It’s the perfect word to describe the fortuitous series of incidents that propelled Inma Zanoguera, a University of Toledo master’s student and former basketball player, to begin a journey to find her roots and connect to a family history she only recently discovered.Later this month, Zanoguera will travel to Africa, a continent she’s never visited, to do something she’s never done before — run a marathon.
The race won’t be just a physical challenge for 24-year-old Zanoguera. It will be an emotional and spiritual one as well.
When she was 3 years old, Zanoguera and her two older siblings were adopted by a family in Mallorca, Spain. While she was growing up, Zanoguera knew nothing of her biological family’s origins. She never asked.At 17, she came to UT to study communication and business and play basketball. She graduated in 2015 and played basketball professionally in Europe. While in London in 2016, her sister sent her a picture of a document that she’d just found about her adoption.
That single piece of paper changed everything.
“My sister must have known I was ready for the answers,” Zanoguera said.
Zanoguera knew that her biological mother had died, but not much else. All the questions that she’d been holding inside for 20 years spilled out.
She pored over the adoption document. She discovered that she and her mother shared the same name. That her mom came from Laayoune, a city in Western Sahara, a place Zanoguera had never heard of.
The information stirred something in her, Zanoguera said, and she scoured the Internet for hours to learn about the region.
Zanoguera’s mother was a Sahrawi, a people who lived in the western Sahara Desert in northern Africa. In 1975-76, during the Western Sahara War, Sahrawis fled invading Moroccan soldiers.
Zanogeura’s mother was lucky enough to find safe haven in Spain. Most Sahrawi ended up in refugee camps in Algeria.
Forty years later, they’re still there, relying on international aid to live. The Western Sahara today is listed by the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory. It’s claimed by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi group fighting for independence.
Last year, Zanoguera returned to Toledo to pursue a master’s degree in English as a second language. She started running to keep in shape and after finishing a half marathon, she knew she was ready for more. That’s when inspiration struck.In her hours spent Googling her mother’s homeland, she had read about the Sahara Marathon. Participants run a route connecting three refugee camps in Algeria that are home to more than 100,000 Sahrawi refugees. They stay with refugee families.
It all came together in her mind, Zanoguera said.
“All these coincidences seemed to be leading to that one goal,” she said. “I just knew that I had to go.”
Zanoguera wanted to meet the refugees. But for a stroke of luck, her mother could have been one of them. She wanted to see what their life is like, to help them if she could. Even more, she wanted to bring light to the injustices they’ve suffered.
It’s a story most Americans know nothing about. Zanoguera hoped to change that.A chance meeting with Canadian filmmaker Michelle-Andrea Girouard — yet another coincidence — led to the pair’s collaboration on a documentary about Zanoguera’s journey. They started a crowdfunding effort to raise money for the film, which they call “Running Home.” Twenty percent of donations will go directly to refugees in the camps.
Zanoguera said the UT community has been “overwhelmingly supportive,” contributing financially to the project.
She credits her UT basketball career with helping her grow into the kind of person that doesn’t see limitations. All the lessons that a student-athlete learns — going to practice when you don’t feel like it, coming back from a 20-point deficit — helped shape her.
She recalled conversations about life, not basketball, with her mentor and coach, Tricia Cullop.
“[Coach Cullop] has this open side of her that dreams really big,” Zanoguera said. “Life is short, and if there’s something that matters to you, there’s nothing that’s more important. I grew into somebody that sees something and believes she can do it.”
While she’s excited about her upcoming trip, Zanoguera said she’s scared, too. She’s never been to Africa or run a marathon, let alone in a desert.
“It’s difficult and unknown,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m not scared because I trust that this is the right path right now.”
If you’d like to see a video about Zanoguera’s journey or donate, visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/running-home-sports#/.