Sunday, April 01, 2001

New land, new leg, new life

Police patrolling Over-the-Rhine knew well the troubled tribesman from Sudan. Eventually, one officer's compassion led to a watershed event

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The tribal markings on Yahwietor Mok's face are a reminder of his earlier life in Sudan.
(Jeff Swinger photos)
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        His dark brown face is lined with bumps, circled around his eyes and mouth — markings from his life as a tribesman in a violent religious war thousands of miles from Cincinnati. His right leg is gone, blown off in that fighting. One-legged, 6-foot-6 and skinny, he's an otherworldly sight even in Over-the-Rhine.

        That Crazy African, they call him in the neighborhood. Yahwietor Mok shakes his head, laughs about it.

        He gets frustrated, too. People beat him up, steal his crutches. Drug dealers work from the doorstep of his apartment building and the corners around it. He exacerbates his troubles by drinking too much. He mouths off, starts fights. Cops know him well.

        The 33-year-old refugee from Sudan thought America would be so much different than this. Safer. More friendly. Those were his hopes when he hopped a bus to the Queen City from Atlanta, a city where he tried, but failed, to assimilate.

        He knew no one here. Yet he stumbled into a string of people who showed him a Cincinnati that changed first his walk, then his life.

Hopping gets Mr. Mok around his apartment.
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Coming to America

        A bomb blows off most of Mr. Mok's right leg. It is 1984, and he lives in a Sudanese village about 40 miles from the Ethiopian border.

        Mr. Mok's father is killed this same year, a Christian missionary in a place where Muslims want to convert everyone and kill those who refuse.

        “It's right to fight against them,” Mr. Mok says. “You cannot force me to be the way you are.”

        The shrapnel takes off all but about a quarter of his long thigh. Red Cross workers take him to a hospital in Ethiopia. He spends weeks there and is left with a leg stump that juts out from his body at an awkward angle.

        His next stop: a refugee camp in Ethiopia. For nine years, he lives in the tent village with hundreds of other Africans displaced by the fighting.

        Word travels around the camp about a way to a better place. Maybe America. The U.S. government will allow him to emigrate if officials can be convinced he could be killed if he went home.

Gateway to Cincinnati

        He makes it to the United States four years ago with help from World Relief, a missionary agency based in Atlanta.

A few months ago, Mr. Mok sits outside his apartment with a 40-ounce beer.
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        Workers set him up with some money, an Atlanta apartment and a cashier's job, then another job when the first one doesn't work out. Mr. Mok never really catches on to helping himself when the aid runs out.

        He blames the language barrier, in part. It takes a little listening to catch on to his English. The drinking is a problem, too.

        He decides to try Cincinnati because he hears that another Sudanese refugee lives here. So in fall 1999, he gets on a Greyhound bus headed north. He ends up at City Gospel Mission in Over-the-Rhine, eventually learning that the other Sudanese man had since moved on. He gets kicked out of the Drop Inn Center homeless shelter for causing trouble.

        With a $500 monthly disability payment, he moves into his own apartment in Over-the-Rhine. Police appear often. Sometimes they come because somebody has beaten up “the Crazy African” and taken his wheelchair or his crutches. Sometimes it's because he has been drinking.

Of broken arms and kindness

        One night about a year ago, one of those neighborhood fights ends with a drunken, belligerent Mr. Mok in handcuffs. He complains that the cuffs hurt. Cops hear this all the time. The restraints stay on.

        A cop he recognizes and almost trusts arrives on the scene. He and Sgt. Brian Ibold have built something of a relationship over the months — one that starts when the refugee crutches up to his cruiser late one night and says he's hungry.

img People: More than 30 million. Mostly Arabs in the north and black Africans in the south. Officially, they speak Arabic, but English is widely understood, too.
  • History: Under British control until 1953, with the first independent Sudanese government taking office the next year. Repeated military coups followed. Now ruled by a revolutionary council, which dissolved the National Assembly and deposed its prime minister.
  • Unrest: About 75 percent of residents are Muslim, the rest Christians and members of tribal religions. Non-Muslim rebels in the south are brutalized constantly by the Islamic regime, which will kill anyone who refuses to convert to Islam. The Sudanese People's Liberation Movement fights constantly against the government. Women and children are captured, tortured and enslaved.
  • Death toll: An estimated 1.9 million men, women and children are dead from war-related causes since 1983. Another 4.5 million have been displaced, and 2 million more are threatened by starvation.

        Mr. Mok doesn't realize he has connected with a guy who has a track record of trying to help people, a history that makes his more cynical co-workers think he's a sucker. When Sgt. Ibold drives by the Drop Inn Center, people yell, “Hey, it's the pizza guy!” because he delivers pizza to them when they sleep under bridges.

        So Sgt. Ibold brings his new friend some food — soup, canned ham, canned fruit and ramen noodles. The refugee begins calling him his brother.

        The night of the fight, Sgt. Ibold looks at Mr. Mok's right arm. Something is seriously wrong. He drives him to University Hospital. An X-ray shows the arm is broken.

        That one gesture by one of Cincinnati's 1,020 cops turns out to be a watershed event for the refugee. Eventually, a second officer is drawn into his life, along with a man who makes prosthetic legs, a physical therapist and a preacher.

Building a leg for Mok

               Mr. Mok isn't ready when Sgt. Ibold and Officer Joe Lorenz pick him up for his first appointment in October at the prosthesis maker in Clifton where Officer Lorenz used to work. They're running on only a couple hours of sleep themselves after working all night in District 1.

        “I mean, the guy needs a leg,” Sgt. Ibold says later. “How can you not try to do something about that?”

        Prosthetist John Benson agrees to help. The victim of a car accident, he once needed a right leg himself. But the refugee's right hip is frozen in a jutted-out position, making any kind of common prosthetic impossible to use. Mr. Mok's new leg will have to be unlike anyone else's.

Prosthetist John Benson, Officer Lorenz, Mr. Mok and Sgt. Ibold meet in Benson's office.
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        He goes back five times over the next two months, always transported by the officers. It takes that much time to make sure the metal leg works correctly and the cuff around his thigh doesn't rub.

        The leg would cost $8,000 to $12,000, Mr. Benson estimates — that's if somebody were paying, which no one is. Nobody pays for the physical therapy either.

        The leg in place, Mr. Mok needs two shoes for the first time in more than 15 years. Sgt. Ibold and Officer Lorenz split the $25 bill for sneakers.

        They watch the tall, skinny man stand up straight for the first time. He looks into the long mirror at the prothetist's office and smiles, showing his missing front tooth.

        “Showtime,” he says. “I'm going to the Olympics.”

More difficulties

        Mr. Mok heads home after his last office visit in December, leaving the officers and Mr. Benson hoping his new limb might bring other good things to his life.

Mr. Mok tries out his new leg for the first time.
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        The refugee doesn't see the officers he had come to call his brothers for a couple of weeks. Around Christmas, he calls to say he is finished with Cincinnati. Two men with guns busted into his apartment, he says. He's boarding a bus back to Atlanta. If life isn't better there, he says, at least it would be warmer.

        Then he starts thinking about the kindness he found in Cincinnati. He decides he doesn't want to be far from his police “brothers.”

        He asks a stranger when he can find a "God place," a place with foiod and help.

        He winds up at Storehouse Ministries in Covington, a social-service agency that runs a soup kitchen and gives homeless men job training, clothing, food and Bible-based counseling. The Rev. Mason Barker takes him into the agency's program, starts him in Bible and GED classes, and gives him room and board for $300 a month.

        Mr. Mok types Sgt. Ibold a letter on a computer at school, asking him and Officer Lorenz to please visit. A week later, in a clean sweater and corduroys — and without bloodshot eyes — he greets them outside his new place. He yells from across the street: “My brothers!”

Mr. Mok gets hugs and high-fives at Walton-Verona Elementary School after speaking about his life in Africa.
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        “They helped me when there was nobody,” he says of Sgt. Ibold and Officer Lorenz. “They believed I could do something.”

        He hugs them. He tells them about school. About the Covington apartment he has moved into.

        He credits Sgt. Ibold and Officer Lorenz with starting all of it.

        “They did so much for me,” he says. “It's how I pay them back. I have to make a better life.”


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