The seventh-graders chatter nervously as they assemble in the school auditorium. They’ve been reading about African refugees in their social studies classes, and they’ve been told that the man standing in front of them—one of those refugees—has an incredible story of perseverance and survival to tell.
As he talks, perhaps some of them imagine themselves in his shoes.
But at the time Bol Aweng’s story takes place, he had no shoes. And worse—no food, no parents. A six-year-old, fleeing into the wilderness with nothing.
Aweng’s voice slows as he describes images and memories of the past to his audience. Telling his story yet again cannot render it harmless. “It’s very emotional to go back to that time,” he says gently. “Men firing guns. My village burning. These are bad memories.”
The students are listening—intently.
Panic and flight
Aweng and his cousin Jok Dau were chil-dren in southern Sudan when war broke out in 1987. When their villages were attacked by invading soldiers, the two boys and others ran away in panic into the wilderness. Most of the girls remained behind, huddled with their parents; many were killed or eventually sold into slavery. One of Aweng’s sisters was abducted and never seen again.
Aweng and Dau met other runaway boys in the wild, and together they embarked on what became a long and grueling trek.
Perhaps as many as 35,000 boys, first in small groups and then by the tens of thousands, walked more than a thousand miles, seeking safety in Ethiopia. They walked mostly at night. For seven weeks they endured starvation, the threat of nearby gunfire, and attacks by lions. It’s estimated that half of them died along the way.
They’re known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Some of those who survived recount their stories to groups such as the seventh-graders Aweng spoke to recently at a Columbus-area school.
Aweng, a painter, has recreated the harrowing journey in vivid scenes that he displays in a slide show during his presentation.
A photo of one of his paintings flashes on the screen. It’s of the last time he saw his family, his village, and the cows he had been tending.
The next scene is terrifying: a lion chasing half a dozen lanky boys up a tree. The slide’s caption reads: “When we saw a lion, we could come together in tight groupings to yell, scream, and throw sticks to scare the lion away. If we did not have time to organize into groups, our only option was to run for the trees.”
“I did that a lot,” Aweng says matter-of-factly. Afterward, inevitably, the boys would learn that “we had lost two or three people.”
Desperate for water and eating only what they could find on the way, the boys sometimes got sick from poisonous wild plants. Aweng talks about seeing bombs dropped from airplanes and hearing them burst nearby.
Over the weeks, the boys walked 1,500 miles to Panyidu in Ethiopia. Many of them were naked; what little clothing they’d worn had turned to rags.
At the border, some 20,000 boys with absolutely nothing formed a refugee camp. During the next four years there, they were fed—poorly—and tolerated. But their nightmare was not over.
This time, Ethiopian soldiers attacked the boys, driving them back into Sudan. With gunfire trailing them again, Aweng and Dau were among those forced to jump into the fast-flowing, crocodile-infested River Gilo. Thousands of boys drowned or were eaten.
“I lost most of my friends in that incident,” Aweng tells the students.
The remaining boys headed south. One night, they were ambushed by soldiers as they slept in ditches. In the darkness, Aweng had no idea which way to run: “I could not even tell what is the direction of the gunman.” Many more boys died.
After a final three days of walking on rocky roads, shoeless, nonstop, the boys reached Kakuma, Kenya—a name that in Swahili means “nowhere.” There they stopped, and there they stayed for years, growing up in a huge United Nations refugee camp, not knowing what kind of future they could hope for.
“Being a refugee means no choice,” Aweng says. “You get what is given to you.”
An article in Life magazine described the Lost Boys’ ordeal as a “holocaust of children.” The International Rescue Committee called them “the most badly war-traumatized children ever examined.”
Life in camp
The war raged on through the 1990s. Returning home to Sudan was impossible.
Conditions in the refugee camp were far from comfortable, Dau said in a separate interview. “The help that we got in the camp was not [much], but we did appreciate it because it meant life. . . . We still faced a lot of difficulties, like hunger. We had insufficient food in the camps. We didn’t have good educations; there was still insecurity, health problems. . . .
“But on the other hand, those things were minimal. They were not as terrible as things in Sudan. So we really appreciated what we had and the people and countries that support these programs.”
Outdoors, in the shade of one of Kakuma’s rare large trees, dozens of the boys learned to read, speak English, and come to grips with their existence.
“We had to share notebooks, and sometimes we wrote our lessons in the dirt. But school under the tree helped me forget my family,” Aweng said.
Aweng and Dau were among the lucky few from the camps who won the opportunity to resettle in other countries. They came to the U.S. separately in 2001.
Aweng was scheduled to arrive on Sept. 11, but his plane was diverted and delayed for several days because of the terrorist attacks. He and his companions wondered if the specter of war was trying to follow them to their new homes.
No more waiting
Having spent most of their lives without a country to call home, Aweng and Dau are now U.S. citizens and proud Ohio State alumni. Both graduated in 2009, Aweng with a degree in fine arts and Dau in international relations.
But several years earlier, the future was still unclear. The cousins had been resettled in Tennessee, where they used electricity for the first time, and where they first experienced chilly weather.
“My first time to see snow I was outside the whole day. I knew it was cold, but I enjoyed it,” Dau said. “I read in a book that there is something called snow, but I had never seen how the [ground] would look after the snow, and how the snow just started snowing.”
Sporting a slight drawl in their heavily accented English, a relic of their three years in the American South, the two arrived in Columbus on a December day in 2004.
Dau had already visited the city a few weeks earlier and had met Patti Confar, an Ohio State alumnus (’80, ’83) and employee whose sister worked with refugees in Nashville.
Peter Confar ’79, Patti’s husband, was an architect working on the planned renovation of the Thompson Library. He took Dau up to the top of the building. They looked east, down upon the Oval. They looked west, at the river, at Morrill and Lincoln towers, at the ’Shoe. “This is all Ohio State,” Peter said.
“It is so big,” Dau responded. But then: “I could go here.”
The next morning, Dau announced that he and his cousin wanted to become Buckeyes.
Patti met with Tally Hart, director of financial aid at the time. Dau and Aweng were prepared to start classes the next month, the beginning of winter quarter, but they and Confar and their other sponsors had raised only about half the money they needed.
Hart recommended that the men begin classes and establish residency. They would then have a year to raise funds, work part time, and apply to pay home-state tuition rather than out-of-state fees.
It was a potentially viable path, Confar agreed. But, she told Hart, “They’ve been in the desert, waiting. They’ve been separated from their family since age six. They can do that, they can wait . . . but should they?”
Within an hour, Hart had culled enough obscure grant money, along with Dau and Aweng’s student loans, to establish residency and cover in-state tuition for their first quarter.
Generosity of spirit
As he was planning his studies, Aweng had asked Confar: “Does Ohio State have a lot of courses?”
It does, Confar told him. Knowing his interests, she added, “You could even study painting.”
In order to be accepted into the fine arts program, Aweng was required to show some of his work in a meeting with faculty. After hearing about the hardships in his past and how few financial resources he could offer, the professors seemed dubious, Confar said. “Finally, one professor said, ‘Let’s see his portfolio.’” As Aweng displayed his artwork, “everyone sat back down.”
Aweng dreamed of the animals he had seen along his dangerous journey—lions, elephants, antelopes. He began to paint his memories onto rocks, creating three-dimensional sleeping figures. “Now I am able to design art as I want to,” he said. “I have to find the happiness within me.”
In the refugee camp, Aweng used to draw in the sand with a stick to illustrate stories. With more sophisticated media available, including computers, he now tells his tales with aplomb and grace.
As for Dau, his academic interests lay in international studies. “I wanted to get into work with nonprofit organizations, or [as] international staff with the United Nations,” he said. “Because all that time I was in Ethiopia, I wanted to understand what was the work of the U.N., what was the work of some other nonprofit organizations, the groups that were helping us over there.”
Dau found his classes interesting and enjoyed studying. “It was really very fast to catch up with that system. Eventually, we got used to it. It was very exciting for us to learn about the university and also about American life.”
The two did presentations for students and the community about their home country and its challenges. “And we would talk to student groups or to classes when they discussed issues like peacekeeping, sharing our experiences of what we’ve seen of these problems,” Dau said.
For part of their time at Ohio State, Aweng and Dau lived in a dormitory housing mostly graduate students. “We asked the university for this,” Dau said. “[At that time,] we were sophomores by rank, but we act like [older] people. So it will be hard for us to be with sophomores who just came into the university because, uh, they like to party a lot.” He paused, choosing his words carefully, like the diplomat he may someday be. “A lot of things going on with them. So we need the quiet room to study.”
Dau recalled a classmate who asked him where Sudan was. It’s a question he hears often, and that day, for some reason, he was tired of having to explain the geography of East Africa. “Sudan is in South America, very close to Jamaica,” he answered.
The student, he said, “was really very skeptical, but she believed what I told her is right.” But the next day she scolded him, saying, “Why did you lie to me?” He marvels that many people in the U.S. don’t know the location of other countries.
Yet Dau and Aweng don’t make fun of people. “I don’t blame her if she did not get this information in the educational process,” Dau said. “Some people don’t learn these things because they have no interest over there.”
It’s as if, having witnessed unspeakable cruelty, the men cannot stomach an attitude that isn’t generous or understanding. They seem incapable of bitterness or rage.
“They have every reason to be angry at the world for what they went through,” said Steve Walker, a local friend and supporter. “But what carried them forward on their 1,500-mile walk was taking one step at a time, hoping for something better tomorrow.”
Both Aweng and Dau are employed full time and are still repaying their loans. Aweng works at a distribution center and is married to Ajiel Atem Wal, a Sudanese woman whom he met in the refugee camp and helped bring to the U.S. They have a three-year-old daughter, Nyankiir. Dau
is an assistant manager at a grocery store.
Lifetime of hope
Speaking to the seventh-graders, Aweng recalls his first taste of ice cream. He shouted and threw it down quickly, he said: the intense cold in his mouth was so unfamiliar, he thought he was burning his tongue.
“Yucky!” he jokes, and his audience laughs with him.
“When I speak to groups like yours, I want to shed light on South Sudan, where there are shadows,” Aweng tells the students. “But also I want people who hear my story to understand: you can overcome challenges, too.
“My life,” he concludes, “has been a journey of hope.”