Returning home to Somalia after winning the 1,500 meters in track and field's 1987 World Championships, Abdi Bile discovered during a visit to the capital city of Mogadishu that he had inspired a running boom.
"I couldn't believe how excited the young men were about my race," he said. "You couldn't drive in the streets because there were so many people running. I thought there must be a cross-country race going on, but I was told, 'No, it's just young people who want to run like you.' That was the happiest time of my life."
Five years later, Bile said that he often wonders about those young, would-be athletes.
"I think now they must be either in the gangs or dead," he said. "There is no in-between for young men in Mogadishu."
Bile left Somalia to attend school at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., in the mid-1980s and has lived in the United States since, but he is never farther than his mailbox from the heartbreak in his country.
In the spring of 1991, Bile received a letter detailing how 11 members of his family, mostly cousins and their children, drowned when their small boat capsized in the Indian Ocean. After spending several months in a refugee camp in an attempt to flee the civil war and drought in Somalia, they and 26 others in the boat were returning home by order of the Kenyan government when the tragedy occurred.
"I know of no one from Somalia who doesn't have a sad story," said Ahmed Abdi Dahir, a Somali Olympic Committee official who lives in Los Angeles.
Bile, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., is one of four members of his immediate family who escaped from Somalia. A younger brother, Jama, runs track for Central Arizona College, and another brother and a sister live in Sweden.
The son of a nomad, Bile said that he cannot contact his parents in the northern Somali village of Las Anood by either telephone or mail. But once every two or three months, a family member travels to the neighboring country of Djibouti and calls to report that they are fine.
"People are making it in the North, just barely, but people are making it," Bile said. "They are better off than in the South."
Ibrahim Okash, who ran for USC in 1988 and '89 before joining the Santa Monica Track Club, is from the South. His small hometown of Jowhar is about 25 miles from Mogadishu and well inside the area known as "the Death Triangle," which has been hardest hit by clan warfare and famine.
Okash said that he went several months without hearing news about any of his family members, who were merchants before their businesses were destroyed. But since arriving in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for a coaching job, he said that he has learned from Somali refugees that his parents are all right.
"That's all I know, that they are alive," he said.
Okash wants to return as soon as possible to Santa Monica to resume his running career, but Dahir said that he advised him to remain in Dubai as long as possible to earn money.
"I told him that someday, as soon as all of this is over, he is going to want to return to Somalia and help his family," Dahir said.
That also is one of the goals of Ibrahim Aden, the No. 1-ranked high school miler in the United States last year in Virginia who now runs at Central Arizona. His family members are from a town in the North called Burao, where they owned a small market before it was looted and destroyed. Two brothers, one a track coach in Dubai and the other a goat and sheep trader in the Middle East, support them.
Aden said that he intends to obtain a business degree from a U.S. university so that he can start his own import-export business and also assist his family.
He and Jama Bile attended middle school in Mogadishu before going to high school in Virginia. They know the whereabouts of only a few of their former middle school classmates.
"I heard some got out of the country," Jama said. "They could be anywhere. But a lot of them died, too."
Although reports from his country have dominated the news in the United States recently, Aden said that he avoids watching developments on TV.
"I don't want it on my mind," he said. "It's too painful."
But he, as did the other Somali athletes in the United States, said that he is thankful that the U.S. military is there.
"Without them, in a year or two, there wouldn't be a Somalia," he said.