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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lost Boy of Sudan Finds Home and Offers Olympic Hope...

Running with a purpose...
It was in the middle of a hot summer night at a rebel camp in Sudan in 1991. Hundreds of children, who had been abducted from their families to be trained as soldiers, including one group that was taken during Sunday morning Mass three weeks before, and being kept in cramped, unventilated one-room huts, with no windows, were probably trying to rest. Or maybe, after weeks of being fed only a mixture of grain with sand, were so lethargic, that they were just barely staying alive.

The prisoners, some as young as four, were terrorized by their captors, who would beat them savagely for simply asking to go to the bathroom and many, especially the younger ones, would fall asleep; never to wake up again.

Heavily armed soldiers, some not much older than their prisoners, patrolled the camp, ready to shoot or introduce the butt of a riffle to the head of anyone that stepped out of line.

And, four boys; three teens and a six-year-old, who they knew from their small village in Southern Sudan, sneaked out of their hut in the cover of the night and quietly crawled on their bellies to a hole they had spotted in the perimeter fence.

They could hear the voices of soldiers talking nearby but they kept going, as fast and as quietly as they could, afraid of looking back.

As the boys slid through the hole, they started running, and running, and running. They couldn’t stop; all night and all day. They were not only scared of falling prey to rebel soldiers, who would no doubt shoot them dead on the spot without a second thought, but also the wild animals in the Sudanese savanna.

They ran for three days and nights through the rough terrain and in the sweltering heat of the African summer. Their bare feet bleeding, their lungs gasping for air and their legs in severe pain, but they kept going; the older boys having to carry the younger boy at times.

And, with each stride they took, they got closer to their destination; which in their mind was home. Only, instead of heading east towards Kimotong, where they lived, they were running south towards Kenya...

My family and I are really enjoying the Summer Olympics. Every night, we sit around the TV, even during dinner (I know, not the best example to set!) and watch everything from beach volleyball to water polo and everything in between. Not to mention, we are going to sleep way past the kids’ bedtime (and mine!) and are all dragging our feet to get ready in the morning. Good thing it ends Sunday!

We’ve gotten to know and felt a part of Jordyn Wieber’s heartbreak and Missy Franklin's triumph.

We’ve cheered and watched endless stories about Misty May-Trainor and Kerri Walsh, en route to their gold medal three-peat, 15-year-old Katie Ledecky’s improbable 800-meter freestyle swimming victory, Gabby Douglas, Wieber, Franklin, Michael Phelps, and two of our favorites; (because they are Cuban-Americans) Danell Leyva and Ryan Lochte.

But, no story is as compelling, at least for me, than 5000 meter runner, Lopez Lomong’s.

By now, many people, except for me, until my wife told me recently, know the inspiring story of Lopez Lomong; from a poverty stricken village in Africa, where people still live in mud huts with no running water or electricity, to being kidnapped by rebel soldiers and his heroic escape, to being adopted by an upstate New York couple, whose only son was already in college, and they responded to an ad in their parish bulletin (St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Tully) looking for foster parents to take in the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

It is an amazing story. Shortly after crossing the Kenyan border, agents picked the boys up and sent them to a United Nations refugee camp near Nairobi, where the 6-year-old, Lomong, would spend the next 10 years of his life.

After a couple of weeks, the older boys would disappear and Lomong would never see them again. By then, he also thought his parents had been killed by the rebel soldiers. From that tender age, he had to live on his own; making friends, learning to read and write, attending church, playing soccer and running.

In fact, it was there, that, because of food shortages (refugees would get just one meal a day), he started running (18 miles each day; the perimeter of the camp) to keep his mind off his hunger.

It was there that the young boy, who was named Lopepe by his mother (which means fast, in his native language), got the nickname, Lopez, which he later officially adopted.

And, it was there that a group of boys talked him into walking five miles to a nearby village to watch the 2000 Olympics in Atlanta on a grainy black and white TV and saw U.S. runner Michael Johnson win the gold medal in the 400-meter race, setting the spark of his Olympic dreams.

Soon afterwards, a Catholic priest at the camp told him to write an essay about his life because the United States Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Service (MRS) had received permission to take some of the children in the refugee camp to America.

He told Christianity Today recently that he started his essay about church, where he was first abducted, and ended with church, where he learned of the opportunity for freedom.

Lopez with parents; Robert and Barbara Rodgers...
In 2001, ten years after being snatched from his mother's arms, Lomong, was one of the 3,800 “Lost Boys of Sudan,” brought into the United States that year by the Church. He was placed in the home of a Catholic couple, Robert and Barbara Rodgers, who said after much soul searching and consideration, decided to open their home to the 16-year-old boy, who they knew nothing about.

“There were a lot of concerns but I figured that if God had told us to do this, he probably had a handle on things,” Robert Rodgers says. In fact, the experience with Lopez was so rewarding that the couple later took in five more Sudanese boys.

Since first arriving at JFK Airport, a lot has happened in Lomong’s life. He became a high school cross country track standout in Tully. He went back to Africa and was reunited with his mother and family, who also thought he was dead and had buried him in absentia, and met two brothers he didn't know he had. He became an American Citizen and made the U.S. Olympic Team in 2007 and two years later, he traveled back to Africa to bring his younger brothers to the U.S. to attend school. 

It's enough to fill a book and it has.  His autobiography Running for My Life; One Lost Boys' Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games, was recently released.

Through it all, Lomong has remained humble, optimistic and grateful to God for everything he has endured. Moreover, he is using his stardom to bring attention to the plight of his homeland and started a foundation, the Lopez Lomong Foundation 4 South Sudan, to raise money and awareness to provide basic needs for his village, including the building of the Lopez Lomong School and Kimotong Reconciliation Church, the Catholic Church where he was abducted from in 1991, which was destroyed during the years of civil wars.

On Saturday, when he steps on the track in London to compete in the 5000 meters finals, which my family and I will no doubt be watching, Lopez Lomong will not only be running for a gold medal, his adoptive country and teammates. He will be running for God, all those that made an impact on his life and to give hope to the children of his homeland and around the world that a poor boy from Kimotong, Sudan, who didn’t have a family or home, can grow up to, not only have both, but be an Olympic champion…


Jorge Costales said...

Great story - I was already interested in that race due to the Alberto Salazar connection

Carlos Espinosa said...

Galen Rupp also attended Catholic school. I would like to see them both do well and medal, although it won't be easy.
There's a third American, Bernard Lagat, running as well.
I read it starts at 11:30am, stay tuned...