They were a family on the run for their lives. Now when a Wasongolo child runs, it’s for joy and glory.

The Wasongolo family — four then and now eight — fled Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996 when a bloody civil war erupted. The father, Eca-etabo Dieudonne Wasongolo, was then working for Caritas as a conflict mediator for local peoples in Congo. Ethnic strife in Rwanda and Burundi caused a refugee influx in the Congo and that sparked warring between factions seeking land and power.

Eca-etabo became a wanted man, seen as a symbol of the old government and a traitor who worked with Burundian and Rwandan refugees. Rebels searching for him killed four of his relatives, including two brothers.

“We had a choice to make: Leave the only home we’d known in the Democratic Republic of Congo or run for our lives and towards an unsure future,” Eca-etabo says.

Eca-etabo, wife Salome and their children escaped, seeing the streets filled with bodies. They were arrested briefly, then freed with the help of a priest and a nun. The family grew and stayed in shacks in refugee camps in central and eastern Africa for eight years before requests for U.S. asylum were granted. Catholic Charities of Oregon welcomed the Wasongolos. St. Philip Neri Parish stepped forward as sponsor and St. Ignatius Parish helped.

The family started in subsidized housing, attended classes and looked for jobs with the help of Catholic Charities and partners.

Children enrolled in public schools and played sports, all the while adapting to U.S. culture. St. Philip Neri was a hub of their lives.

Twin boys Asukulu and M’Munga, who had been born in refugee camps, were able to attend Holy Cross School in North Portland. Like their older brother Felix, they are talented athletes and have excelled especially on the track. Holy Cross does not have its own Catholic Youth Organization track team, but sends its athletes to Cathedral School, which welcomes them warmly.

Asukulu and M’Munga, now Holy Cross eighth graders, have been standouts, not just for their speed and strength, but for their prowess in courtesy and teamwork.

“Out of the 50 kids, they are the politest,” says Fergie Bush, who coaches the runners at Cathedral. “They are the ones who email me and say thank you. They are good boys and they have instantly connected with other seventh and eighth grade boys despite being from a school across town. They are good for our team.”

Asukulu and M’Munga had raw talent, but not much experience.

“They had never been on a track,” Bush says. “I told them to do a 200, and they said, ‘OK. Where do we start?’”

They caught on quickly, qualifying for the CYO meet of champions in five events, including distance, sprints and long jump.     Funds from the annual CYO Champions of Faith dinner made it possible for the twins to get scholarships.

“Our family survived so much specifically, my children did and now Asukulu would like to be given the chance to run track and field, subsequently being able to achieve his running dreams,” Eca-etabo wrote in an appeal to CYO. He asked CYO to help with scholarships so the big family could afford to let their boys compete as runners.

Asukulu and M’Munga are more than athletes. They placed high in the annual speech contest at Valley Catholic School and take part in Mass. M’Munga is part of the Multnomah Youth Commission, a regional leadership group.

“My one goal for MYC this upcoming year is to be able to expand and nourish my ability to speak in front of people, be able to continue and widen my leadership experience with others, and to collaboratively work with my fellow MYCer’s,” M’Munga says.

Asukulu hopes to be an entrepreneur or a neurosurgeon.

“Whatever career path I choose in the near future I am almost certain that I will make a difference in the world and improve the lives of others, specifically those of my family here and back home,” he says. “All refugees have a story of resilience. As refugees we must better our host countries but never forget where we come from. That is what I am intent on doing.”

Julie Johnson, principal of Holy Cross, says the twins have been able to straddle their cultures, which isn’t always easy.

“Their parents hold them to very high standards,” Johnson explains. “They’re driven to want to succeed both in their faith and in life.”