Wednesday, August 06, 2008

That looks like "USA" on his jersey to me

ESPN did a "feel good" story on Lopez Lomong, the member of the United States Olympics Team elected by his fellow athletes to carry the flag at the opening ceremonies. His story is one that Americans should hear more often when we think the world would be full of fuzzy niceness if we all just gave each other a big hug.

He calls himself Lopez Lomong now; he gave himself that nickname when he lived for nearly a decade in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. That's where the border police took him and the three other boys after they made a beeline to the southeast, out of Sudan and the throes of a civil war that had engulfed the continent's largest nation. The conflict was one of the world's bloodiest of the latter half of the 20th century, with nearly 2 million civilians ultimately losing their lives and another 4 million being forced to flee their homes.

Kakuma is where tens of thousands of Sudanese ended up, a cramped, makeshift compound where many boys and girls passed through adolescence under the care of the United Nations and international relief organizations. They learned Swahili and English in open-air classrooms and played soccer for hours every day on the dusty, unlined lots. Some of the lucky ones, like Lomong, got moved to public schools outside the capital city of Nairobi. But where to from there? No one could really know what the future held.

There was hope in the unseen: The U.S. government was offering visas to resettle about 3,800 of the displaced boys in 38 states. Unsure whether his parents were even alive anymore, Lomong wrote an essay in 2001 describing his life story and desire to come to America. The immigration gatekeepers were sold, and at age 16, he was placed on an airplane, a first for him, headed for Cairo, then another bound for Beijing, another headed to John F. Kennedy Airport, and finally a commuter jet set for Syracuse, N.Y. Greeting him at the gate, just six weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were his new foster parents, Robert and Barbara Rogers, who had learned of the resettlement program through their Catholic church. They held aloft a sign that read, "Welcome Joseph," in reference to his baptized name that he had picked up in Kimotong.

"There aren't too many Africans coming into Syracuse, so it was pretty easy to pick him out," Barbara Rogers said.

He will lead the Americans in the parade in the capital city of the chief supporters of the government that had declared war on its own people because they were different. Lomong was a Christian Black African. The oppressors of Sudan are Arab and fundamentalist Muslims, and the government is supported by China.

It may be a futile gesture in the long run, but even grabbing one symbolic moment out this Beijing disaster is worth attempting.

Unfortunately, as Dr. Bear points out at Packerama, some of the commenters over at the ESPN website are still looking for a "real American."

Let's see. He fled terrible oppression and genocide. Eventually he made his way from the refugee camps of Kenya to the United States where, by virtue of his talent, he is now a member of the United States Olympic Team.

He looks a lot more like an American to me than some of those whiners in the ESPN comments.