South Sudan: from Lost Boys to leaders

By Angela Wells*

his group of men are former refugees assisted by JRS in the 80s and 90s while they were in exile in Kakuma. Many were resettled or went on to attain higher education in Kenya. They have now returned to their home country to contribute back to society. (Angela Wells / Jesuit Refugee Service)
his group of men are former refugees assisted by JRS in the 80s and 90s while they were in exile in Kakuma. Many were resettled or went on to attain higher education in Kenya. They have now returned to their home country to contribute back to society. (Angela Wells / Jesuit Refugee Service)

Juba, 8 January 2016 – In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, more than 20,000 boys and girls who fled Sudan’s second civil warlost their families along the way. For years the international community has called them the “Lost Boys”, but today they are no longer boys nor are they lost.

They are remarkable men and women, many of whom have returned home as skilled professionals to build South Sudan from the ground up.

As children, the “Lost Boys” struggled to survive – many falling sick or becoming victims of war. Most were recruited to fight as child soldiers. The fortunate few made it to Kakuma refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, first established in 1992 to house Sudanese refugees.

From 1995 until the mid-2000s, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) offered scholarships for hundreds of unaccompanied minors to attend local secondary schools.

In addition to empowering the students themselves, the scholarship programme also raised the standard of education in the camp, says Sister Maureen Limer, the then-JRS Kakuma Education Scholarship Coordinator who helped launch the programme.

“We could only give secondary school scholarships to the top one percent of primary school graduates so all the students worked hard to try to secure a spot in secondary school. This chance gave them hope, focus and determination. Night after night, they could be seen studying under the bright lights of the UNHCR security fence and every year, the top marks rose.

Most importantly, JRS gave the scholarship recipients an identity and a family in the camp after they lost their families, we watched as they became role models for the younger students,” she said.

Helping the nation grow. Most of these young refugees, approximately 5,000, were resettled to Australia, Canada, or the United States in the early 2000’s. A decade later in 2014 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, JRS spoke with 18 of those who had returned home from exile to help the nation grow.

Today they are well-equipped to do so, having attained Bachelor’s degrees, and many also Master’s and Doctorate degrees, in subjects such as law, medicine, political science, computer science, economics and psychology from Moi University and Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya; Stanford University and University of Oregon in the United States; and London School of Economics (LSE) in the United Kingdom among others.

Chiengkuach Mabil Majok, found a job in a hospital upon resettlement to the United States. He eventually enrolled in the University of Vermont and went on to work for a small financial company. He later acquired a Master’s degree and returned to work for Deloitte in Juba.

Jacob Dut Chol studied at Catholic University of Eastern Africa with a scholarship from JRS and later at the London School of Economics for a Master’s degree. He returned to Juba after his studies and now lectures at the University of Juba and consults for the Nile Petroleum Corporation.

“My umbilical cord is buried in this land. I left my blood, my family here. I knew if I were to do something good for humanity, I needed to come home,” Jacob Dut Chol said.

After ten years of living abroad where he pursued a Bachelor’s of civil engineering at Moi University in Kenya and a Master’s at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, John Deng Diar Diing also felt inclined to empower his birth nation.

“When I came home I felt frustrated that my country had been left behind. There was a lot of hostility from people who felt those who received education abroad had benefitted from the suffering of others, but I kept pursuing change,” he said.

Since returning to South Sudan, John Deng Diar Diing has built more than 145 schools with organisations like CARE International and started his own real estate company. He has also worked with United Nations Habitat in Somalia to construct homes for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Today, he is the Director of Projects for the Roads Authority of the South Sudanese government.

Reverse culture shock. Readjusting to their new homes in South Sudan – a country they left at a very young age – has presented another realm of obstacles.

Athieng Riak, one of the few girls in the “Lost Boys” programme, was resettled to Canada where she studied psychology and biology. In 2012, she came home to work with Catholic Relief Services as a food security advisor. She now works for the UN Children’s Fund. She says she experienced more ‘culture shock’ returning home than during her previous moves to Kenya or Canada.

“I left home when I was six. When I returned as an adult, I realised I needed cultural orientation to fit back in my own community. What really bothered me was when I went to an office, the first thing a man would ask me is, ‘whose daughter are you?’ or ‘why aren’t you married?’

Even now I’m confronted with discrimination even though I’m in a high position. I’m married with two kids so I’m given a little more respect, but employees still come into my office asking me, ‘where is the boss?’ and they’ll walk away when I reply, ‘I am the boss,'” said Athieng Riak.

After nine years in Canada, Ariik Aguto Reng went to home to celebrate the independence of the new nation and then permanently returned two years later, but not without some reservations.

“My friends in Canada and the US would look up Juba on Google Maps and see only jungle. They’d ask me, ‘are you sure you want to go back there?’ I really questioned my decision, but I had the country at heart. We grew up in war and were up against insuperable odds. We left in search of safety and education, which we’ve now achieved, so now we’re ready to change the nation.”

An ongoing crisis. Unfortunately, South Sudan did not peacefully develop as so many hoped. After an outbreak of violence in Juba in December 2013, the country has reverted back to conflict – in its own first civil war – taking thousands of lives and leaving 1.5 million internally displaced and nearly 600,000 displaced across borders in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

“South Sudan is like a wound that has been cut open again and again. When I went to Jonglei state in October 2013, I was welcomed, but when conflict erupted some of my friends were killed by the same people who I’d met. I can’t believe this is how they died. I worry about the vulnerability of our people,” said Athieng Riak.

Solving the root causes of the conflict is complicated, the returnees say, but not impossible. Equal opportunities for education and economic self-sufficiency are key strategies for long-term peace.

“Our children are growing up thinking that to be somebody in South Sudan, they must be a rebel. There will be (peace) talks in Addis Ababa, but when leaders come home the fighting renews. Instead, let’s reconstruct power by empowering local leaders and inspiring young people to take part. Let’s focus on forming a young generation through education and building institutions of justice to end these crimes,” said Samuel Garang Akau, a lecturer at the University of Juba.

“If young people can go to technical schools and become mechanics, carpenters, and electricians then they can take care of their families today. When someone tells them to fight tomorrow, they’ll definitely refuse,” added John Deng Diar Diing.

Despite the gravity of the ongoing crisis in South Sudan these 18 men and women are movers and shakers, continually working for a peaceful tomorrow.

“When you look at the collective impact we are making, it’s huge. We should think about how our strong and growing network of returnees can make a requisite change and encourage other refugees to come home and join us,” said Ariik Aguto Reng.

For now, however, massacres, sexual violence and other human rights abuses continue to provoke most South Sudanese to flee for their lives rather than return home. The nation’s youth yet again find themselves in need of education so they can prosper as these men and women have.

JRS implements education programmes for forcibly displaced South Sudanese across the region, providing opportunities for children and adults to learn in dignity. In addition to its intervention within South Sudan, JRS is expanding its projects in Kakuma refugee camp and planning to provide education in Adjumani, northern Uganda and Gumbo IDP settlement in Juba in 2016.

*Source Reuters.JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer

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