Image number one: Gatluak Lam, 7 years old, in a refugee camp in Kenya. Soldiers from some side — he still doesn’t know which — attack.
“My life flashed in front of my eyes,” says “Golly,” as he is nicknamed. “There was smoke. No one knew what was going on.”
Suddenly his uncle Gatluak, for whom he was named after, scoops him up and together they leap into the water and swim to a tiny island. For two days, with their backs to a cliff on the other side of the island, nowhere to escape, the soldiers face them, not attacking but hoping to starve and thirst them out in the burning African heat.
“It’s always hot in Africa,” the now-31-year-old University City High assistant basketball coach says. Other soldiers, friendly, finally drop down ropes that they climb up the cliff to safety. “No food, no water, boiling hot,” the 6-foot-4-inch Lam remembers.
Image number two: Coming off a plane at JFK Airport in New York. At that time, he was 8 or 9 years old.
“It was the first time I was shell-shocked,” says the good-natured, easy-going assistant to long-time UCHS head coach Terry Stonebraker. “I got off the plane...I had never seen an Asian before. I had never seen a white person before. I had only seen a person as black as me,” he says, pointing to the color on his arm as we chatted in the shade at a congenial coffeehouse in La Jolla. “I didn’t speak much English. I had an accent. I was with another uncle.”
His parents had preceded him to America.
“I grabbed my uncle.”
Recalling this “shell-shocked” moment, Gatluak says, “It broke my brain. All I knew was what I had seen in my eight or nine years growing up [including being born in Ethiopia, outside of his ancestral South Sudan, due to the turmoil there, later living in refugee camps]. That’s before technology [which he now makes his living on as a computer tech] blew up in Africa — before people commonly had TVs, cellphones… I was scared.”
Now, two decades later, living near his intact family in San Diego, still single, Golly has a dream. He wants to help construct a basketball league of 18-to-24-year-old South Sudanese young men that includes travel and competitive games for the players in Arizona, Nebraska, and Texas, as well as San Diego. The significance of his team, made up of Nuer (his tribe) and Dinka, is that back home, in South Sudan, the two groups of people are at each other’s throats.
“I’m going to work on it coming up,” says Lam, who says his harsh experiences as a refugee in Africa don’t haunt him. “I think, why let that stay with you and make you bitter?”
He’s one of the talkers in the family, and he talks easily about his experiences. His Christian faith (his father is choir director at the Sudanese Presbyterian Church in City Heights) underlies his outgoing warmth that engages people.