When it comes to lunchtime, most of us spend a lackluster 20 minutes at our desk, wolfing down a sandwich in solitude, returning to our work quickly, which we never really left aside in the first place.
Here at the State Bar, though, a small band of people (OK, two) work hard to host events that transform our midday meal hour. The Bar’s Diversity Department—comprised of Director I. Godwin Otu and Assistant Rosie Figueroa—calendars monthly gatherings that enlighten and entertain. And this past Wednesday was no exception.
You may have heard of the “Lost Boys of the Sudan,” but until you hear an articulate rendering of the group’s pathway from darkness to a hope for a better future, you don’t really know their story.
Between 1983 and 2005, more than 27,000 young people were orphaned, displaced or separated from their families in the wake of a Sudanese civil war. In it, an estimated 2 million people were killed.
Speaking at the State Bar Wednesday was Kuol Awan. He is 31 now, but he was only about 5 when his village—and many others in Southern Sudan—was attacked by government soldiers. Civilians in the villages—mainly women, girls and the elderly—were raped, killed or enslaved. Boys, who were working in the fields or herding animals, had a better chance of survival. Kuol explained how he and five cousins escaped. Adding members as they fled, they eventually comprised a group of about 300.
The boys came upon a neighbor with what he now knows was an AK-47. He led the group to the eastern border of the country—a journey that took three months and cost many lives. Death was due to starvation or attack by animals or tribesmen.
His description of a life of flight and of refugee camps was harrowing. Ultimately, he was in a camp for nine years. When he and his countrymen—4,000 young men and 89 girls—landed at Sky Harbor Airport in 2001, he was ready for a new life.
But American ways surprised them. When they originally landed in New York, they were struck by the fast pace of pedestrians.
“Why are they moving?” Kuol recalled with a laugh. “Why do Americans like to walk around?”
Another disconnect was the fact that they could not live communally, as they were accustomed. Separated into apartments, they longed for a gathering spot. That gave birth to the Lost Boys Center, in Phoenix. There, they could gather, do schoolwork and search for jobs. That is also when they began crafting clay cows, which would be sold to create a scholarship fund.
Kuol Aman updated the audience with the current situation in his home country. A 2011 referendum in Sudan will determine whether southern Sudan will separate and become an independent nation. In his own life, Kuol, now an American citizen, eventually was able to marry his Sudanese girlfriend and bring her back to the United States. He has earned his undergraduate degree in psychology and is working on a master’s in social justice. He wants to be a lawyer.
When he was asked what he missed most about his country, Kuol did not have to pause.
“The people I knew when I was young.” He has visited Sudan since, but what has been lost has been lost forever.
Here are a few more photos from his visit.