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Right on track

Forced to flee Sierra Leone, Samking now runs for fun

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snow is everywhere right now but when University of Manitoba Bisons track and field athlete Wilfred Samking first saw it, he thought it was ice cream.

"I thought we came to a place where there was ice cream everywhere," said Samking, 19, referring to the December day in 1998 when he and his family arrived in Winnipeg following a long trek from Africa. "I figured out pretty fast why they gave us these big coats to put on. That's no ice cream on the ground."

Samking was six years old when he fled his war-torn home in Freetown, Sierra Leone with his mother Judith and sister Juliana, then 11 years old. The family has since made its home in Winnipeg where Samking discovered his ability to run and his love of racing.

Samking is competing this weekend in the 2012 Bison Classic track and field meet which will include about 450 athletes from 10 Canadian universities, club athletes competing from Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario and some Canadian national team members. Samking is ranked No. 4 in the Canada West conference in the men's 60-metre sprint and 60m hurdles.

"I was always too energetic for my own good, I would always run everywhere and try to race anybody," he said, laughing. "My mom said, 'If you want to run, you should run.'"

Coming to Canada turned out to be a life-saving choice for the family. As they were preparing to leave, rebel forces launched a brutal and bloody assault on Freetown. A reported 7,000 people were killed in late 1998 and early 1999.

"One morning my mom pulled me down out of my bed onto the floor because there were gunshots. The rebels had come into the city," Samking said. "The bullets were ricocheting everywhere, we could hear them hitting walls, so we had to crawl on the floor. Later that night, my dad had arranged for a car to take us to a refugee boat."

He remembered the boat only had one engine and could not move so the family hid there for a week, living among more than 1,000 other people in deplorable conditions.

"A lot of people were getting ill and dead people could not be disposed of properly, so the military was just throwing the bodies over the boat," he said. "There wasn't much food, I remember vividly, all we had to eat was palm oil and rice. My mom always made my sister and I eat first."

Samking's father, Wilfred Sr., a successful entrepreneur in Sierra Leone, was not able to move to Canada with his family. Sam-King, Sr. also has British citizenship, which allowed him safe passage out of Sierra Leone when he needed it, so he stayed to help his extended family and his businesses.

Sam-King, Sr. continues to live in Freetown to run his businesses and help rebuild the Sierra Leone economy but he visits his family whenever possible. He and Judith recently renewed their wedding vows. The family name -- Sam-King in Africa -- was condensed to Samking in Canada.

"It's hard (to have dad so far away) but he believed we were safer in Canada. Because of his position, someone could have tried to take us for ransom," Wilfred explained.

While on the refugee boat, the Samking family was chosen for sponsorship into Canada by Reverend Wendy Rankin of Winnipeg and her church. They were moved to a safe home in Gambia where they lived for about six months while his mom applied for Canadian citizenship. After two days of flights from Africa to Belgium to London to Montreal, the family was able to settle in Winnipeg.

Later while attending Bairdmore School, Samking quickly distinguished himself as one of the fastest kids in the elementary school's running club. He played other sports but track became his main sport when he was in Grade 11 at Fort Richmond Collegiate and he joined the Winnipeg Optimist club.

"I wanted to play hockey for a little while but we couldn't afford it. My mom apologized to me, which she did not have to do. When I think of it now, I'm glad I didn't. It might have taken me in a different direction," said Samking, "I'm fortunate that she funded me in track for so long so I could do this."

Samking may follow in his father's footsteps in the business world someday, in Canada or in Sierra Leone. But first, he plans to take his track career as far as he can.

"The other day, one of my friends asked me 'would you ever run for Sierra Leone?' My answer was that I would want to but I'd have to go with Canada. That's what got me to where I am," Samking said. "I was born in Sierra Leone, raised there a bit, but I feel like Canada is my home and I would definitely want Canada on my chest."

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2012 C8

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