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A 2016 Olympian and 2017 Jeux de la Francophonie gold-winning marathoner Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo was a teenager when he and his family fled his village of Kirotshe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the Rwandan border for a refugee camp in neighboring Uganda — barely escaping the civil war tearing apart his homeland.

“I started running in Uganda,” says Salukombo, who is the Diversity and Inclusion Counselor for the Office of Admission and an Assistant Coach for Cross Country and Track & Field. “We were in PE class and our teacher said, ‘If you can walk, you can run.’ And that is when I realized that running was something I was good at and really wanted to do.”

For three years, his family remained in limbo as refugees in Kampala, Uganda until, when he was nearly 16, his family was sponsored by the Catholic Charities Diocese of Cleveland and brought to the northern Ohio city.

“When we came to Cleveland, it was a dream that came true,” he says. “My mindset was that I wanted to thank my parents by being the best student I could be, but I knew I was far behind the other students. To understand computers and the language, I had the mindset that I had to work harder than everyone else. For six months straight I read a book every day.”

His hard work academically and athletically paid off in high school, during his undergraduate years at Denison University and in his distance running. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and competing in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Salukombo joined Marietta College’s Admission and coaching staffs.

“Dee works very well with our athletes. He relates with them very well, and they seem to really love him,” says Jason Davis, men’s and women’s Cross Country and Track & Field coach. “His advice to them is always on point and motivational. I hope we have Dee around for a long time.”

Though he is training for another shot at the Olympics, Salukombo is more likely to talk about his charity, Project Kirotshe, a youth running program in DR Congo that focuses on helping children gain access to an education. In addition to providing running guidance and training, the organization helps raise money for tuition and plans to purchase goats for families, who can earn money by selling milk or breeding the goats. This money pays for children to remain in school.

“I came here as a tiny refugee kid, and people took me under their wings and changed my life,” he says. “I have 110 kids in Congo that my organization has been supporting since 2012. There are a million other kids who are still going through what I went through in that camp. They have no concept of long-term planning because war does not let you plan ahead.”

Salukombo proudly talks about his young runners working hard to train for regional and national distance competitions, including a girl who ran a 5K in 17:31 or the girl’s younger sister who is competing in the 2018 World Youth Olympics in Argentina. On average, the organization helps keep 70 children in school — and most recently celebrated two students who completed nursing school.

“Today, the runners in my village are respected,” he says. “They are viewed as leaders, as teammates, as hard workers. For some, it takes a one-hour walk down a mountain to reach where we train, and then they run 8 to 10 miles. It takes them an hour and a half to walk back up the mountain. They do this two to four times per week. And they are proud to do this. Like me, they are grateful and they take nothing for granted.”

- Gi Smith