Lopez Lomong came to America as a Sudanese refugee in 2001, became a citizen in 2007 and carried the U.S. flag at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.
When two-time U.S. Olympian Lopez Lomong heard the news that his biological father died last year, he cried. He says he cried even more when he learned about President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration.
Trump’s order banned entry into the United States from seven majority Muslim countries for 90 days, including Sudan, where Lomong was born, and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.
He could not do anything for his father — “because he is in heaven now” — but Lomong was devastated that people who wanted to come to America for protection have been barred.
“This is a place I can reach for my stars, reach for my dreams, do anything I can to better my life and the life I left behind,” he told ESPN.com by phone. “What if that executive order was signed on July 31, 2001, when I arrived at JFK Airport? Basically, I wouldn’t have a career in life. I wouldn’t have the college degree that I have. I could not have a political ambition that I have right now.
“I would probably be dead if I didn’t have an opportunity to come to this nation.”
America is a country of hope and opportunity, Lomong said. “And now we are thinking about maybe putting the lid on that hope.”
Lomong’s story, which he related in his biography “Running For My Life,” is one that should inspire people and provide understanding of what some refugees endure.
He was a 6-year-old in Sudan during the country’s civil war in 1991, when a group of armed rebel soldiers kidnapped him and several other boys. The soldiers placed them and many others in cramped quarters for the purpose of turning them into soldiers as well. Some were beaten. Some died. Eventually, Lomong and three others escaped and ran away, crossing the border into Kenya three days later. Believing his parents were dead (he found out later they were not), he lived for 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Those young refugees became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” At age 16, Lomong was one of the 3,500 of those refugees who were allowed into the United States with help from Catholic Charities. He was adopted by Rob and Barbara Rogers in Syracuse, New York, where he started to become a competitive runner. And a great runner.
Seven years later, Lomong carried the U.S. flag as he led his fellow Americans into the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Then-President George W. Bush, who had inspired Lomong with his post-9/11 speech, met with him and said, “Welcome to America.” Lomong ran the 1,500 meters with fellow American runners Leonel Manzano, who was born in Mexico, and Bernard Lagat, who was born in Kenya. Not only that, the U.S. flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies was Khatuna Lorig, who immigrated to America from the Republic of Georgia.
“What if that executive order was signed on July 31, 2001, when I arrived at JFK Airport? Basically, I wouldn’t have a career in life. I wouldn’t have the college degree that I have. I could not have a political ambition that I have right now. I would probably be dead if I didn’t have an opportunity to come to this nation.”
“We all came together in one flag,” Lomong, now 32, said. “We ran the 1,500 and I got the opportunity to carry that beautiful American flag in the opening ceremony. What other country would give [that opportunity] to a kid like myself?”
With Trump’s new policy, the question is whether certain refugees will get the opportunity to even come to this country, let alone represent it in the Olympics.
Rob and Barbara Rogers, for instance, have been foster parents to five other refugees from Sudan (and also briefly housed 11 from Kosovo in 1999). Four, including Lomong, are now U.S citizens, but two only have green cards. Rob says he told the two with green cards to not even think about going to see friends in Canada because they “might not be allowed back into this country.”
Rob Rogers says that contrary to some assertions, the vetting process for refugees trying to move to America is a long and involved one.
“It takes a lot of effort to get here,” he said. “Not all refugees get to come here. The ones who come here have already showed their mettle.”
When Lomong was approved and landed in America, he had little more than an immigration form and book that had the Statue of Liberty and the words “Welcome to America” on it. He quickly grew to love his new country. He became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and also married Brittany Morreale, a captain in the Air Force. He represented his adopted country at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
“America is the beautiful,” Lomong said. “I love this country more than anything. I wasn’t born here, but this is my adopted land, and I love this country. I think the American public, we need to learn how diverse we are and that is obviously our strength. That is the way of binding us together and sharing our stories. Because we know that diversity is what makes America America.”
“If anybody out there has a doubt about a refugee, just go out and talk to that person and get to know that person and why they came here.”
Rogers says that he probably has met more refugees than most people and all were very hard-working and dedicated.
“Every [refugee] I’ve ever met is extremely grateful to be here and they are extremely hard workers,” Rogers said. “These people come from all different walks of life. A lot of the Kosovans, they were accountants or were dentists and anything, but their licenses didn’t apply. So they worked in places like furniture factories. They worked hard. And I never heard them complain.”
During a three-day visit to his native south Sudanese village of Kimotong in 2007, Lomong says 24 children died. “Death is a daily reality in equatorial Africa,” he wrote in his book. He has set up the Lopez Lomong Foundation to raise money for clean water, health care, education and nutrition in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011. He also brought his two younger brothers to America to receive an education.
He calls America an amazing country, the hopeful country, “the land of everybody.” He wants people to reconsider the ban.
“We don’t want to be dividing people. We want to be able to unite people. We want to keep everyone together,” Lomong said. “That’s what I will continue to believe. Because this country is an amazing country. And God bless it. It is just going to get better and better, and we just have to keep praying and we will get through this.”