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This Newfoundland basketball player is a world away from a troubled past

Akec Tong poses with his mother, Adut Agoth, after playing for Newfoundland and Labrador’s male basketball team at the Canada Summer Games earlier this week in Winnipeg. Just over a decade ago, the two, along with other members of their family, were living in refugee camps in war-torn east Africa. Adut’s husband was killed in the violence and two of her children died from illness, but the rest of the members of the family eventually found their way to St. John’s, where they have found a new life … and hope.
Akec Tong poses with his mother, Adut Agoth, after playing for Newfoundland and Labrador’s male basketball team at the Canada Summer Games earlier this week in Winnipeg. Just over a decade ago, the two, along with other members of their family, were living in refugee camps in war-torn east Africa. Adut’s husband was killed in the violence and two of her children died from illness, but the rest of the members of the family eventually found their way to St. John’s, where they have found a new life … and hope.

WINNIPEG – Her name is Adut Agoth, and she has a lovely smile.

Her grasp of the English language is still shaky, but she is nevertheless confident enough to interact with strangers.

That’s because she’s been going to school every day now in her new country. That’s when she’s not working, or raising four boys and a girl.

Her dark eyes brighten as she praises God for taking care of her and her family, and claims she is “so, so happy” with her life right now.

Her boy, Akec Tong, is equally friendly, though perhaps a bit more nervous or cautious than his mother.

But the shyness doesn’t stop him from declaring his love for his mom.

“She’s a great woman,” he says.

Akec is 16, and he wears No. 9 for the Newfoundland and Labrador men’s basketball team at the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s Akec Tong (9) goes up to block a shot attempt by P.E.I.’s Zach Wall during their preliminary-round matchup at the Canada Games in Winnipeg.

He’s tall, as are most people from his native country, standing about 6-4. He’s relatively raw at basketball, and he needs to put some meat on the bones, but Akec can play.

His mother is in Winnipeg watching her son. The trip to Manitoba marked only the second time she’s been on a plane, but this is her first experience in a hotel room.

Her 49-year-old’s face lights up when she talks about Akec playing for Newfoundland, but also when she refers to the big bed in the big hotel room.

“And the big TV,” she gleams.

However, her smile and her positive disposition mask a troubling, if not horrible, past.

Adut is from South Sudan, a country and a people, it seems, that’s known nothing other than fighting of some sorts dating back decades.

Thousands and thousands have been killed, by government forces or rebels or militias, in one of those ungodly places where no one knows who’s good and who’s bad.

Like many, she was forced to flee her home, and spent years in refugee camps, in South Sudan and Uganda, with her husband and seven children, with little or nothing.

In many of these camps, which have home to hundreds of thousands of people over the years, shelters amounts to little more than a few sheets of plastic and cloth.

Food is scarce, and the water is not fit.

Adut and her family were at one camp one night when the bad guys came. Maybe it was the rebels, or maybe the militia. Who knows?

She describes her husband running one way, instructing she and the children to go in the other direction.

She never saw her husband alive again.

“The fighting …,” she says. “The trouble ... A lot of horrible things.  I lose my husband, and I go from camp to camp. I don’t know where I’m going.”

Then one of her children got sick. Adut doesn’t know if it was the bad water, but the baby’s stomach became terribly bloated and the child eventually died.

And then another became ill with dehydration and hives.

“She died outside,” Adut says.

It was 2006 and the youngest surviving boy was still only two-and-a-half. Akec was four, his other brothers eight and 15. The only surviving girl was 11.

Adut and her family made their way to a refugee camp across the border in Uganda. She had little idea about what the future might hold and no idea that it would involve Newfoundland and Labrador.

Adut’s brother-in-law was in St. John’s. He was watching TV, one of those World Vision things, and lo and behold, who did he see on the screen, but Adut.

The ball started rolling.

Long story short, the Roman Catholic Basilica got involved and sponsored Adut and her family.

She arrived in Newfoundland, which for her was about as far removed from the South Sudan as the moon.

The date was Oct. 26, 2006.

“I am really, really happy for my children,” she says. “I am so thankful. God has brought me here.”

The children are still with her. The oldest is 26. The girl, who was 11 when she arrived in Newfoundland, is 22 now and will soon finish nursing school. The youngest is eight and Akec, well, he’s at St. Bon’s, where he’s sponsored, and having the time of his life playing basketball.

“It was a lot of work,” says Adut, of her raising five kids, going to school to learn English and working at the airport as a cleaner.

A part of her heart is still back in Africa, but that’s because her mother is still there. Adut hasn’t seen her for over 10 years.

She knows she can’t go back, and deep down doesn’t want to. She’s in Canada now.

“To play in these Canada Games,” says Akec, “is remarkable. And I thank my mom for it.

“It took us a long time to get here, but we made it. It still blows my mind.”

He’s not the only one.

 

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at rshort@thetelegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort

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