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Oregon football: Boseko Lokombo’s family builds a life in Canada after escaping war-torn Congo

2009 WJ Mouat grad Boseko Lokombo at Oregon Ducks training camp

Lokombo’s family builds a life in Canada after leaving Congo

By Adam Jude The Register-Guard Appeared in print: Friday, Oct 1, 2010

There wasn’t much of a celebration after the first touchdown of Boseko Lokombo’s Oregon career.

A handful of fellow UO defenders followed him into the end zone and slapped him casually on the helmet after he scooped up a fumble and returned it 32 yards against Arizona State.

But there was more confusion than celebration.

“It was a really good feeling,” said Lokombo, a redshirt freshman outside linebacker, “but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a touchdown.”

As ASU players and coaches fumed, certain the fumble was an incomplete pass, Lokombo anxiously waited on the sideline for the official’s ruling after a review.

After a few minutes, the play was declared a fumble, and the touchdown was upheld. It was the final score in the Ducks’ 42-31 victory last weekend, and helped set the stage for Saturday’s top-10 showdown against Stanford at Autzen Stadium.

ESPN’s College GameDay is here, and pre-eminent college football writers from all over are coming to town to cover the game. This is the place to be Saturday.

There’s no way Leon Lokombo would miss it. He and his wife, Anne-Marie, will make the 400-mile drive from their home in British Columbia today, eager to see the game, and their son.

And anytime the Lokombos can come together again, that’s reason enough to celebrate.

‘It wasn’t 100 percent safe’

A decade ago, during the height of a catastrophic civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the newly established government posted a billboard in the nation’s capital of Kinshasa that read: “Peace has a price. Be prepared for any sacrifice.”

By then, Leon Lokombo had known his share of sacrifice. In 1993, he left Zaire, as it was known then, walking away from his wife, five children and a good job as a banker in Kinshasa to pursue something better for his family, something far away from the growing strife that was taking hold of his native country.

“It was not easy to leave,” Leon said.

But the economy was rapidly declining, political unrest was escalating, and more and more people around him were arming themselves. Leon had to find a way out.

“I wasn’t a politician, but it wasn’t 100 percent safe … and I wasn’t 100 percent sure of my family’s security,” he said.

Having already earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce, Leon was accepted into a master’s program at the University of Sherbrooke outside Montreal.

So Leon left. It would be almost three years before he would see his family again.

He first fled to South Africa in hopes that the Canadian embassy there would issue him a visa. He was denied, and had to wait there for a year before officials at Sherbrooke were able to help him secure the papers to become a permanent resident.

Once he was in Canada, it took another year and a half before all the necessary paperwork could be filed and approved for his family to earn their citizenship.

When his family was finally able to follow him to Canada, in the winter of 1996, the Congo war was just beginning.

The war officially ended in 2003, but its effects continue to devastate the region. According to a survey released by the International Rescue Committee, by 2008 an estimated 5.4 million people had died because of the conflict — making it the most deadly conflict since World War II — with 45,000 more deaths continuing every month. Nearly half the dead were children younger than 5 years old, the American aid organization reported.

“Almost all the deaths come from hunger and disease, signs that the country is still grappling with the aftermath of a war that gutted its infrastructure, forced millions to flee and flattened its economy,” The New York Times reported in January 2008.

Leon Lokombo hasn’t turned his back on his homeland.

In recent years, he has returned while working with an import/export business that delivers medical supplies to the region. He said he has also helped open an orphanage, which cares for and educates 65 children.

“My dad is an amazing guy. He’s my hero,” Boseko said. “He did everything he could to start a better life for us, and that’s something that motivates me.”

Inspired by his dad, Boseko hopes to return to Congo after he graduates, “to help out and do something for the kids out there.”

Born Oct. 15, 1990 in Kinshasa as Leon and Anne-Marie’s fourth child, Boseko doesn’t recall much about his early years in Congo. He remembers he had a pet monkey, and he knows it was a difficult period for his family.

“It was definitely difficult,” he said. “But my mom is a rock.

“I’m inspired by her. She did her thing, she really helped us out and prepared us and always supported us.”

Canada to U.S. and back again

Dustin Haines saw Boseko Lokombo for the first time at a practice for the South Eugene High School team, and he was grateful that the new kid was on his side, so intimidating was Boseko’s initial impression.

Like Boseko, Haines had transferred to South Eugene before his junior year in 2007, and the new backfield mates formed an immediate connection.

The quarterback from Montana and the intimidating linebacker from Africa are roommates now, sharing an off-campus house and a bond so tight that Haines considers Boseko family.

“He comes from six brothers and sisters, and me being an only child, he’s like a brother to me,” said Haines, in his second season as a scout-team quarterback for the Ducks. “He’s always happy. It’s (rare) to see him upset.”

No one was happier than Travis Johnson when he heard Boseko was transferring to South Eugene from Abbotsford, B.C. Johnson, then in his first season as the Axemen’s coach, quickly did a search on YouTube and found highlights of Boseko.

The coach couldn’t believe his good fortune.

“I got on my knees, looked up at the sky and said, ‘Thank you, God,’ ” Johnson said.

After picking up the sport in eighth grade, Boseko stood out on both sides of the ball in British Columbia. Before his junior year, he moved to Eugene with his father in hopes of attracting attention from college recruiters, who rarely make it north of the border.

He wasn’t noticed right away at South.

“He was really green,” Johnson recalled. “It took him about three weeks before he really got a good understanding of our offense and defense.”

It finally clicked for Boseko in the fourth game, on the road against Churchill, when he rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns while showing off a shiftiness that belied his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame.

That Monday, Johnson got a call from an Oregon State coach, and that afternoon Boseko had his first scholarship offer.

Playing in their backyard, Boseko quickly got the attention of Oregon coaches, too. He attended UO practices that fall, settling on the idea of playing for the Ducks.

By the end of his junior season, recruiting services ranked him as the state’s No. 1 prospect and one of the top 10 linebackers in the U.S.

Having accomplished his main objective of earning a scholarship, however, Boseko and Leon decided to move back to British Columbia so Boseko could finish high school where he started it.

As a senior at W.J. Mouat High in Abbotsford, he rushed for 1,558 yards and accounted for 31 touchdowns, and one publication named him Canada’s top prospect.

At the end of season, one publication declared Boseko “one of the greatest players in B.C. high school football history.”

Still, Johnson takes pride these days when he watches Boseko, now a key backup linebacker and a versatile special teams contributor for the Ducks.

“I think we’ll always claim him as a South Eugene kid,” Johnson said.

Montreal to Vancouver

Boseko’s most vivid memory of arriving in Montreal and reuniting with his father was the harsh reality of winter. Boseko and his siblings had never seen snow.

“Mom,” he asked, “what is this?”

The family had brought almost nothing with them from Africa.

“I remember it was just really cold,” Boseko said, “and we barely had anything to cover ourselves with.”

But they did have their father again.

“I kept hope and believed that one day we would be together,” Leon said. “God held my prayer and we are together now.”

Their journey is enough to give anyone chills.

Leon and Anne-Marie had two more children in Canada (and they now have four grandchildren).

And after Leon earned his master’s degree at Sherbrooke, they moved to British Columbia, in part to get away from the cold winter and in part because they wanted their children, after growing up speaking mostly French, to learn English.

“It worked out perfectly,” said Leon, now a Sun Life financial adviser in Abbotsford.

With a major college football game as the backdrop, several of the Lokombos will reunite again today in Eugene, hoping for another reason to celebrate Saturday night.

“I’m so excited,” Leon said. “I’m so proud of Bo.”

The feeling, you can be sure, is mutual.

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