The story of an unlikely journey that started in Gambella, Ethiopia, has taken Ajulu Thatha along a path that twists like the Baro River, where she used to splash and play back home.

By Katie Barnes ( |

Basketball tucked under one arm, Ajulu Thatha steps out of her Indianapolis apartment and into a hot and humid July day. Her long braids flop over her shoulders as she hops into the front seat of the car. She’s quiet. Until the topic turns to her newfound passion: basketball.

Ajulu Thatha has played the sport for only five years, and she has been in the United States for only six. She was inspired to give basketball a try after attending an Indiana Fever game within months of her plane landing from Ethiopia.

“I told myself, ‘Maybe you can do this,’ ” Ajulu said.

Six years later, Ajulu Thatha is a 17-year-old senior at Decatur Central High School and has committed to play in college at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Hers is an unlikely journey that started in Gambella, Ethiopia, and has taken her along a path that twists like the Baro River, where she used to splash and play back home. Basketball has given her an opportunity that felt out of reach as a 12-year-old learning English in a foreign place. The opportunity to go to college manifested because of Ajulu’s perseverance, and it was her courage that allowed her to seize it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the journey has been easy. Let’s start with the basketball.

“It was so hard,” Ajulu said. “The first day my body was sore and I was like, ‘What am I doing? What is this?’ ”

Standing at 6-foot-2, Ajulu is often described as “raw,” which is to say that that while she hasn’t been playing for very long, her potential is significant. She primarily plays in the post but has started to step out to the wing. She has superb athletic ability, and unrefined skill.

“She’s got more upside than anyone I’ve been around lately,” Decatur Central coach Daryl Gibbs said in a phone interview. “If you were going to ask me what kind of player I’d want on my team in today’s world, it’d be her because once her skills get up to her athleticism, she’ll be really, really good.”

Ajulu Thatha, who lives with her dad, brother and stepmom, hasn’t been back to Ethiopia since she left six years ago. Though she talks to her mom once a month on the phone, she hasn’t seen her. She wants to go back, to go home, to see her mom, but her family doesn’t think it’s safe. Ajulu, however, is stubborn. “People go there and come back safe, so I’m going to go,” she said.

Ajulu Thatha is Anuak, which is an ethnic group that, according to Human Rights Watch, has experienced atrocities committed by the Ethiopian military. Human Rights Watch documented beatings, killings and imprisonment among the many crimes committed against the Anuak. Thatha’s father, Omod Obur, was reportedly imprisoned following a series of incidents in December 2003 because of his position within the local government, and later released. When he heard that he was to be arrested again, he fled, leaving his family, including Ajulu Thatha, in the care of his brother. Obur first fled to South Sudan, then Kenya, and then managed to make it to the United States as a refugee in August 2010. Along the way his legal name was reversed, so he is known as Obur Omod to many. The whole trip took Obur about six years.

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