High School Football

Pilate's Chiawana family: African kicker finds home in Pasco

PASCO -- In the movies, Pilate Lopaya would have made the kick.

There would have been dramatic music, a slow-motion approach to the football and then myriad dizzying angles of the football tumbling through the air before falling through the goalposts and back to earth, a winning extra point for the Chiawana Riverhawks in their state quarterfinal playoff game against Ferris 10 days ago.

There would have been a wild celebration, fans flooding the field, and Pilate (pronounced pilot) getting a ride on the shoulders of his teammates.

He would have pointed to the stands, where all eight of his brothers and sisters sat next to his mother, providing a moment of joy for a family that has seen too much sorrow.

In the movies, it would have been the happiest of endings, rather than a 13-7 playoff loss and the end of the season for Pilate and his teammates.

In life, happy endings rarely come that easy, if at all.

And few have learned that lesson as well and as hard as Pilate, and it has nothing at all to do with winning or losing a football game.

Out of Africa

To follow the story of Pilate and his family, you have to travel back 18 years and nearly 8,000 miles to the south of Sudan, an African nation that has seen little but war since becoming independent in 1956.

In 1992, "genocide" wasn't a word with which the world was familiar, but it didn't make it any less real. Villages are raided, the men and boys mutilated or killed, and the women carried away.

In a civil war that started in 1983, an estimated 2 million people are killed, claiming 1 in 5 civilians living in southern Sudan. It is from this horror that husband and wife Loonyera Tobias and Marcellina Awony flee, joining some 4 million others displaced by the fighting.

They send their oldest son, 8-year-old Michael Sakamoto, to live with an aunt in Uganda -- it is common in the culture for children of the same parents to have different last names.

Soon after, they follow on foot with their second son, Lam, and spend the next three nights sleeping in the bush and traveling on foot to a refugee camp just over the border in the Masindi region. Daughters Paska and Josephine remain behind with family, too young to make the hard trek.

"We didn't want to leave our home, but we just didn't have a choice," said Michael, now 25 years old and finishing up a double major in international affairs and children's studies at Eastern Washington. "We wanted to stay."

They wanted to live, which meant leaving almost everything -- possessions, friends, jobs. But in a tragic turn, the family fled from one civil war smack into another one brewing in northern Uganda.

With thousands of Sudanese fleeing into Uganda every day, tensions are high and violence erupts. The camp where the family has reunited with Michael is attacked. Loonyera and Marcellina take their boys farther from the border, southwest to Hoima.

It's from Hoima that Marcellina takes a transport back to Masindi and then traces her journey back home to get her girls. The family is finally together -- and growing. Five more children are born in the camps -- Pilate, Joyce, Jennifer, Charity and Evelyn.

There is a sense of relief, but life is not easy. Loonyera, a mechanic by trade, has had to learn farming and fishing to feed his family. They live in a thatched hut with dirt floors.

Tuberculosis, malaria and cholera are rampant in the overcrowded camps, which rarely have a clean source for water.

"Every day, every day people are dying in the camp," Michael said.

It is a 12-year odyssey for the family. Along the way, they move to a third camp in Kyangwali, which has the same difficult conditions but is farther from the fighting.

The whole time, Loonyera and Marcellina make sure their kids are going to school, often in makeshift tents. When Michael finishes, he becomes a teacher. He laughed as he recalled sending Josephine to the principal's office for forgetting he was the teacher, and not big brother, at school.

He was just 17.

Through those hard times, sports is a relief. Pilate follows his brother's footsteps and plays soccer at every chance.

"Sports have had a big impact on my life," he said. "They've meant a lot to me."

And, when the family finally is granted refugee status in 2004 -- a six-year process -- sports and school will be the doorways to making Pasco their home.

A new world

In any given year, some 200 refugees from all over the world will arrive in the Tri-Cities. Scott Michael, director of the Tri-City field office for World Relief, said the area makes a good place to start a new life for several reasons: The economy is good, so there are jobs; crime is low; and there is available housing.

Churches and other community organizations are quick to volunteer, Scott Michael said. Also, the schools are equipped to teach foreign students because of their English as a Second Language programs.

Still, much like the Pilgrims fresh off the boat, life is far from easy.

"Language is a difficulty," he said. "Very few speak the language. Some of the biggest challenges are paying rent month-to-month, finding that first job."

They arrive with two suitcases or fewer. World Relief helps them find a place and will pay the first three months rent. Refugees are eligible for welfare, which comes to $661 a month, Scott Michael said. "Almost all want to work. They're very eager to find a job, but it's very difficult."

Michael Sakamoto still remembers the feeling of finally reaching the United States and getting to the Tri-Cities.

"Much more relief, much more happiness," he said. "This is our destination. We hoped this will be a better place for us."

Even for Michael, with English among the seven languages he already spoke, it was a drastic adjustment. It took a bit of time before he understood "American" English.

For Pilate and most of the other children, it was a tougher adjustment. They understood almost no English and didn't speak it at all, and the teachers in their ESL classes didn't speak any of the five or six languages they understood, including Swahili, Acholi and Arabic.

"Something I could do now in a couple of seconds, it took me three hours," he remembered of his sixth-grade experience. "It was frustrating."

It was also when he was introduced to what would become his favorite sport, when his teacher, Marcia Harrell, gave him a basketball.

"Pilate started playing a lot of ball," said Michael, adding that sports also dominates his brother's TV viewing. "It's all he watches. It's sports with Pilate."

Over the years, Pilate's English has drastically improved. "I was excited to learn the language," he said. "One of the reasons we came here, my dad wanted us to get a better education."

Michael isn't the only one in college. Lam is taking classes at Columbia Basin College, and Josephine is going to school in South Dakota. Paska graduated from high school and has two children. The rest are growing up in the Pasco school district. The youngest, Evelyn, is 8 years old, the same age Michael was when he was sent to Uganda.

But it hasn't been a walk in the park for Pilate's family. The "happily ever after" they hoped would be coming to American has been anything but.

Community spirit

When Loonyera brought his family 8,000 miles to their new home, he not only found a job to support them, he found two. Marcellina also worked -- 11 mouths to feed, after all -- and it looked as though, finally, life would be good.

But three years ago, Marcellina began suffering unbearable pain in her legs caused by blood clots. She was forced to quit her job, and Loonyera had to leave one of his so he could care for his wife.

Still, the family persevered. The kids stayed in school, and their hope remained for that better life.

In September of this year, Loonyera died. The family not only lost its husband and father, but its major breadwinner.

"I felt like I'm in the middle of mixed emotions," Pilate said. "I didn't know what to do, didn't know what to say. I think about dropping out of school, getting a job to help my mom. But my brother told me not to quit."

His uncles have helped out, but so has another family -- Chiawana.

"I think that as a human being, you reach out to people that need your support," said John Cazier, the athletic director at Chiawana who has worked closely with the family and been the conduit for the school's efforts. "We wanted to make sure that family felt supported by the school. We wanted to make sure their needs were met, especially the kids in the family.

"When you take the breadwinner, the father figure out of the home, there's need. We wanted to make sure they had support, that one of our families wasn't in need."

Reaching out came in many different forms. Pilate's teammates went over to the house, made sure he was all right and offered rides to practice. Someone bought an animal at the fair in Connell and donated it to help feed the family. The Chiawana booster club raised money.

Almost everyone got into the act.

"When I say that Chiawana offered support, it's not just the athletic department, but individual teachers," Cazier said. "And not just donations, but making meals and making sure to get over there. I was getting e-mails and phone calls. Donations were given through the booster club. It was neat to see how people step up when they're needed."

Cazier and his wife, Amy, were on the other side of that kind of support when their youngest son, Anderson, went through treatments for leukemia in 2000. Anderson is healthy and a freshman at Chiawana, and Cazier is grateful to have the opportunity to give back.

"All I know, if something happened to any of us, that had an impact on ourselves or, for heaven's sake, my own kids, we would hope other people would step up and offer any support."

That support has meant the world to Loonyera's wife and children.

"We appreciate that, especially the booster club," Michael said. "That has meant a lot to the family."

"Mr. Cazier, I barely met him," Pilate said. "I didn't know him that much. But when my dad passed away, he was there."

But what has meant the most, Michael said, is the family staying together. He splits his week between Cheney and Pasco while he finishes his college classes.

"If I stay by myself, I feel like crying," he said. "But our home is always busy. There's always kids."

And always sports.

Watching Pilate play football this fall has brought a lot of joy for the family. Now that football is over, basketball is next, and then soccer in the spring when Joyce, a junior, will run track.

"It feels so, so good," Michael said. "I am so proud of him. My mom and dad were so proud of him."

When Pilate graduates from Chiawana next spring, he hopes it isn't the end of his athletic career or his schooling.

"I want to go to college," he said. "I have to get a scholarship someplace. I just want to keep playing sports."

That might not be a proper "happy ending" for a movie, but it sounds pretty good to Pilate.

* Kevin Anthony: 509-582-1403; kanthony@tricityherald.com