Running free: former “Lost Boy” of Sudan logs miles to save refugees

Lopez Lomong has traveled a long way in his life. From a sordid, Sudanese prison camp to the ornate pavilions of the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing, one thread runs through his story: running was his path to success.

Lopez was abducted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army while attending a church service when he was only six years old. He was among 20,000 Sudanese children, called the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were uprooted from their homes in southern Sudan during the second Sudanese civil war.

For weeks, he was locked in an unsanitary hut in the camp, with little food. Many boys cooped up with him died during the night. But, with the help of three older boys, Lopez escaped. The fugitives ran for three days and crossed into Kenya where they were taken to a refugee camp. Lopez lived in the camp for 10 years.

“We are just living in a place that is a no–man land,” he says. “There is no flag flying over our heads. We do not have any place to call home.” He also faced ridicule there from other refugees.

“The name calling that you have to go [through] is really hard for a person who just ran away from death,” Lopez says. “And then now you’re being called something.”

But in the midst of his trials, God was working.

A dream is born

As a boy, his first love was soccer, but Lopez developed lightning speed as a runner when boys were required to run around the perimeter of the refugee camp – 18 miles – before being allowed to play on the camp’s soccer field.

“I ran fast because I loved soccer,” he says. When he was 15, he saw Michael Johnson run in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and it sparked something new in him.

“That gave me fire,” he says. “I didn’t get to see the golden shoes because it was a black–and–white TV, but I saw him running, and I looked at him, and I was like, ‘I want to be as fast as this human being.’ This man ran with a passion, with a love, with something greater than himself.”

As he watched Michael listen to the national anthem play, he saw a tear roll down his cheek. He saw the American flag being raised, and the emotions of winning a medal for your country touched him. He didn’t know how he could follow in Michael’s footsteps – especially given he was living in a refugee camp – but he knew that’s what he wanted to do. “I basically put it on God’s hands to help me get there,” Lopez says.

“A dream cannot happen without a hope and without God involved in it,” he says.

A new life in America

In 2001, Lopez left the refugee camp in Kenya to be resettled in America. About 4,000 Lost Boys came to the United States that year.

Lopez was adopted by Rob and Barb Rogers of Tully, New York, and settled into suburban America, where he marveled at hot and cold running water and indoor lighting. As a 16–year–old, he spoke only a smattering of English. His native tongue was Swahili, and he simply answered “yes” to everything. But Lopez was so eager to learn that he graduated from high school on time.

And of course, he kept on running. Lopez was the fastest runner in his high school and helped lead his cross country and track teams to sectional and state titles. Through his high school experience, he learned the true meaning of running together and says, “From that moment, another instinct of mine kicked in because I was not running for myself. I was running for my team.”

Then at Northern Arizona University, he won two NCAA championships. Lopez credits Barb and Rob not only with helping him secure a college education, but also regularly attending all his running events – a degree of parental support he says his fellow competitors did not enjoy.

Lopez turned pro in 2007 and became a U.S. citizen in time to qualify for US Olympic trials the following year.

In 2008, as a member of the American team, Lopez carried the United States flag for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he made it into the semifinals of the 1,500 meters. In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Lopez placed 10th in the men’s 5,000 meters race.

Lopez continues to train and travel extensively, both as a competitor and pacer for major international distance competitions.

Giving others a chance

What powers Lopez even more than his passion for running is an even deeper passion to help the most vulnerable people in his former country, South Sudan. It’s a passion he shares with his wife, Brittany.

“I was given an opportunity; I was given a chance to tell my story,” Lopez says. “It’s no longer about me. It’s about them. It’s about people going through all these things as we speak: the children who don’t have education, the kids who are dying every day … the poverty that people are going through right now.

“And clean water. Have you ever gone without clean water or even water? And yet there’s people walking 15 to 20 miles to just fetch two gallons of clean water somewhere, and it’s not enough.”

While establishing his career as an outstanding middle distance runner, Lopez started the Lopez Lomong Foundation in late 2011 to give back to his native South Sudan. The foundation joined with World Vision to launch the four South Sudan campaign to raise money and awareness to bring clean water, basic healthcare, access to education, and life-saving nutrition to children. Recognizing his advocacy work, Lopez was named the Visa Humanitarian of the Year in 2012.

To date, through the Hood to Coast Relay race – a fundraising venue in which participants run 199 miles from Oregon’s Mt. Hood to the Pacific coast – Lopez hopes his team surpasses the four million dollar mark in funds raised this year.

“I was more thinking about maybe $1,000, but four million dollar is fantastic, and it’s a blessing,” Lopez says. “God is with us, and God wants us to be able to continue doing this, providing clean water for the innocent people, women, children, and elderly in South Sudan and around the world.”

Lopez began working with World Vision and has seen the impact it’s making on people and their communities. “I found World Vision, because I know that they do noble work, amazing work, in all of the world,” he says. “I saw this in Kenya. I saw this also in South Sudan.

“You see the actual work be done, and they actually are helping people. Wherever World Vision goes to work, they will work for 10, 15, 18 years, and this is changing people’s mindset to be self–reliant and teaching people to be able to provide for themselves when World Vision leaves – giving them those powers and the way for them to be able to sustain themselves.”

Barb, Lopez’s adoptive mother, says he appreciates how difficult it is when people don’t have choices and opportunities. “I think that’s why he is trying to make a difference and help others,” she says. “Some people want to be known for the sake of being known, that’s not where he is at; that’s not his drive.”

His desire to help others extends to his family as well. Lopez is also proud of his two brothers, Peter and Alex, who are also runners, and brought them to the US to pursue their dreams. They are some of the fastest US collegians in their age bracket. Peter ran for the national champion Northern Arizona cross country team that won the 2018 NCAA Championships. Lopez jokingly chalks up their success to great genes and the fact that they had three square meals a day, unlike his one meal per day in the refugee camp in Kenya.

He’s grateful that his adoptive parents took a chance on him and welcomed him into their home. He also encourages others to learn more about refugees and support them.

“Refugees bring in different perspectives in life – different stories,” Lopez says. “And we should be able to embrace that. And we should be able to really encourage people, especially Americans, to go back and really get to know a refugee somewhere and talk to them and ask them where they came from. Why are they here? Because they didn’t just show up to come here. There is something that caused them to come here. … I hope we have people open their hearts the way they opened their heart for me and welcome these refugees and help them and care about them.”

Looking to the future

Lopez now has his sights set on making the 2020 US Olympic team. But the path to making the team doesn’t come without challenges for the now 34-year–old. He says, “Athletically, the older you get, every year, things get a little tougher. Your injuries linger a little bit longer.”

He was plagued by injuries for several seasons and didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team. Through those trials, his family, close friends, and coaches have encouraged him. “You have to have a strong base,” Lopez says. “Either I’ll win, either I’ll lose – they are still going to be there. They will support me. They will give me that comfort.”

He tries to stay focused on what God had allows him to achieve instead of getting down about what he can’t do. He says to himself, “Just look at where you came from, and look at what you accomplished so far. You know this is not the end. Yeah, you didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team, but, hey, you made two [Olympic teams]. How incredible is that?”

He also keeps his disappointments in perspective. “You always have to come back and say, ‘Okay, so today – today is tough. And maybe tomorrow will be okay,’” he says. “You don’t have to just all-of-a-sudden lose hope. I always go back to what brought me here. And I go back to the day when I was running in Africa for my life.

“It’s (running now) not about running away from people wanting to kill you. These are the things – you’re running to make you better and to make you stronger, and if it doesn’t go the way you need it, it’s okay.”

That motivation, outlook, and support from his loved ones helped him push through his injuries, and he won a national championship in the 10,000 meters in 2018. He’s now hopeful for 2020, but he has a renewed vision for why he’s still running. “I am doing this for joy now,” he says. “I am doing this to be able to thank the American people and also to thank God for the talent that he gave me.”

He also says he hopes he can encourage and motivate other children who may be refugees or living in difficult circumstances and show them that they can have dreams and follow them, even if it seems impossible.

“We all need motivation in life, you know,” he says. “We all need that little bit of pick–me–up kind of moment.”

Steve Haas and Kristy J. O’Hara–Glaspie of World Vision’s staff in the US contributed to this story.

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