When Gabriel Dut Bethou fled his remote village in southern Sudan after a raid by soldiers of the faction that controlled the country at the time, it was with fear for his own life and grief for a family he thought had been killed.
Fourteen years later, the 24-year-old is preparing to return to his homeland - this time, with unimaginable joy.
Bethou, a student and employee at Dean College in Franklin, will be reunited with his mother, Ayen Aleer, and 20-year-old sister Akuot Bethou, both of whom he spent more than a decade believing to have been killed in the attack.
He will also meet for the first time two younger sisters, Aluong, 10, and Nyakong, 14, who were born after Akuot and his parents relocated to the Sudanese city of Juba. His father was later killed in other strife.
"We thought they were going to come here, but from us the immigration department needs more documents and proof they are my family," explained Bethou, who earlier this year had hopes of bringing his family to the United States without delay.
With the process stalled, Bethou said he is unwilling to wait any longer for a reunion.
"Now, they are not coming here any time soon, and I haven't seen them in so long, so I thought I would go there," he said, unable to contain a wide grin as he sat on a sofa in the Dean College campus center last week.
Bethou leaves for Sudan on Dec. 8 and will return Jan. 19.
"I'm going from here to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to Uganda. Then I'll take a car from there," he said.
He explained that while Sudan is technically at peace, the political situation is tenuous at best and flying into the capital of Khartoum may not be the safest way to get to his family in Juba. He said he is also uncertain how his American passport will be received in Khartoum, which was the stronghold of the Arab faction whose soldiers raided his Dinka Bor village in 1995.
Coming in from Uganda, Bethou said, will take a few days, and he expects to have to pay fees for his entry.
"I'll get to Uganda on the ninth, but I won't get to see my family until the 11th or 12th," Bethou said.
"It will be difficult," he said. "I'm going to have to pay for things - you have to pay to the police, even if you have the documents."
Bethou said he is not, at the moment, nervous about the crossing into Sudan.
"To be honest, I don't feel that at all. Maybe after I get there I might feel a little nervous, but right now I'm just excited to go," he said, grinning widely at the prospect of seeing his mother again.
Besides, he said, other former refugees have returned to Sudan to reunite with their families, and come back to the United States, without incident.
Bethou is one of more than 27,000 young people, referred to by the International Rescue Committee as "The Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan," who found themselves on their own during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The war broke out in 1984 and lasted until the peace agreements of 2005.
"I'm scared. But I'm also happy," said Professor Marsha Nourse, who is the head of the English department at Dean. "I wish I was going with him."
Pat Samson, director of public relations and communication at Dean, also admits to some nerves, but knows Bethou can take good care of himself. At just 10 years of age he survived an unprovoked attack on his village, after all, and a six-month trek south through the bush to safety in Kenya, with wild animals, soldiers, illness and starvation always on his and other refugees' trail.
"He won't let me go because he said I'll cry too much," quipped Samson.
Nourse said she remembers vividly the weekend that Bethou realized his mother and sister were alive, and that there were two more sisters who had joined the family. And she couldn't be happier for him that he will see them soon.
"He is one of the most special kids I know," she said.
Bethou learned his mother was still alive after receiving a phone call in June 2005. At first, he thought someone was playing a joke on him and he hung up. But then he reconsidered and telephoned back.
Thus began the effort to reunite the surviving family members. The effort also includes his younger brother, Michael, now 22, who was separated from his family after the attack, but was able to make his way to safety at a refugee camp in Sudan and was eventually given sanctuary in Australia - he now lives in Sydney, Bethou said.
The Dean College community immediately began fundraising through outofsudan.org to help Bethou bring his family to the United States. With that effort looking to take much longer than originally expected, funds raised up until this point are now being put toward the family's upcoming reunion in Juba.
"I think it's good for people to show them what their donations have meant to Gabriel," said Kevin Hearn, an administrator at Dean. "We ran into some significant roadblocks getting his family here. So, what we hope is when he's there he can document his lineage and expedite the process of getting his family here."
He said just more than $9,000 has been raised thus far for Gabriel's effort, and plans are in the works to re-launch outofsudan.org.
"People really took to Gabriel's story," he said. "All you've got to do is meet this guy and you want to help him out."
Bethou said he doesn't expect to need blood tests to prove his relationship with his mother and sisters, but will be working on collecting various documents to prove the connections.
"Where I come from, there are no birth certificates provided, so it's hard to prove," he said, explaining that, unlike in the cities, recordings of births in the villages isn't a formal process.
But there are other documents, like school records, that would prove a relationship.
"What they (immigration) need is to make sure the documents (of Bethou's mother and sisters) have the name that is the same as me," he explained. "It's all part of the process. It would make the process (of bringing them to the States) easier."
But it's not going to be all about business for Bethou and his family. First and foremost is the reunion. And, of course, gifts, Bethou said with a grin.
"I have to start buying stuff for them because my sisters, they might need things and my mom, too. And it's Christmas," he said.
He plans to go shopping with the help of a female friend, he said with a chuckle, "because I don't know what to get for my sisters and what they might like."
A special item his mother is hoping for is a phone, he said. "And my sister (Akuot) was asking for a camera."
The youngest, Aluong, wants a bike, he said. But that one will have to wait.
"There, having a bike is like having a car," he said.
Heather McCarron can be reached at [email protected] or 508-634-7584.