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Immigrants Of The Week: Lopez Lomong, Tony Azevedo, and Rebecca "Beki" Snyder

by Greg Siskind


Lopez By now you've probably heard the inspirational and gripping story of Lopez Lomong, the Sudanese-born US mid-distance runner who entered the US as a refugee. Tonight he will receive one of the greatest honors accorded an American athlete when he carries the flag of the United States in front of all of our country's athletes in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Because the ceremonies are not being shown in the US for four hours, many of you may have already seen them. The picture on the left is from the event.

Lomong was one of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" who were separated from their parents in the conflict in Darfur and wandered for months facing hunger, attacks and disease. NBC Television tells his story:

No prayer of survival
When Lomong was 6 years old, the second son in a line of six children born to a farmer in the village of Boya, Sudan was taken from his parents at gunpoint by the Janjaweed government militia while attending Catholic Mass. He was to be trained as a soldier, or starve to death. During three weeks of imprisonment, he ate once a day, a mixture of sorghum and sand.

Run for the border
Three older boys, all around age 14, had discovered a hole in the fence surrounding the prison camp and decided to attempt and escape and to bring Lomong with them. "They told me, 'You're going home', even though they knew we weren't," Lomong said. "They said that so I would join them. They were trying to save my life." For three days Lomong and his friends ran toward safety in Kenya. When they reached the Kenyan border, the three teens were too old to be accepted into a refugee camp, were arrested and returned to Sudanese officials. Only Lomong was granted refuge. "Anything I do in life, I put those guys in front," says Lomong, who cannot recall their names and has no idea if they survived. "They were more than brothers to me."

Schooling sets him free
Lomong spent 10 years living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, where he learned to write by drawing letters in the sand with his finger. But that rudimentary education was enough to help earn him liberation. "They told us that the U.S.A. wants to give 3,500 'Lost Boys' homes," Lomong said. "They said if you want to come to America, write an essay explaining why." For two nights Lomong and many of his friends worked in silence. "I remember it felt like taking a test," he said. "I just sat down, the whole of my mind emptied onto the paper. I wrote some of it in Swahili, I wasn't even aware of it."
One month later, his essay was chosen by the Joint Volunteer Agency, and he was on his way to America.

Lomong is also on Team Darfur, the international group of athletes urging China to pressure Sudan to end the violence in Darfur. Earlier this week, I told how another member of Team Darfur, America's Joey Cheek, had his visa revoked as the Chinese attempted to suppress conversation on the topic. But Lomong's mere presence on billions of television sets will no doubt bring more prominence to the story.

Lopez is a serious contender for a medal in every mid-distance race from the 800 meters up to the 5 kilometer run. His best chances will be in the 1500 meter race.

Lopez, America is proud of you!