On training runs through the woods, two-time Olympian Lopez Lomong’s mind frequently wanders back in time.
He thinks about arriving in this country as one of the ”Lost Boys of Sudan ,” with nothing more than a book featuring the Statue of Liberty on the cover. He remembers becoming a U.S. citizen in 2007 after being among the thousands of young civil war refugees brought to the nation. And proudly wearing the red, white and blue as the middle-distance runner carried the American flag at the 2008 Beijing Games.
That’s the inviting country he knows – the one to which he brought two brothers from Africa so they could run at American colleges. The one that hopefully someday welcomes his mom and sister, who remain back in Africa.
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Now, Lomong’s new home created fresh fear with President Donald Trump’s order to suspend all immigration for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days.
It weighs on him.
”I’ve been crying since I was 6 years old when I was taken away from my family. I don’t want to cry again,” Lomong said in a phone interview from Flagstaff, Arizona, where he’s training. ”I don’t have tears anymore.”
Lomong was a child when rebels kidnapped him from the arms of his mother at a church service in his village in South Sudan. He escaped from the rebel camp with three older boys, running for three days before being taken by Kenyan border patrol troops to a refugee camp.
There, he stayed for a decade before being told about the ”Lost Boys of Sudan” program. He wrote an essay about his life, and was selected to live with an adoptive family in the United States. He arrived on July 31, 2001, with nothing more than the clothes on his back – and that book featuring Lady Liberty.
”It was a blessing to come to this country,” said Lomong, who attended Northern Arizona University and rose to the ranks of All-American.
In 2008, Lomong was part of a U.S. men’s 1,500-meter contingent headed to the Olympics that was truly diverse, joining Leo Manzano, who was born in Mexico, and Bernard Lagat, from Kenya.
”We were one team, wearing the same uniform, wearing the same colors. To me, that right there is what America is all about,” said the 32-year-old Lomong, who is making a movie about his lifelong journey. ”We were one.”
He counts being picked to carry the flag for his new country in Beijing as one of his most treasured honors. He couldn’t stop grinning on his trip around the stadium.
Thousands of miles away, two young boys were watching from a one-bedroom apartment in Kenya, on a television bought for them by their big brother. Peter and Alex Lomong vividly remember the feeling of pride as they watched Lopez representing America that day.
They wanted to follow in his footsteps. He helped open the door.
Peter and Alex each attended Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, because their future coach/guardian saw an ”HBO’s ”Real Sports” episode on Lopez and was so touched that he reached out to the family. The brothers moved in with coach Winston Brown and his wife in 2009 – and flourished. Both siblings are now runners in college – Peter a sophomore at Northern Arizona, and Alex a freshman at Ohio State.
”They were fantastic additions to not just our family but to the community,” Brown wrote in an email. ”The most remarkable part was Lopez’s trust in Beth and I. He is a one-in-a-billion human being.”
Peter echoes that sentiment.
”I’m able to read, able to speak English, able to tell myself I have a future – all because of my big brother,” Peter said. ”He’s an idol to me.”
And constantly looking out for them, which is why Trump’s order is so distressing to Lopez. It pauses America’s entire refugee program for months, and temporarily freezes immigration from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan.
He just wants his brothers – all immigrants – to have a chance at success. He also wants his siblings close, so he doesn’t have to worry about them.
”They’re just kids and want to learn. They want to do something to change their lives,” said Lopez, who also made the U.S. team for the 2012 London Games. ”My brothers are here, and doing so great. I want them to be safe. I don’t want to lose anybody else.”
Lately, he’s experienced quite a bit of loss.
At the 2016 Olympic Trials, he was running with a heavy heart. He said he lost his dad and two other brothers in Africa – all within a span of a few months and with no explanation. He didn’t get to attend their funerals.
Someday, Lopez hopes to bring his mom and sister to the United States and reunite the family.
”I want them to be in this country, with the safety and the freedom that we all hold dear in this country,” Lopez said. ”I represent this country with all my heart. I want to win a gold medal for this country. I want to do anything for this country.”