Harrowing journey strengthened faith of former refugee
By GAYDA HOLLNAGEL / La Crosse Tribune
Obang Okello didn't understand why as an 11-year-old boy in his native Ethiopia he was allowed to live when his school was bombed and all but 17 of his 2,400 classmates died.
He didn't understand why, when he returned to his village, there were nearly three dozen dead bodies around his house, their faces burned beyond recognition.
"I dropped to my knees. I told God, ‘I'm only 11 years old. Why did I survive?'" Okello told about 600 people gathered to hear his story Sunday night at Viterbo University Fine Arts Center.
Now, he said, he believes he lived so he can tell his story to others and teach them about the importance of peace and faith in Jesus Christ.
"There is so much pain in the world, but we have to look to Jesus Christ," he said, adding that he hopes when people hear his story they will look to their own struggles and lean on Christ to help them.
"I don't know what you struggle with in your life, but Jesus Christ will take it from you," he said.
Okello, who was raised Christian, said he didn't really have a relationship with Christ until he began the odyssey that started in 1991 when civil war broke out in his village near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan and ended when he arrived in the United States as a refugee in December 1996.
In between, he walked 40 days and more than 1,000 miles barefoot to the refugee camps in Kenya, where he lived on his own for 51/2 years until finally he was brought to the United States and resettled with a family in Washington.
The journey and the time in the camp was fraught with danger, not only from bombs and guns, but from lions and snakes in the forests, crocodiles in the rivers and hunger and disease in the camps.
Okello said he carried three things with him from his home, a notebook in which he recorded his journey, a necklace with a cross that was a gift from his parents and a piece of gold that he eventually sold to help him get to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which sent him back to the camp but after a year granted him refugee status.
Since arriving in the U.S., he has been reunited in Minneapolis with an older brother he thought was dead and has been able to talk on the phone with his parents, who survived the raid on their neighborhood and still live in Ethiopia.
He also learned English, finished high school and more recently graduated from Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn, where he studied religion and accounting. He now works for a financial institution as an accountant in the Twin Cities while sharing his story in his spare time.
Okello said he tried four times to get his visa approved to return to Ethiopia to see his parents but was denied re-admission to his country. He said the U.S. government also doesn't want him to travel to Ethiopia because they fear he could be arrested.
"What I have gone through as a child is still going on today," he said of the continuing violence and genocide in Ethiopia.
Okello said he hopes to become an American citizen in six months and then be cleared to visit his parents under U.S. protection.
Meanwhile, he said, he's collaborating with a writer on a book about his experiences.
"I don't want to tell the story a different way," he said. "I just want to tell what God's done in my life and let God get the glory."
Gayda Hollnagel can be reached at (608) 791-8224 or at email@example.com.
Story originally printed in the La Crosse Tribune or online at http://www.lacrossetribune.com
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