By Sue Ann Rybak
Ayuen Garang Ajok’s message is simple. He is a voice for the forgotten children.
“We are the ambassadors to our world, and it’s our duty to educate each other about social justice issues,” Ajok said. “I want people to know and understand that we are the voice of unheard voices around the world.”
Ajok volunteers at Global Education Motivators (GEM), a non-governmental organization located on the campus of Chestnut Hill College, 9601 Germantown Ave. GEM is associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information and it educates schools and communities about human rights, global awareness and global responsibility.
Ajok, who is dedicated to fighting for human rights, knows firsthand the atrocities and inhumanity of war and persecution. He is one of the “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” a name given to groups of more than 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005).
Ajok was only 5 years old when his village, Bor, in South Sudan, was attacked by an insurgent group under the command of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 1987 (al-Bashir currently is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, crimes of humanity and genocide).
The government-sponsored militia slaughtered innocent civilians and burned everything in its path.
“I still recall the gunshots and the distraught sounds of people screaming for help,” Ajok said. “I remember thinking I would return home once the attackers left. Unfortunately, home is still a far off place that I have not been able to go back to yet. I fled my village like others and thus began my journey as a refugee.”
Ajok was one of the survivors who walked 1,200 miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The Second Sudanese Civil War lasted from 1983 to 2005. Almost two million people died when the government troops systematically slaughtered civilians. They walked at night in the vast and barren desert to escape the burning sun and scorching winds of the dry season.
Many watched in horror as the boys were devoured by lions and other wild animals. They walked in bare feet for months and, according to Ajok, “without food or water and witnessed thousands of people suffering and dying from disease or dehydration.”
Ajok was one of the lucky ones. He lived for four years as a refugee in Ethiopia. On his way back to the Sudan he experienced one of the most traumatic and horrific incidents in his life.
After walking hundreds of miles, the group arrived on the bank of the Gilo River, which flows between Sudan and Ethiopia. When the group first arrived, the river was shallow, and Ajok was able to cross to the other side with other young children. While many children crossed, there were thousands of people who were exhausted from their journey and decided to cross the river in the morning.
Ajok recalled the traumatic incident that has scarred him for life:
“Night came and the clear skies were soon invaded by red clouds as if to proclaim that doomsday was here,” Ajok said.
He said the heavens thundered, and torrential rain flooded the Gilo River and the river was infested with crocodiles.
“At dawn, we were attacked by Ethiopian rebels who were overthrowing the government of Mengistu Haile Merriam, an insurgent dictator.
Ajok said the ambush “left the people no choice but to jump into the river to get away.” He watched in horror as thousands drowned or were eaten alive by crocodiles. He witnessed thousands drown in that river “like stones being chucked in the water.”
“The Gilo incident is still fresh as the morning dew, and I can still see, hear and smell the waters of that angry river,” Ajok said.
On that fateful day, he lost a cousin and a very close friend. Ajok said the incident reignited “a deep sense of fear” saying that the tragedy profoundly affected him.
“I realized that fear is a strong thing,” Ajok said. “When one fears, one loses hope and then it starts to break hearts.
Ajok recalled a moment of hope when he returned to the Sudan in 1991 from Ethiopia:
“Word reached us in South Sudan that there was a refugee camp where we might get some education,” Ajok said.
So, they walked to Kakuma in Northwestern Kenya “in hopes of finding safety and education.”
“We knew that an education would provide us with the ability to draw some meaning to the suffering in our lives,” he said.
Once again Ajok faced extreme heat, dehydration and death in the hope of finding happiness in the abyss of misery that engulfed him.
In 1992 he was registered as a refugee at the camp, but life in the refugee camp was often unbearable. It was a daily struggle to stay alive. The Kakuma refugee camp was home to refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Uganda. Ajok said the camp was “hot and lifeless.”
“It was a dusty place in the arid zone,” Ajok said. “In the morning the camp was filled with blinding dust storms from all directions. I used to refer to it as a concentration camp because nothing was there, but dust, dryness and hot weather.”
Despite a shortage of water, food, and the threat of being kidnapped by soldiers. Ajok survived.
“I remember when I started my first grade in Kakuma, my first classroom was under a tree with no roof,” Ajok said. “When it rained, classes were canceled. There were no school supplies.”
He said he learned “from teachers who used the ground as a blackboard.” Ajok spent eight long years in the refugee camp.
Ajok said in December 2000, as part of an initiative sponsored by the United Nations and the Lutheran Children’s Services, he came to the United States.
“Through God’s grace I was able to make it to the United States as one of the “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” he said. “I was grateful to feel safe and to know that I would have the opportunity to attend school.
“Through all these painful moments in life, I knew that someday I would find happiness. Indeed, my past is what has kept me going in life. It is when I look at the yesteryears that it helps me relate to what I am doing today and what I want to do in the future.”
Ajok never imagined he would graduate from high school, yet alone a university.
In 2011, he graduated from Arcadia University with a master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution.
Since then Ajok has volunteered at GEM in Chestnut Hill. Ajok said GEM helps students in the United States understand social justice issues.
“Millions of people are suffering around the world whether through conflict-related issues or through environmental-related issues,” Ajok said. “I want people to understand that change is good for all of us. If we educate others about social justice issues then we are promoting acts of good governance and the rule of law.”
He wants to educate people on “issues concerning human rights violations so that they [governments and organizations] can help ordinary citizens of our world in this 21st century.” Many of these rights are United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
They include eliminating of poverty and hunger, education, gender equality, reducing child mortality, maternal health, disease eradication, the environment, and global partnership. By advocating for human rights issues, citizens, Ajok said, can “help a child whose dreams are denied in the forgotten corners of the world.”
After almost two decades, Ajok was finally able to reunite with his mother, three sisters and one brother in the Pakela refugee camp” in Northern Uganda.
“I always wondered if my mother, sisters and my brother were still alive after the civil war that separated us,” Ajok said.
After 20 hours of airline flights and bus rides starting from Philadelphia, he finally reunited with his family. His brother told his mother, Rebecca Nyanchol, “Mother here is your son Ayuen who just came from America.”
“Right then and there my mother burst into tears,” Ajok said. “My mother held me like a child while her eyes were full of tears.”
After a few days, it was time for Ajok to return to America.
“After seeing my sisters crying and knowing that I was leaving them behind for the second time, my body, my mind and my soul just weakened,” Ajok said. “ I told them that I do not have the power to take you with me right now, but God is great. I truly believe there will be a time when we will be together again, stay together, eat together and pray together.”
So, Ajok’s journey continues, not in the desert of South Sudan or a refugee camp in Kenya, but in the United States. Ajok believes he was called by God to be a voice for the forgotten children.
“I believe if we are informed about some of the issues that are confronting people in the world and act upon them, then we are making change in people’s lives,” Ajok said. “Somewhere around the world, children’s dreams are not fulfilled because their respective governments deny them their basic rights. I was once one of those children.”