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ODU Staffers Give Reunited Family a Weekend They Will Never Forget

  • The Mayom family together in America.
  • Alicia Herr and Tammy Subotich with Monarch Lion

The Old Dominion University community has befriended William Mayom, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, on numerous occasions, but nothing has made him happier than a Valentine's Day treat over the weekend arranged by two ODU staff members in the College of Sciences.

Alicia Herr, who is department manager for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Tammy Subotich, who is the department's senior laboratory specialist, wanted to do something special for Mayom to celebrate his recent reunion with a woman he married in a refugee camp in Africa 2 ½ years ago, as well as his first meeting with a son he had never seen.

Mary Kuei and toddler Deng arrived from Africa at Dulles Airport in Washington during a snow storm two weeks ago. The family is now living together in Mayom's apartment on Granby Street in Norfolk.

Herr and Subotich decided to solicit donations to see if they could treat the family to an unforgettable Valentine's Day weekend, and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

"The weekend was one that Mary and I will never forget," Mayom said on Sunday.

The two ODU staffers got the ball rolling by putting together copies of news articles that have been published about Mayom in recent years. The articles tell the story of the militia raid on his Sudanese village more than 20 years ago when he was 6, of his long treks with other Lost Boys of Sudan to escape hostilities and of his separation from his family for years as he grew up in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. In 2001 he came to the United States and in 2003 he began studies at ODU.

An article in the ODU alumni magazine in 2005 sparked a grassroots campaign - two of the leaders were Herr and Subotich - to raise money to send Mayom back to Africa to meet up with his mother and other relatives who he had learned were alive and well in a Kenyan refugee camp. He hadn't seen them since he was 6. During his trip back to Africa in the summer of 2006, he married Mary Kuei, who had been selected as a bride for him by his mother. After he returned to Norfolk to continue his studies, he learned that his new wife was pregnant back in Kenya. Deng was born in 2007.

Mayom worked tirelessly to arrange for his wife and son's immigration to this country, but the bureaucratic workings were slow. He had hoped they could come in time to see his ODU commencement ceremony last May - he graduated with a degree in economics. But delays mounted up. In the meantime, Mary and her young son were robbed by bandits and had to go into hiding when civil unrest in Kenya got too close for comfort.

But Mayom said all of those frustrations were forgotten when the family came together in America. "We are blessed," he said on Friday, just before the family was to begin the special weekend Herr and Subotich had arranged.

So how did the treat come to be?

Herr walked into the Norfolk Waterside Marriott on Feb. 5 toting her sheaf of articles about William and asked if the hotel would donate a room for the family for Valentine's Day weekend.

"It was amazing," Herr said. "The first woman I talked to had actually met William." That woman took Herr to the sales office and the gift was negotiated with Cathy Grieve, director of sales and marketing, who, as luck would have it, had a special reason to help Mayom. Grieve has a sister who lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and has visited there several times. The Marriott agreed to give the Mayoms a room with a harbor view for Friday and Saturday nights, as well as two breakfasts. In addition, the Mayoms got a $100 gift certificate to Shula's 347 Grill at the hotel.

"That worked out so well, I went over to the Spirit of Norfolk office," Herr said, referring to the cruise vessel that docks near the hotel. "William had asked me some time ago about how he could take Mary and Deng out on a boat." Bingo, Christina Pangaro, individual sales manager for Entertainment Cruises, came up with free tickets for the family to go on a Valentine's Day Spirit of Norfolk lunch cruise on Sunday.

Choosing not to stop while ahead, Herr moved on a few blocks to the Nauticus maritime museum, where she was promptly gifted with free tickets allowing the Mayoms to visit museum and the battleship Wisconsin.

"I was surprised by how quickly it all came together," Herr said.

On Friday, she and Subotich went to the Marriott ahead of the Mayoms' check-in to stuff the room with balloons and to leave goodies. "Deng is going to love it," Herr said.

"I told Mary we were going out on Friday, but she didn't know where," Mayom said, adding that when the family entered the hotel, his wife couldn't believe they could possibly be staying there. "When I opened the door to Room 907 and she saw the Valentine's balloons, her eyes opened wide and she asked, 'Where are we?'

"I replied, 'Welcome to the U.S.A.' She couldn't believe what she saw. We opened the window and looked over the waterfront with different colors. She said she was seeing the real United States of America."

From there, things only got better, Mayom said. "The food was delicious. We enjoyed the services of the Marriott personnel." And on Sunday, little Deng was captivated by the cruise on the Spirit of Norfolk. He loved the sights and he also loved the live music. "Deng was dancing with all the performers," his father said. "He played and pulled Mary and me to the stage so we could dance. I saw some of my elements in him. I was so very excited to see him dance. He called the Spirit of Norfolk a plane and I kept correcting him."

"On the boat, Mary kept saying, 'My God,'" Mayom said. "The tears ran down at Mary's eyes after the tour. I asked her why she was crying and she said she had never dreamed of a day like this. She said she wanted to say thanks to Alicia and Tammy and all of my friends for this wonderful first Valentine's Day we could spend together as a family."

This article was posted on: February 15, 2010

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