Two refugees who managed to escape from a ravaged village torn apart by the Sudanese civil war in 1987 are graduating from Ohio State this month.
Jok Dau and Bol Aweng were just 6 years old when they were ripped from their families, and have since overcome financial, physical and emotional hardships on their road to salvation.
“There was fighting everywhere. I know how horrible it was in these war situations because I have seen it firsthand. The destruction was horrific,” said Dau, The two students are a part of the large population of Sudanese who escaped from the country, a group better known as “the Lost Boys of Sudan.” In a massive displacement of 25,000 to 35,000 young men, women and children, thousands were killed and orphaned because of the territorial and religious conflicts between the northern Arab and southern non-Arab Sudanese governments.
Dau and Aweng’s journey began in 1987 in the state of Jonglei, where the civil war erupted. As Dau and Aweng fled the fighting, they were split from their families, losing all contact with them for the next 20 years, Dau said.
Initially finding solace in the nearby jungles surrounding the village, they abruptly left when troops came too close to their hideout. They walked east into Ethiopia, where they stayed for four years until another civil war broke out in that area.
“We were forced to leave the country with guns pointed at our heads,” Aweng said.
Traveling back to their home village of Jonglei was not an option, so they traveled southeast to Kenya. During their travel, they survived government troop attacks, crocodile-infested rivers, starvation, illnesses and lion attacks before arriving in Kenya, Aweng said.
“Their journey is incredible. they have more determination than anyone I know,” said Patti Confar, program coordinator of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. She served as the host family for Dau and Aweng when they reached Ohio.
“They went from learning under a tree to studying at the largest university in the nation,” Confar said.
In all, the two men walked nearly 1,500 miles. Of the 25,000 to 35,000 who fled southern Sudan, they were among the first 16,000 to arrive safely in Kenya in 1992.
“We spent 10 years in Kenya, and we had nothing to do,” Aweng said. “We went to school, but there were no jobs for us. There were only one or two books for a class of 70 or 80 students.”
Refugees in the U.S.
Once in Kenya, they were granted the opportunity to travel to the United States through a United Nations resettlement program. They applied and interviewed for the program, and after four years of anxious waiting, they were finally approved to travel to the U.S., Dau said.
In 2001, after spending roughly 14 years in refugee camps, Dau and Aweng settled in Nashville, Tenn., and were supported by the United States government until they found work of their own.
“After about a week arriving to the United States, I received my social security,” Dau said. “One month later I got a job and my resettlement agent said to me, ‘Welcome to the United States, now you are responsible to pay for your own bills.'”
Dau and Aweng stayed in Nashville for four years and received their associate’s degrees from Draughons Junior College in computer technology. In 2005, they transferred to OSU because they were impressed by the international studies program, as Aweng was also an international studies major at the time. He now studies digital art.
As a child in the refugee camps, Aweng was well known for his illustrations and often used scrap charcoal to draw on walls and cardboard. He said he drew from memory the images of his country that would stay with him forever.
“I had a desire in my heart for my art and a desire to do big things with my life,” Aweng said.
In December 2007, they both returned to their village to visit their families after a 20-year absence. Dau said it was a relief to see family members who survived the war, and others who were born since.
“It was a really enjoyable moment for me because it had been a long time since I had seen my family,” he said. “We both felt like we were born again.”
However, their visit to Sudan left them worrying about their families’ living conditions.
The local “medical man” was young, and his English was reminiscent of someone with a second-grade education. They were left with crumbling, dissolved buildings, and there was little food to go around. It was during this trip that the two decided they wanted to build a health clinic for the village.
Upon their return to Columbus, the two, with the support of friends, formed a committee to oversee the health clinic project. They gathered experts in medicine, education, finance, manufacturing and refugee services. The committee is also supported by the Scioto Ridge United Methodist Church, which collects donations for the project.
Building and operating the clinic will cost an estimated $300,000 during the first two years, Aweng said.
But as of now, the project has not received any funding.
“A number of people have stepped forward and are helping them realize this dream, the next stage of their journey,” said Steven Walker, who recently retired from his position as coordinator of refugee services for the state of Ohio. He and his wife are involved in the effort to build the clinic.
“When I saw how determined [Dau and Aweng] were to help their village, I wanted to help them make this possible,” Walker said.
Next year, Aweng and members from the committee will return to Jonglei to assess the area and request official support for the project. They will meet with village elders to determine the most pressing needs in the village.
The clinic could potentially serve a population of about 5,000 people who all live within walking distance of the village, and would offer information about HIV prevention, prenatal care and birthing assistance, along with basic health care.
The plan is to hire three workers: a village health worker with some medical training; someone to serve as a pharmacist who can read English drug prescriptions; and a birthing attendant. The goal is to have the clinic up and running by next year.
A volatile region
Sudan is currently in a cease-fire, but Aweng said this could change in 2011 when an independence referendum will likely split the south from the north.
“This will be another tough time,” Aweng said. “This is another chance for war.”
As for their futures, Dau and Aweng are primarily focused on the health clinic. They are considering graduate school, but they plan on holding off a year or two.
Dau said his goal is to start working and bring his family members to America, but the financial stress will be too hard on him to go back to school. Aweng will be solely dedicated to working on blueprints for the health clinic.
Aweng, a huge Buckeye fan, is grateful for the opportunities granted to him in America. He and Dau both became U.S. citizens in 2007.
“I never felt like a refugee here in America. I felt like a citizen even though I didn’t yet have my citizenship,” Aweng said. “I really appreciate my government here because I come from a country where there is no government. Our lives have changed for the better.”
For more information about their story or the health clinic, visit lostboysbuildsudanclinic.ning.com.