CITRUS PARK — A drizzle from the discolored afternoon sky causes Abdin Fator’s taut, ebony torso to glisten as he runs on a field of thick grass with his Sickles cross country teammates.
At the command of coach Dave “Ritt” Rittenour’s whistle, the Gryphons run a few seconds at race-day speed. At the next blurt, they go full bore. Then it’s a jog. It’s just such a drill that is helping Fator, winner of three races already this season, learn the strategic significance of changing gears.
“And he gets it now,” fellow coach Gail Bottone says. “Before, he just thought you go fast, and that’s how you get better.”
This is the art of running, and as Fator can attest, it darn sure beats fleeing.
These days, Zainelabdin Salih Ahmed Fator, a Sickles High School senior and one-time Boy Scout who goes by Abdin, is free to run for tempo, run for time, even run for the heck of it. All because his parents — dad in particular — once ran for their lives.
“None of this would have ever been possible if not for what my parents gave and what they had to suffer through,” said Fator, his Sudan heritage seeping into his accent. “Leaving all their family and friends behind, knowing that some of their families already have been executed by the military.”
Strife in Sudan
Two sprawling oak trees preside over the aging brick home with blue shutters in which Fator resides with his parents and four siblings in northwest Tampa. At the turn of the millennium, the family lived in a grass hut in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, where his dad was a livestock farmer.
Kids played in the village. Meals were cooked over open fires. Plumbing was nonexistent.
“The woods were your friend,” Fator said with a smile.
The Janjaweed was not.
An armed militia-type force backed by Sudan president Omar al-Bashir, the Janjaweed has been accused of killing roughly a half -million people in an ethnic-cleansing swath and backlash against rebel forces. The International Criminal Court has issued two arrest warrants against al-Bashir for genocide.
Among the group’s victims: Fator’s octogenarian paternal grandfather. Fator, the second oldest of five kids, has vague recollections of huddling with his siblings inside the family hut while hearing a cacophony of gunshots and screams outside.
It was this militia that captured Fator’s dad, Salih, and dozens of other able-bodied males in a marketplace in West Darfur’s capital in 1999.
By truck, the men were transported to a military-style camp, where they were housed in groups of 20 to a tent and allowed no more than six hours’ sleep at a time. When they weren’t being trained as soldiers to fight in the South, they were used as slaves on the expansive vegetable garden of an army general.
“We no got any benefit to fight in the South,” Salih said in broken English from his family-room sofa. “We can’t do that.”
So after roughly six months of confinement, he and approximately 10 others escaped, crawling on their stomachs into the adjacent jungle before dashing to a nearby city.
“Running, running, running,” said Salih, now 50. “Like, three hours.”
With his family back in Darfur, unaware of his fate, Salih and some others hitched a ride on a vegetable truck to Khartoum, the Sudan capital located in the center of the country. For three months, he hid in friends’ houses, unable to work for fear of being identified and executed.
Through the benevolence of friends in Khartoum, Salih cobbled enough money together to board a train to Wadi Halfa on the Sudan-Egypt border. From there, he took a boat to Cairo. Meantime, Salih’s wife and her four children remained in Darfur, buoyed by the support of relatives but fearing the worst.
“I was feeling so bad,” said Fatima Ali, Abdin’s mother. “They could’ve killed him. That time I was thinking so very bad.”
In Egypt, Salih’s bleakness slowly dissipated. First, he found an occupation, then optimism.
While cleaning apartment buildings and residing in a tiny, one-bathroom flat with 10 other men, he encountered a local businessman with connections in Darfur. Through this contact, Salih was able to send his meager savings to Fatima and let his family know he was alive.
If the family could make the harrowing seven-day journey from Darfur to Khartoum, the businessman told Salih, he could compile the necessary papers to get the family to Egypt. With Salih’s savings, Fatima and her four kids — the oldest was only around 10 — paid to board a truck for the week-long journey.
Lack of noise and conspicuousness was essential; Janjaweed forces patrolled many roads.
“They just wanted us to stay in (Darfur) and do whatever they wanted, I guess,” Abdin said.
“I’m not really quite sure, but the risk was really high if you wanted to leave the area or anything like that. And if they found you they would’ve executed you or killed the oldest people and left the youngest ones, depending on how they felt.”
Upon safely reaching Khartoum, the family boarded a plane to Egypt. Salih was waiting at the airport.
He hadn’t seen his family in more than two years. His two younger boys — Rashid and Nathir — didn’t know him.
“We both cried, and the kids started to cry, too,” Fatima said.
“They said, “Mom, who is this guy?!’ Salih recalled with a chuckle.
The family remained in Egypt another year, living in a one-room apartment with a black-and-white TV and little else. Fatima gave birth to another boy, Ahmed. Salih sought refugee status for his family, laying out his entire plight to the United Nations.
In May 2003, the family boarded a flight that took it to Germany, then New York, then Chicago — each for about a day — and finally Tampa. Parishioners from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, who had been contacted by a Lutheran service handling local refugee resettlement, were there to greet them.
“Our mission is to open our arms to all peoples,” said Fr. Ed Henley, long-time rector at St. Mark’s. “And this was clearly a case of saving lives caught in the midst of global conflict.”
For Fator and his family, language would be the final barrier in an odyssey rife with them.
“Food and gestures can communicate things,” Henley said with a chuckle.
“They didn’t really know how to communicate with us or anything because we spoke Arabic, and we didn’t know any English or anything,” Abdin said. “But they took us to one of their houses and they knew some guy from a mosque …they knew a guy that spoke Arabic.”
An American dream
On one wall of the family home hangs a lakeside photo of Abdin and his scout troop. On another is Ahmed’s student-of-the-month certificate from Citrus Park Elementary. The mid-sized flatscreen in the family room is set on CNN.
Salih and Fatima both work at St. Joseph’s Hospital; he as a maintenance man, she as a housekeeper.
Together, they make enough money to contribute toward the monthly costs of living at the house, which rests on a sprawling lot next to St. Mark’s and is owned by the church.
“They’ve just done real well,” Henley said.
All of the family members have achieved U.S. citizenship. The oldest child, 21-year-old daughter Sowad, works at a 7-11 and attends Hillsborough Community College. The boys are doing well in school, Fatima says.
And Salih? He runs with Abdin only now and again. With a chuckle, Fatima says he’s lazy.
She’ll give him a pass. He has run enough.
“Now, I’ve got a job, my kids do well,” he said. “I feel wonderful, yes.”
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.