Nairobi, living with two sons and a daughter so they can attend school. Lopez had planned a relaxing visit with them over the Christmas holidays, along with a regimen of altitude training, but a disputed Kenyan presidential election led to an explosion of ethnic violence. Again, the Lomong family was thrown into chaos.

Hayes, the coach, contacted the State Department and arranged for Lopez to be taken to the airport in Nairobi. Lopez declined, sacrificing a month of training, renting a secure place where his family could sleep at night. Finally, Lomong returned to Colorado in early February, to resume his pursuit of the Beijing Games. Monday, he finished fifth in the trials at 800 meters, missing the Olympic team by 11 hundredths of a second. He is better at 1,500 meters.
"Before, I ran from danger and death," Lomong said. "Now, I run for sport. It would be an honor to represent the country that saved me and showed me the way."

1 holla'd back:

Lisa said...

Thank you for posting that story. He's amazing!

Post a Comment

Leave me some words!