From refugee to survivor, Achol Odolla is running free

Achol Odolla running
Stevenson athletics photo

By Samantha Murray 
Assistant Athletics Communication Director
Stevenson Athletics

It is a story that not many people have heard. It was Dec. 13, 2003 when the genocide started. More than 400 people were killed in a three-day span in Gambella, Ethiopia. It was the worst day for the Anuak tribe. And, for many, it was just beginning. Stevenson sophomore Achol Odolla was there that day. Nearly 14 years later, many of you are hearing the story for the first time. And it is a story worth hearing.

Odolla grew up in Western Ethiopia right outside of Gambella, which sits on the border of Sudan. She is one of eight children and her family is a part of the Anuak tribe, a tribe of people found mainly in the villages along the banks and rivers of southeastern South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia.

On that fatal December day, soldiers came to murder and massacre the men and young boys. At the time, Odolla and her family were outside of the city on the family farm and, within a few days, they would be forced to leave the only home they knew in order to survive.

"My family and I had to move and run away," Odolla said. "We went to Kenya and stayed in a refugee camp for four years."

They were safe from the violence but the difficulty was not behind them. When Odolla and her family fled, they did not know where their father was. On the day the genocide began, her father had been in the city shopping and they had no idea if he was alive or dead.

It was two years before Odolla finally saw her father again. He too had made it to a Kenyan refugee camp. But he wasn't the only one they were separated from. When her family made the move to the United States, her older brother was not with them. He is still back in Ethiopia and the family has only been able to talk to him.

"The life in the camp was difficult," explained Odolla. "We didn't have enough food or water. We would get that once or twice a month."

Living in the refugee became normal life; it was what they knew. The children played together and they did not know what was wrong. They only knew they were hungry.

At 13 years old, Odolla and her family were able to move to the United States. With the help of the International Refugee Committee (IRC), the family settled in Baltimore in 2010. Her family was the first from their tribe to land in Baltimore. Many others were relocated to Minneapolis. Occasionally, Odolla has been able to visit with them.

Odolla and her family did not know any English when they first arrived to the States. And, still, she and her siblings were placed into schooling. Odolla started in the seventh grade when she arrived.

"I went to school in Kenya but I didn't really learn anything," she said. "So when I came here I didn't speak any English at all. It was difficult communicating. I was in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes with other [refugees]. We would just practice and you eventually pick it up."

In addition to the language barrier, Odolla and her siblings faced other challenges. They were constantly bullied in school.

"Adapting to a new life was difficult," Odolla explained. "And, I did not know anyone. I also faced bullying because of my skin color. I went through that a lot. Middle school, high school, I would always cry."

As difficult as it was then, Odolla says she has overcome her past fears. It is not something that bothers her any longer. For someone who lived through horror and fright nearly every day of her young life, she is not a fragile young woman.  Rather, she is one of the most compelling and resilient college students one will ever meet.

As a junior at Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, Odolla ran for Student Government Association (SGA) Vice President. One of the things she wanted to fix were the issues with race relations. In her speech, she said "I am originally from Ethiopia. We are different. But we need to respect the differences. Because that is what makes everyone special. We need to talk to each other so we can understand each other."

Not only did she win her seat on the SGA, but Odolla was the driving force behind the Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together at Digital Harbor. As a senior, she was named SGA President.

"Her strength is everywhere," said Stevenson cross country head coach Dave Berdan. "She takes care of her family.  She is like a mother figure on the team, especially with the women."

Odolla does not have a car, however she makes sure she can assist with any home responsibilities, including getting her mother to doctor appointments. And, unlike the typical young adult, she does not complain; rather, she simply finds a way to make it happen.

It was at Digital Harbor when Odolla was first introduced to running. Originally, she wanted to play soccer. All of her brothers played soccer and she wanted to as well. Then, when she went to sign up for the soccer team at Digital Harbor, her teacher mentioned track, which was something unfamiliar to her. She had no idea that the track team basically just ran.

"I was like, I don't know, why not, let me try it," she said. "And [my teacher] introduced me to the coach and I started running. When I first started, I was slow and my leg was hurting. I just kept running and my coach encouraged me to run."

And ran she did. During her senior year, she was the top runner at her school in distance and helped lead the team to the Baltimore City Cross Country championship. And Berdan took notice.

"It was at the Baltimore Armory, an indoor track at the Armory," said Berdan of the first time he saw Odolla run. "I remember asking her coach about her and he just lit up right away talking about what a great person she was."

She may not have won that race but Berdan was looking for someone that, would not only benefit the team out on the course, but someone who could help build the team culture.

"She was I think a little shocked that a college coach was talking to her," continued Berdan. "She was shy."

In addition to being on the soccer, cross country and track teams, Odolla finished in the top five percent of her class at Digital Harbor with a 4.0 GPA. Her sister was the valedictorian of her class and is a senior at McDaniel. Her brother recently graduated from Goucher.

Odolla takes her education extremely serious. Not having an education before arriving in the States, Odolla clearly sees education as an opportunity. In a 2005 story in The (Baltimore) Sun, Odolla was quoted as saying:

"I feel so bad because some people come here and they say like, 'America is the land of opportunity.' But when you come here, if you don't have the papers, it's so hard to go to school and everything. And the students here, they just play with education while other people are trying so hard and they can't even get it."

Given a chance to live without fear and apprehension, the Odolla family has thrived. Odolla is a sophomore computer information systems major. She is a three sport athlete at Stevenson, competing on the cross country and both indoor and outdoor track and field teams.

Many of her teammates have never heard her story. Some did not even know she is from Ethiopia. But she knows where she came from and knows what she has been through. And, most importantly, she is proud of what she has achieved.

"We have accomplished a lot of things," Odolla says of her family. "And we went through a lot."