Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Escape from war: Alex Owumi's journey
By Dana O'Neil
Standing on his apartment building rooftop, Alex Owumi watched as a small but strong group of protestors marched toward Libyan soldiers.
For days, people had been gathering in the streets of Benghazi, Libya, protesting the 42-year rule of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Owumi thought this was simply more of the same.
"I figured the soldiers were just trying to disperse the protestors," Owumi said. "I went downstairs to get some water, came up the steps and all of a sudden the soldiers were shooting at the crowds. I dropped the water, ducked down, and it was like ants scattering. People were dropping everywhere."
Owumi didn't know it then, but, on that February day, the former Alcorn State basketball player had witnessed the first steps of a revolution.
Six months later, Gadhafi is in hiding, his decades-long reign over, and Owumi is in Atlanta, glued to the television news channels. He is nothing shy of amazed. Amazed at what he's seeing -- Gadhafi's compound raided and his underground city exposed. Amazed at the power that ordinary people can wield -- that a despot can be overthrown and tyranny ended because people finally say "enough."
And he's amazed with himself.
Owumi went to bed on Feb. 16 as just another ex-college basketball player trying to extend his career overseas. He woke up on Feb. 17 in the middle of a civil war.
And somehow he got himself out.
"My coach used to say if you put me 100 miles in a desert, I'd come back to you with a bucket of chicken and a milkshake," Owumi said. "I'm still trying to figure out what it means, why I was put there in that situation, but I know one thing. Most people, we have no idea what we are capable of."
|Here's the view from Alex Owumi's apartment of a burned-out government building in Benghazi.|
Alex Owumi has never dined from a silver spoon. His life is more spit and polish, where pluck and hard work can overcome anything.
When Owumi was 12, he and his family left Nigeria. They lived in England for three years before landing in Boston, where his father, Joseph, works as a financial administrator at Harvard's School of Public Health.
Owumi thrived in his new home, especially on the basketball court. He had his share of college offers but wanted to play with his cousin, Anthony Searcy, so he chose the only school that offered both of them scholarships. That school was Alcorn State, a once-proud historically black college that, like most HBCUs, has fallen through the cracks ripped wide by the financial realities of college athletics.
Alcorn tested him -- he went from a high school player who rarely lost to a college player who rarely won -- but Owumi still managed to parlay his meager experience into an overseas career, with stops in France, Macedonia and, as of Dec. 26, with Al-Nasr, a club in Benghazi, Libya.
He went there undaunted by the country's checkered history with the United States and was rewarded with a warm reception from friendly people who were crazy about basketball.
"It was really calm, a nice place," said Owumi, now 27. "Then it went from 0 to 127 overnight. I put my head down and woke up to chaos."
Actually, Owumi woke up confused. It was Thursday, a practice day, yet the driver who ordinarily drove Owumi to practice hadn't shown up. Frustrated and a little bit ticked off, Owumi called his coach.
"He said, 'Do you see what's going on outside your window?'" Owumi said.
That's when Owumi scrambled to his rooftop and saw the protest unfolding. After processing what he had seen, Owumi ran back to his apartment to call his coach again. After 15 tries on the overtaxed phone lines, he finally got through. His coach, an Egyptian by birth, was already on his way out of the country. He promised to send a car for Owumi.
Knowing his family and his girlfriend, Alexis Jones, would be frantic, Owumi powered up his computer to send an email.
It wasn't working. Two hours later, with the Internet and phone lines still out of order, Owumi opened his front door, planning to walk somewhere, anywhere. His neighbors shooed him back inside.
"They told me to stay inside, that it wasn't safe," Owumi said. "I had one of those big steel doors, so I just slammed it and locked the door."
Little did Owumi know he would be stuck behind that door for two weeks.
|Owumi (right), seen here in a game at New Mexico, averaged 14.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg as a senior at Alcorn.|
Six years ago, Alexis Jones lost everything when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, washing away the Jones' family home and two limousine businesses.
For four months, her extended family of 15 split their living quarters between her apartment on the LSU campus and a hotel where her sister was working.
When her father finally returned to New Orleans and saw that everything he had worked for -- his home, his career, his dreams -- was gone, he grew inconsolable. Soon after, he died of a heart attack.
Jones managed to get on with her life. She graduated from LSU and began an acting career -- she is working on a play with Tyler Perry Productions in Atlanta -- and, a year and a half ago, she met Owumi.
The long-distance relationship wasn't ideal, but Jones respected Owumi's love for basketball and the two made do with three-times-a-day phone calls, emails or Skype.
And so when a day passed by -- and then two -- without a word from Owumi as the news howled with the protests in Benghazi, Jones panicked.
"It felt like Katrina all over again," Jones said. "And I had all of these flashbacks. My family had to literally get me out of my bed. I was a mess."
So was Owumi.
Alone in his apartment, he had no electricity, no phone, no cable, no Internet and had split what little food he had with a young family next door. At night, the orange flashes of gunfire lit up the sky. Terrified to sleep in his bed next to a window, Owumi fashioned himself a pallet on the floor.
He tried repeatedly to reach somebody -- team officials, teammates, the American embassy -- but nothing worked.
Back home, Jones and Owumi's mother, Claudia, mounted their own mission. From Atlanta, Jones called news channels to tell them American citizens were stranded in Benghazi; in Boston, Claudia contacted her local congressman to help her navigate the State Department red tape.
Every call proved fruitless. One official suggested Owumi get to the Benghazi airport, unaware it had been burned down. Another offered a flight out of Tripoli, not realizing that was hours away.
"I'd call the State Department, and someone would say, 'Why is he in Libya? Why doesn't he just leave?" Claudia Owumi said. "I said, 'If you were a mother in my shoes, you wouldn't be asking me these crazy questions. You'd be trying to help get my son out.'"
While Claudia rattled cages, Jones racked her brain. She remembered that Owumi had passed on one of his teammate's phone numbers in a Skype conversation and went through the files to find it.
By divine intervention or simple good luck, the teammate had a phone that was still working and relayed a message to Owumi.
"I have no idea how she did that," Owumi said.
By then, the situation in Benghazi had deteriorated. Gadhafi had called on mercenary soldiers from neighboring African countries, and the lines between the two sides blurred. It seemed everyone in the city was armed.
Terrified and desperate to get out, Owumi begged his team president for help. The only way out, the team president said, was to drive to the Egyptian border.
Convinced there was no other choice, Owumi and his teammate, Moustapha Niang -- the same one Jones had reached by phone -- hired a Libyan driver who spoke no English, packed only the barest necessities and, with knives taped to their shins under their pants, left in the middle of the night.
"If something would have happened, I don't know," Owumi said. "I didn't see another way out."
|In February, protests and battles in Benghazi were constant, frightening both Owumi and his loved ones back home in the United States.|
After a harrowing drive through multiple checkpoints where the two players -- one Nigerian by birth, the other Senegalese -- were greeted by suspicious soldiers brandishing AK-47s, Owumi and Niang finally reached Salloum on the Egyptian border.
Greeted with a box of crackers and a drink apiece, the two exhaled with relief, figuring in an hour they'd be on their way to Cairo, to the airport and home.
Then they looked around, struck numb by what they saw.
More than 1,000 people crowded the refugee camp, some in tents, most sitting on the side of the road.
After several fruitless conversations, Owumi finally found an official and explained that he was a Nigerian with an American passport and needed to get to Cairo so he could fly back home.
"He told me I had to wait for my consulate to pick me up," Owumi said. "There were a group of Nigerians outside the office, and I told them I needed a number for the consulate. This guy started laughing at me. He said, 'I've been here for seven days, my brother. They told me they were going to come in five hours.' All I could do was laugh."
For three days, Owumi slept on the sidewalk, his only cushion the tiny backpack he had stuffed with his belongings back in Libya.
Every day, he called the consulate, and, every day, the consulate people said they would be there the next day. His calls to the American Embassy went unanswered. Claudia Owumi and Jones got no further.
Buses came and buses went, but without the proper immigration stamp, Owumi couldn't get on them.
Exasperated, exhausted and hungry, Owumi finally threw caution to the wind.
In the middle of the night, he and Niang hopped over a nearby fence and navigated some back roads to avoid the people checking for stamps. They joined the queue to board the bus and, because they didn't have the proper papers, offered the driver $200 in American money to take them to Cairo.
"It was crazy, I know," he said. "If we were caught, we'd go to prison. But I couldn't figure out another way."
Not long after the bus finally rolled away, Owumi's phone rang. It was his coach from Libya.
There was a team in Alexandria, Egypt, in need of a player.
Did Owumi want to play?
|For days, Owumi slept on the streets in the Egyptian/Libyan border town of Salloum.|
Did he want to play? Of course he wanted to play. Since he was a kid, Alex Owumi has always wanted to play basketball.
But right now? Right now, he wanted to go home. He needed to go home.
Then again, El-Olympi, the team interested in Owumi, was pretty good, the pay not bad and the season almost over. He would have to stay in Egypt only another two months.
Back and forth the argument went in Owumi's mind.
Jones' opinions were far less complicated.
"Oh, I was done. He called me, and I was furious," Jones said. "I just wanted him to come home. After Katrina, I know how precious life is. Your career? I get that, but your life, you only get one try, so I wanted him to at least come home so we could see him and touch him."
Eventually, Jones settled down. She wasn't happy with Owumi's choice to stay, but she understood. Katrina taught her so many lessons, including one of the toughest: Life has to go on.
So Owumi hopped off the bus to Cairo and hopped on one bound for Alexandria.
Two months later, El-Olympi won the championship.
Alex Owumi was named MVP.
|Despite resistance from his girlfriend, Owumi ended up joining the roster of an Egyptian basketball team.|
The story should end there, the perfect happy ending.
Real life is never that simple.
After an emotional meeting with Jones at the Atlanta airport, Owumi got back to living. Occasionally, he would think about his ordeal. What he had done, he knew, was an extraordinary show of survivor skills. Instead of whimpering in his apartment, he formulated a plan. Instead of waiting on others, he took action.
What he didn't realize, at least not immediately, was the profound effect the experience had on him.
"He has changed," Claudia Owumi said. "He's seen a lot. Every once in a while, you want them to grow up a little bit, but my goodness, not this way. People being killed, crossing through borders with nothing, no running water. He found his wedge and he pushed through, but I know how it changed him, too."
Jones insisted that he speak to a therapist, to talk through what he had seen. From her own experiences, she knew what was coming, an emotional volcano that would erupt without warning, and she wanted to prevent it.
Owumi refused, insisting he was fine.
"And then one day, I just broke down," Owumi said. "I cried for about an hour."
There are days still when he finds himself walking in a daze or will suddenly go quiet midconversation. Jones knows those are the days, the moments, to give him his space.
But those days are dwindling now. The gift of time, plus the news in Libya, has freed Owumi from the pain of his memories.
"People there sacrificed everything so they could give their sons and daughters a future," Owumi said. "I grew up in a Third World country, so I always appreciated what I had, but this is different. If I'm eating a turkey sandwich, I'm not just happy for the sandwich. I'm happy I'm eating it in peace. I'm grateful to sleep on a bed, but more grateful that I get to sleep at night in silence."
In a few months, Owumi will head back overseas. He's considering offers from teams in Dubai, Egypt and Turkey.
It is what journeyman basketball players do in their endless search for the next game.
Only this journeyman's journey will never be the same.
Libya is changed forever -- and it has changed Alex Owumi right along with it.
|Winning the championship and MVP was a happy moment, but Owumi still has plenty of unpleasant memories from his journey in the Middle East.|
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.