Athlete's success puts spotlight on church's resettlement efforts
By Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The athletic success of a young man resettled in the United States as a Sudanese refugee in 2001 has shined a spotlight on the Catholic agency that helped him find a new home after years of life in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Lopez Lomong was among the 3,800 "lost boys of Sudan" who were resettled in the United States in 2001 with the help of the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services (MRS). He became a U.S. citizen in 2007, and today is an Olympian competing in the games in Beijing.
Lomong, a Catholic, qualified for the 1,500-meter run by finishing third July 6 at Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore.
On Aug. 6 Lomong's teammates on the U.S. Olympic team chose him to carry the U.S. flag during the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies.
Not only were his friends and his foster parents, Barb and Rob Rogers of Tully, N.Y., celebrating his success, but so were officials at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. MRS helped resettle Lomong in the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., where he is a member of St. Leo's Church in Tully. Catholic Charities also helped him get resettled and find a home with the Rogers family.
"Lopez Lomong's selection to lead the U.S. Olympic team will remind the world that the United States remains a beacon of hope for refugees around the globe, and will remind all Americans of our history as a welcoming nation," said Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Migration.
In a statement Aug. 7, he called it "a proud moment, not only for Lopez and his fellow Olympians, but also for our nation."
Johnny Young, executive director of MRS, also applauded Lomong's selection as flag bearer.
"It is incredible to think that a young boy who fled violence in his home country is now the flag bearer for his new country at the Olympics," said Young.
"It is a testament to the U.S. refugee program and shows us that former refugees have much to contribute to our nation. It also demonstrates that a generous U.S. refugee policy can save lives and that the Catholic Church can play a role in that," he said.
Each year the United States welcomes up to 60,000 refugees from around the world, with MRS and Catholic dioceses across the country assisting about one-quarter of them.
Julianne Duncan, now associate director of children's services for MRS, worked in 2000 at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the camp where Lomong was living before he came to the U.S.
She was deployed there by the International Catholic Migration Commission under contract with the United Nations.
She was very involved with the case of the "lost boys," so called because they were driven from their tribal villages and separated from their parents during the height of their country's civil war, from 1993 to 2003. Refugee camps became their home.
Duncan's job was to interview the boys who were still under 18 and process their cases to determine which of them would be resettled in the U.S. "The majority of the children who qualified under the 'lost boys' initiative left home in 1987 and traveled to Ethiopia under extreme conditions," Duncan told Catholic News Service. The boys then made their way from Ethiopia to Kenya.
"Those now 25 years old were 4 years old in 1987 and most unaccompanied children at that age did not survive.... Caretakers report horror stories of their arrival in Ethiopia at that time before the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNHCR [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] brought food and other necessities, while the smallest children continued to die in very large numbers," she said.
According to MRS, Lopez was 16 when he came to the U.S. in July 2001 as an unaccompanied refugee minor and remained in the MRS program until 2006, while completing his schooling.
"The Catholic bishops were very instrumental in the resettlement of the 'lost boys' overall, by identifying this group of the 'lost boys' as a group of concern to the U.S. government, and (they) arranged with the government that they would have a group resettlement opportunity in the United States," said Duncan.
The bishops on the migration committee and MRS staff traveled to the refugee camps in Kakuma a number of times in 1998 and 2001. "These children would still be in this refugee camp if it had not been for the Catholic bishops," said Duncan.
Contributing to this story was Salesian Father Anthony Lobo.
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