Sudanese students face new frontiers at George Fox
Hip-hop rings from David Mathiang’s glowing cell phone.
"What’s up, homie?" he answers.
He holds the small device to his ear, pressing in on three sparkling earrings.
"Just chillin," he replies to the caller.
Mathiang knows how to chill. Walking across the George Fox campus in his baby-blue Michael Jordan basketball gear, he draws scores of smiles and friendly head nods. Some stop to offer him "props," touching their white clenched fist to his black fist in an urban sign of mutual respect. With his own home torn from him years ago, Mathiang has made himself at home wherever he has gone.
Michael Chuol, at five-and-a-half feet tall, is 103 pounds of skin and smile. If his lean runner’s physique wasn’t obvious beneath the green suit he wore on the first day of George Fox classes, his athletic achievements were clear. Bright yellow decals - symbols of varsity letters earned in high school cross country and track - were sewn on the lapels of the suit.
When President David Brandt gave his welcoming address that first day, Chuol appeared to be the only student taking notes. Brandt spoke on authenticity and courage.
Chuol, like Mathiang, knows something about courage.
Chuol was a young boy when war reached his Dinka village in southern Sudan.
"I remember the sound of guns," says Chuol. "People were running. My uncle grabbed my hand and said, ‘We go.’ I thought we would go and come back."
They never returned.
Mathiang thinks he was 4 years old the night Arab soldiers came shooting the men and taking the women. He ran into the bush. He hasn’t seen his parents since.
It was 1987 in southern Sudan, where the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) battled the Islamic Sudanese government in a decades-long civil war. Government-backed Arab militia frequently raided the villages of the semi-nomadic, cattle-herding Dinka and Nuer tribes. The U.S. State Department estimates that war, famine, and disease in the region killed more than 2 million people and displaced another 4 million.
Mathiang and his 8-year-old cousin joined a group of boys that also had escaped. Directed by the SPLA, they began walking east toward safety in Ethiopia. "We hid in the bush and walked at night," says Mathiang. They feared the helicopters. "If they see people, they drop bombs."
Nonprofit organization Save the Children estimates 15,000 unaccompanied children - mostly young boys - walked hundreds of miles to Pignudo, Ethiopia. Many boys walked barefoot and survived by foraging for leaves and berries. Some of the weakest were killed by lions.
The journey took two to three months. As they crossed the dry terrain, Mathiang remembers receiving his water ration in a bottle cap. "I fell on ground crying," he says. "I wanted more."
Food was scarce. "They gave it out little bit by little bit," says Mathiang. "You don’t know when you’ll get more."
The Boston Globe reported that when the refugees reached Ethiopia, about 300 adults looked after 33,000 boys. Relief workers named them the Lost Boys of Sudan after Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, a group of orphans who cared for themselves in Neverland.
Refuge in Ethiopia
Chuol arrived in Pignudo, Ethiopia, with his uncle and cousin. "We walked," he says. "Sometimes my uncle carried me a couple miles. We don’t carry anything."
A refugee camp was established with limited outside assistance. "The first year was bad," says Chuol. "We had no food." He survived on fruit and the fish they caught in the river. Mathiang remembers selling his extra clothes at the market to buy food.
"We had school, but a lot of disease," said Chuol. Malnourished children suffered from diarrhea, hookworm anemia, malaria, and tropical ulcers.
In 1991, the Ethiopian dictator fell and the Sudanese refugees were evicted. Ethiopian militia drove the column of boys into the flooded, fast-flowing, and crocodile-infested Gilo River on the Sudan border. Mathiang remembers hanging onto an inner tube with another young boy while the boy’s father pushed them across the river. Mathiang estimates that 1,000 boys died that day. Chuol’s uncle drowned.
Across the border in Sudan, the boys were attacked by local tribesmen and bombed by the Sudanese military. They fled the country again.
Kakuma Refugee Camp
About 11,000 Lost Boys reached Kenya by 1992. Small huts made of branches and plastic sheets provided shelter. Eventually, more than 60,000 refugees from all over Africa settled in Kakuma Refugee Camp. The United Nations and international aid organizations provided assistance. The boys ate meals twice a day and attended school under the trees while brick structures were constructed. Chuol was hired by an aid agency to make soap.
Even Kenya wasn’t a safe haven. Outsiders repeatedly raided the camp. "There was a lot of looting," says Chuol. "They come at night. They knock. When you show your face, they point a gun at you and tell you to give money. If you don’t, they’re going to kill one of you for an example."
The SPLA recruited soldiers at the camp. Both Mathiang and Chuol remember a doctor who preached that the boys should join the rebels and fight in the name of God. There were few options. "It’s not easy to get a job," says Mathiang. "If you have good grades, you can be a teacher for primary or seventh or eighth grade. Other than that, there’s nowhere to go."
But they heard America and Australia would take refugees. "We could study and there would be no war any more," says Chuol. "That would be great. There would be a lot of opportunity and a lot of jobs. My goal is to have a job."
"They said going to America is like going to heaven," said Mathiang. "All my ancestors; no one come to America. It’s God’s plan. Not my plan."
Pictures of America intrigued them: Washington D.C. landmarks, schools, shopping malls, and a massive river called the Mississippi that looked like the Nile. "I thought, we can go swimming sometime," said Chuol.
Coming to America
Four thousand Lost Boys resettled in America, leaving war for a new world. Chuol and Mathiang came in 2000.
Representatives of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington met Chuol at the airport. "They gave us a lot of clothes and a lot of food." His new foster parents took him home to Yelm, Wash., near Olympia. He started his American education as a high school sophomore and found there indeed were jobs in America. Rite-Aid and Safeway hired him to bag groceries, gather carts, and help customers.
Lutheran Social Services placed Mathiang with foster parents in Seattle. He enrolled in high school and started working at the seafood counter at Albertsons grocery store. Some coworkers thought he was from Jamaica. Most didn’t know where Sudan was.
Running for Recognition
In Kenya, boys play soccer. In America, Chuol and Mathiang say running brings more recognition.
As a senior, Mathiang and his high school coach organized a Rotary-sponsored run that raised $5,000 for books and medicine that went back to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Twentyfive runners from different high schools ran for an hour. Mathiang ran 34 laps, more than anyone else.
Chuol competed in school and won numerous community five-kilometer races. He trained by running between his foster parents’ home and school, a distance of nine miles. Running in the 2002 Seattle half-marathon, Chuol finished 10th out of more than 2,000 male runners.
Both graduated from high school in 2003. Mathiang went to community college in Seattle. Chuol spent a semester at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash. He says he doesn’t want to see snow again.
After unknowingly shadowing each other from Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya to America, Mathiang and Chuol again found their journeys united. Independently, they enrolled at George Fox, a Christian university where they could run competitively. They now share an on-campus apartment.
Even when he runs, Mathiang wears a simple shell necklace given to him by a girl in Kenya. "Remember who I am," she told him.
Off the track, Mathiang dresses in baggy clothing, basketball gear, and often a necklace with a large silver cross. "I got a lot of jewelry," he says. "I call it bling bling."
Mathiang’s Sudanese cousin doesn’t like Mathiang’s style. He thinks people who wear urban hip-hop clothing have a bad attitude. Mathiang disagrees and pulls out a photo of himself in Kenya wearing baggy jeans. "I’ve been doing this since I was a kid," he says. "In Kenya, there’re a lot of Michael Jordan jerseys. Different situation, clothes the same."
Chuol’s wardrobe is less trendy and includes colorful African patterns.
"People are different," says Mathiang. "We are unique. He’s got his own style. He looks better in what he wears and I look better in what I wear."
Mathiang often listens to rap. Chuol says he doesn’t have any favorite music, but when he and Mathiang watched a video documentary that showed a celebration at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, Chuol cheerfully sang along in Dinka. Mathiang watched silently.
Is Mathiang more American? "I don’t know," he says. "I can’t say ‘yes,’ because Michael has been here four years like I am. If I am Americanized, he should be too."
Even after four years, people still occasionally call them Lost Boys. Neither has seen the Peter Pan movie or understands the Lost Boys reference. Chuol doesn’t like to be called a Lost Boy. "They call them Lost Boys because the majority at that time lost their parents," says Mathiang. "To some people it is offensive," he says. "Me, I don’t care. My parents still alive."
In August, Mathiang spoke to his father for the first time in 17 years. His cousin returned to Africa and found Mathiang’s family. His father called. "I was so excited," says Mathiang. "So happy." His father is a farmer who raises maize and grain sorghum. He also is wealthy in cattle and thus could afford the dowries for his four wives. His family has two homes - a brick home in the city of Bor and a grass hut in the village. Mathiang thinks he has about 10 sisters. "I’m the firstborn," he says. "When I left, there were like five."
Chuol doesn’t like to talk about his family. "You don’t have to write everything about that," he says.
On less personal topics such as running or school, Chuol can talk at length. His professors say he is well-liked and has a "sweet spirit." Strong opinions do emerge - he’s not happy to be placed in English as a Second Language classes. He studied English in Africa. "I don’t want to do it here," he says. "To communicate is enough." He’s irritated with all the meetings he’s called to with administrators who talk to him about his class work and assessment tests. It discourages him.
In cross country practice, Chuol often ignores the prescribed workout. "Michael is just serious," says Mathiang. "He runs very hard and leaves everybody behind. He doesn’t like staying in the group. He has his own idea."
"I run hard, the way I’m going to race," says Chuol. "Keep doing that. Get better and better."
At a recent meet, Chuol arrived at the course just as the rest of the team was leaving for a warm-up run. Chuol ran his warm-up alone. After the race, he cooled down with one other runner and stood alone cheering on the George Fox women’s team during their race.
Chuol’s 25:33.2 time at the eight-kilometer distance is the fastest on the team and the 14th-fastest ever by a George Fox runner. As a freshman, he competed at the NCAA Div. III national cross country championships. This year, he finished ninth at the West regional championships.
English as a Fourth Language
Athletic success is coming easier than academic success. English is their fourth language following Dinka, their native tribal tongue; Arabic, the national language of Sudan; and Kiswahili, the Kenyan language. Chuol says his goal is to pass his classes. It’s hard. Classes that seemed easy at first are becoming difficult. Their finances are limited. Individuals have donated money to help with some of their tuition and living expenses, but both are taking out loans. Their status as student-athletes restricts the university from providing extraordinary financial assistance. NCAA Div. III institutions such as George Fox are not allowed to award student-athletes more financial aid than an average student.
If they can pass their classes, they’ll consider their next steps. Mathiang wanted to be a geologist, but George Fox doesn’t offer the major. Now he leans toward social work and he likes the idea of working overseas for the U.S. government. Chuol talks of going to pilot school. "Maybe God send me to do it," he says.
Next year they both become U.S. citizens. Then, they both hope to return to Kenya to visit. "I will go back for a visit, but I don’t want to stay," says Mathiang. Neither has returned to their birthplace in Sudan. "There is no reason," says Chuol.
By Rob Felton
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