From Congo Wars to Valley Greens

John Davis, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), Aug. 21

The prison compound has been replaced by lush, green fairways.

Fear has given way to peace.

As young boys seven years ago, Serge Gashegu, Jacques Gatera and Patrick Kisomanga were taken to a concentration camp with their father in the Congo. Every day, for 18 months, they woke up in inhumane living conditions, wondering if this would be their execution day.

Today, the three brothers from Africa have found sanctuary in a church, refuge on a Valley golf course and a guardian angel far from the homeland where they were marked for death. They wake up eager to play golf at the First Tee of Phoenix, a program that has helped transform their lives.

The brothers might as well be poster children for the First Tee, which has a stated mission of enriching the lives of children by applying the lessons learned in golf to all aspects of their lives. All three have become proficient golfers, good students and good citizens.

Gatera’s and Kisomanga’s involvement in the program will take them next month on golf-related trips to Pebble Beach, Calif., and Washington, D.C. For them, it literally and figuratively, is a world away from where they’ve been.

Their “crime” was being fathered by a member of the Tutsi tribe, which rebelled against a tyrannical government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their sentence was extermination.

For more than a century, the republic has been a country fraught with anarchy, civil war, murderous dictators and genocide, all the result of the vast mineral wealth that lies beneath its bloodied soil.

Civil war erupts

When civil war came in 1998, the three brothers couldn’t find enough places to hide. Gatera remembers TV and radio broadcasts that instructed citizens to kill any Tutsi tribesmen living in their midst.

“They said if you don’t do this, they will come and take the whole family and kill them all first and then kill the Tutsis,” Gatera said. “It was scary. When it first started, every single day there were car bombs or guns shooting. It was terrible.”

Since then, nearly 4 million people have died and more than 2 million have become refugees, largely because of starvation and disease.

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They woke up to a world far removed in virtually every way from their tumultuous homeland 8,000 miles away.

Now there are feelings of hope, peace and gratitude. There also is golf, lots of golf.

Gunshots have been replaced by tee shots, bombs by birdies, a death camp by a clubhouse.

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It started when a Catholic priest, Father John Dougherty of St. Gregory’s parish, introduced the brothers to church member Tim Kloenne, liaison for the Thunderbirds civic organization to the First Tee of Phoenix.

Phoenix’s program is part of a worldwide First Tee organization, created in 1997 by the World Golf Foundation. But even with its noble goals, few envisioned a success story like the three brothers.

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined the kind of impact the program would have on one family to see them become such good role models,” Jon Kropilak, executive director of the First Tee of Phoenix said.

“It has been amazing to me to see them come here at that age from a totally different culture and adapt so well and handle everything they have faced in stride. Watching them develop and mature has been very gratifying.”

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