Immigration ban brings sadness, fear to U.S. Olympian Lopez Lomong

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Monday January 30th, 2017

Late on the afternoon of July 6, 2008, on the running track at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, three men born outside the United States qualified for the U.S. Olympic team, taking the first three places in the 1,500 meters on the final day of the Olympic Trials. First came Bernard Lagat, who had come to United States from Kenya to attend college in 1996. Next was Leo Manzano, whose family emigrated from Mexico when Manzano was four years old (in 2012, Manzano would become the first American to medal in the 1,500 meters in 44 years). In third place was Lopez Lomong, one of the so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan, who had been abducted at age six during his country’s civil war, and eventually spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the United States in 2001 at age 16.

It was a race—and a moment—that seemed to affirm the very  best and most inclusive qualities of the United States and to underscore the possibilities of the immigrant experience on which the country was founded. After the race, the three men, all naturalized citizens, together expressed joy at not just their day’s accomplishment, but also their life’s opportunity. “This is America,’’ Lomong said. “This is the land of everybody.”

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Five weeks later, Lomong was voted by fellow U.S. Olympians in all sports to carry the American flag at the opening ceremony in Beijing. It is among the highest honors that can be accorded to any U.S. Olympian and a measure of the athletes’ respect for Lomong’s journey and all that it represented. Lomong made the Olympic team again in 2012, in the 5,000 meters. “I am so proud to wear the jersey with USA on the front,” Lomong says.

Last Friday evening Lomong, just turned 32 and still competing in professional track and field, was in an apartment in Flagstaff, Arizona, completing high-altitude training for the upcoming season, when President Donald Trump signed the executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven nations, including Sudan. “When I saw the news, I cried,” said Lomong Sunday in a telephone interview with SI.com. “I was very emotional about it. What if that document had been signed in 2001? Where would I be? I would have no career. I would have no degree. I would probably be dead.”

Trump’s executive order specifically targets nations with large Muslim populations, although not all nations that fall into that category. Sudan is nearly 99% Muslim, although Lomong’s family is Catholic. Trump’s ban, which has been partially blocked by federal courts and has prompted emotional nationwide protests, seems to allow for the possibility of admitting Christian refugees after the initial 120 days. Many aspects of the order remain very unclear.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Yet for Lomong, the order brought not only sadness, but also fear for the lives of two of his younger brothers, both of whom are college runners, living in the United States on student visas. Peter Lomong, 20, is at Northern Arizona University; and Alex Lomong, 19, is at Ohio State. Lomong first met his brothers—and his parents— during a 2007 return to Sudan for the filming of an HBO piece. He subsequently helped both Peter and Alex come to the U.S. in February of 2009, to enroll at Fork Union Military Academy, a private military high school in Virginia. Now Lomong, like so many others, worries about how his family might be treated in the wake of the immigration order.

“I don’t want to have to think about my brothers getting rounded up and deported,” said Lomong. “They have grown up here. They have friends here. They speak English, and they don’t even speak the language from our country. They are working on citizenship. If they have to go back, they will end up dying there. So we’re just praying for Alex and Peter. We’re praying that things will settle down. We’re praying that the administration will show forgiveness and allow them to pursue their dreams in America. They can come and live with me. I will do anything. I just want them to be safe.”

Lomong’s own story was a source of inspiration in the Olympic and running communities. He arrived in the United States on July 31, 2001, and was resettled in Tully, New York, outside Syracuse, and adopted by Rob and Barb Rogers, who also adopted two other refugees. “When I landed at Kennedy Airport, the only document I had in my hands was called an I-94 [immigration form],’’ says Lomong. “It took me two years of vetting before I could get that form. Then they gave me a booklet when I landed, the immigration booklet. It was the first booklet that I ever owned. It had a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the front. And it said, ‘Welcome to America.’ And then my [adoptive] family welcomed me and opened their hearts to me.”

Lomong competed for, and graduated from Northern Arizona University, where he won NCAA titles indoors and outdoors. He was just 23 when he made his first Olympic team and 27 when he made his second. In September of 2014, Lomong married Brittany Morreale, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who Lomong met while living and training in Colorado Springs. Morreale is currently a captain in the Air Force, stationed in Australia.

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Sixteen years after arriving in the United States, Lomong remains in the country’s thrall. “This is a country I love,” says Lomong. “We are a land of immigrants. It’s our diversity that makes us strong. What a fantastic thing it is to have that as our strength. We are a place that welcomes everybody. America allowed me to make new friends that are still my friends today. America allowed me to pursue my dream of an education and a life, and my hobby of running.”

Lomong lives most of the year near Portland, Oregon, and is training now in hopes of making the U.S. team that will compete at the world track and field championships in London next August. He says he is free of the injuries that have hindered him in recent years and which are the bane of many 30-something runners. He had been buoyant until Friday. “This is the only country in the world where I can go to bed at night, and know that you will wake up peacefully,” says Lomong. “This is not a country where you go to bed and think you might not see another day. I know that feeling. That’s why I felt so sad when that document was signed [by Trump].”

Lomong paused and then figuratively extended his hand. “I want people to come talk to me,” he said. “Please get to know me and other immigrants. Eat my food, come to my home. Understand why I wanted to come here. Understand what makes our country strong.”

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