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Sudanese Lost Boy Builds New Life in America

8/26/2005 8:50pm

By Jim Fisher-Thompson and Al Murphy
Washington File Staff Writers

Washington -- David Gak vividly remembers the attack on his village in southern Sudan -- the terror of being suddenly awakened in the middle of the night, and the screams punctuated by gunshots that forced the youth to run into the bush, where he became separated from his mother and father, whom he would never see again.

Gak relived the night he lost his family and home for Al Murphy, a program officer with the State Department. "Before the war we had peace, cattle, school and food," he said. But after the attack on his village, he continued, "we had no parents, no house, no water, no food, no blankets, no shoes."

Following a nightmare of many "bad nights and long walks," Gak said, he finally managed to make it to a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia and later to a new life in America.

Thousands of other less fortunate youths fell prey to starvation, thirst, and attack by lions, hyenas and leopards before they reached safety, Gak told Murphy during an August 19 interview at the State Department in Washington.

Gak and his friends were victims of a civil war between the mainly Arab/Muslim North and the predominantly Black/Christian South that began in 1983. The United Nations estimates that as many as two million Sudanese died in the conflict, many from raids by militias who, backed by helicopter gunships, would swoop down on villages, killing or driving off the inhabitants.

At a refugee camp near Pinyudo, Ethiopia, Gak met other young men like himself; the youths came to be called "Lost Boys" because they no longer had mothers, fathers or village elders to look after them, a true disaster on a continent where orphans were largely unknown until conflict and HIV/AIDS wiped out adults on a massive scale.

Gak and some of the other Lost Boys later returned to Sudan but again were forced out -- this time to northern Kenya, where they were settled at a large refugee camp at Kakuma.

America came to their aid when Gak and about 3,600 other Sudanese youths in a similar situation were allowed to immigrate in 2001 to begin new lives in cities throughout the United States -- places like Omaha, Nebraska; Houston, Texas; and Boulder, Colorado. Many were sponsored by local community organizations and are now college students, a destiny that would have been beyond their reach in war-torn Sudan.

Now in his late 20s and a student studying health care at Pennsylvania State University, Gak spoke about his adopted country and his hopes for the future. "Life in the U.S. is better, but complicated," he said. "It is difficult to pay for education, and health insurance is unavailable to many of us, but the hardships are behind us."

While there are challenges in America, "there are also great opportunities," Gak said. And "as a survivor," he added, "I'm used to grasping at opportunities -- and America is the land of opportunities."

Many of Gak's hopes for his homeland are built around the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), an accord the government of Sudan signed with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) last January. On July 9 a government of national unity was sworn in, an event marred three weeks later by the untimely death of SPLM leader and First Vice President John Garang, who was killed in a helicopter crash.

Gak said he believes southern Sudan needs immediate help to offset years of neglect followed by aggression from the Khartoum government. "Ninety-five thousand children under 5 died last year [2004] from preventable diseases," he said. In general, he added, "children in southern Sudan -- who form more than half the population of about 3.9 million people -- face multiple threats to their healthy development."

To help, Gak said, he and other Lost Boys are copying the American practice of citizens mobilizing in volunteer organizations to provide relief. "We Lost Boys in America have formed the Ayual Community Development Association [ACDA]. What we had gone through always reminds us of our mothers, father, brothers and sisters suffering who have no support. We want to be more supportive of them, even as our hardship is behind us and our hope is prevailing."

So far ACDA has raised money in America to establish a library at the refugee camp in Kakuma and to buy books for students there. The organization has also provided funds for a school in southern Sudan.

Since 1989, the U.S. government has provided more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Sudan, mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development. In the past 12 months total U.S. humanitarian aid to Sudan amounted to $461,199,888. The assistance has included providing emergency food and shelter in Darfur, as well as water sanitation and food security programs in northern Sudan and the upper Nile.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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