More than a decade after their family fled Africa, the Patrick brothers are living the American dream as cross country runners and students at Dickinson State.
Run! The word has so many meanings for Denis and Daniel Patrick. As children, it meant escaping danger. As students at Dickinson State, running is helping Denis, 23, and Daniel, 21, build their lives in ways they never would have believed possible a little more than a decade ago. “I always tell these kids, ‘Running’s not everything, but it can get you to where you want to go,’” Dickinson State head cross country coach Mike Nekuda said.
The Patrick brothers are living by that attitude.
Refugees from war-torn Uganda and sons of Sudanese refugees, the Patrick brothers are soaking in every aspect of life and savoring the chances they have been given to make lives for themselves half a world away from where they were born.
“I look at it as a blessing,” Daniel said. “There’s not many people who get opportunities like us. We were blessed enough to get an opportunity to come here. We’re doing whatever it takes to take advantage of it. We’re using running. We love running, but we have bigger dreams than running.”
The Patrick brothers were born and raised in a place where robbery, kidnapping and death weren’t possibilities — they were certainties.
The final years their family lived in Uganda were exceptionally difficult.
Denis was 11 years old when his family lived in a humble village with less than 1,000 residents. It wasn’t much, but it was home — the type of place where everyone knew everyone, Daniel said.
Finally, the life his father, Patrick Yakobo, and mother, Jesline Patrick, had fled for the sake of the family’s lives caught up with them when rebels began raiding their village.
“Every time we’d hear about the rebels, everybody in the village would have to run away and sleep in the forest,” Denis said. “In the morning, we’d come back. That’s how we’d stay safe. It’s crazy.”
Their father, an educated man and a teacher of math and English, fled their Ugandan state with the hope of establishing another safe haven for his family.
It had seemed Patrick Yakobo had been running his entire adult life.
Before either Denis or Daniel was born, their parents had fled their home country of Sudan, embroiled in the Second Sudanese Civil War, for Uganda. They moved back twice when fighting had quelled. But war kept forcing the family to leave Sudan for Uganda.
Finally, Patrick Yakobo had seen enough of war. He found a way for his family to emigrate to Australia, Canada or the United States as refugees.
After applying and being accepted as refugee immigrants, the family was told they would be taken to Phoenix in a matter of months. It meant selling or giving away all their possessions, which didn’t bother them Denis and Daniel said.
“We got so happy,” Denis said.
The family arrived in the United States on Aug. 28, 2011 — just two weeks before the historic events of Sept. 11, 2011.
Soon, their father found work as a security guard at an airport. Their mother, after settling into her new surroundings, became a caregiver for people with special needs.
Though Patrick Yakobo never found steady work as a teacher in the U.S., despite years of experience in Uganda and Sudan, he is now less than a year away from completing his degree in liberal arts and philosophy from Grand Canyon University.
His interest in education has carried over into the next generation. Both Denis and Daniel are exceptional students, Nekuda said.
“These two are doing everything they can to make their lives better,” Nekuda said. “I like how Daniel put it. He’s using running to do something greater in life.”
Finding their feet
The brothers found their footing as Americans at Alhambra High School in Phoenix — especially after joining the track and field and cross country teams.
Denis kept winning the mile run in a training class the brothers took together, prompting the school’s track and field coach to pursue him for the team. Naturally, Daniel wanted to join his brother.
“He didn’t ask me, so I asked if I could join and I only joined because I wanted to beat him,” Daniel said with a smile. “We always compete at every sport — basketball, soccer — so I thought I would be better than him at running, so I decided to do running.”
Denis and Daniel began training as sprinters. But it didn’t take long for coaches to try and convince them that they may be better suited to distance running.
“We were sprinters until after the first meet,” Denis said. “They said you are too slow to be a sprinter, so we want you to be a long-distance runner. In my head, I’m like, why am I running long distance? This is too long. I just want to sprint.”
Denis said he realized he could run distance events after his first three-mile run went well.
Soon, the brothers were starring members of the track and field team. As a senior, Denis went on to break his high school’s records in the 800 and 1,600 meters and placed fifth in the 1,600 at the state meet for Arizona’s biggest class.
However, the sport that has been their biggest driving force didn’t come without a little unnecessary apprehension.
The brothers had their qualms about cross country because, it turns out, the sport’s name can lead to a little confusion in translation.
“I wanted to do cross country my freshman year but decided not to because (Denis) scared me,” Daniel said with a sheepish smile. “He told me that those guys run across Arizona to a different state as practice. I’m like, man I don’t want to run that. I didn’t even know what cross country was.”
“I thought that you run across the country,” Denis added, quietly laughing. “I got discouraged from it, so I didn’t do cross country my freshman year.”
Eventually, the brothers found a talent for the sport and it helped each of them earn roster spots at Phoenix-area community colleges. Denis went to Paradise Valley Community College while Daniel started at Glendale Community College before joining his brother at Paradise Valley.
Daniel was recruited to Dickinson State in 2011 and his brother followed this fall. Daniel is redshirting this season and both he and Denis will be juniors on the track this winter and spring.
Denis has been one of the most impressive cross country runners on a Blue Hawk team that is No. 17 in the NAIA coaches’ rankings and enters the Frontier Conference Championships on Friday in Helena, Mont.
Running 8K races at or below the 26-minute mark, Denis has a legitimate chance of earning an individual trip to the NAIA National Championships even if DSU doesn’t make it as a team.
“I’m excited for us to make it to nationals as a team. I think we’re good enough,” Denis said.
Running collegiately has become a way for the Patrick brothers to chase their dreams.
Daniel is pursuing a degree in computer technology management. He wants to work for a few years and then pursue a political science degree. That, he hopes, will allow him to go back to Africa and contribute in some way, be it in South Sudan or Uganda.
“People in poverty, that’s where I want to work,” he said.
Denis is more inclined to stay in America.
“I’m the opposite,” Denis said. “I’m scared to go back to the danger. I feel like I’m more safe here. I’d rather stay here and be safe than go back there.”
However, like his brother, Denis wants to find a way to help people. He studied firefighting at Paradise Valley and is majoring in exercise science at DSU.
They are in agreement about one aspect of their futures, however. Both would one day like to become running coaches.
“I feel like that’s where kids need role models, showing them the ways,” Daniel said. “When I was in high school, I had a great coach and everything, but no one was there to show me where I could go with my running or what I could do in life.”
Nekuda said the Patrick brothers’ story and manner in which they carry themselves and live their lives makes them inspiring figures for his team.
“You see so many American kids who won’t go out and grab it and it’s right there at their fingertips,” said Nekuda, in his second season at DSU. “These two are coming from where they are coming and they’re taking full advantage of what they’ve been given.”