From Lost Boy to Peace Activist on Capitol Hill

Posted June 25, 2010 at 2:58pm

Twenty-three years ago, in an agrarian community of southern Sudan, 8-year-old Nathaniel Nyok was sleeping in the grass. Like the other young boys snoozing near the burning cow-dung pies, he had been sent away by his family for training, in the hope that he’d become the next cattle-keeper for his village.

Just before dawn, gunshots shattered the night’s stillness. The sounds jerked Nyok awake and brought the decades-old, deadly civil war between Sudanese Arabs and Africans into his life for the first time.

Within seconds, the cattle-keeping training camp was in an uproar under a rainfall of bullets. Many — including Nyok’s cousin — were shot while the young boys sprinted toward the safety of the jungle’s dense trees. Nyok and the other survivors embarked on a monthlong journey by foot to a safe haven in Ethiopia and began their lives as refugees. They became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Nyok, today a naturalized citizen of the U.S., has come a long way since that night. Not only has he been granted asylum and befriended Bruce Willis while acting as an extra in the movie “Tears of the Sun,” but he also interns in the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. He attends committee briefings and takes notes to report back to Isakson’s legislative aides.

And at 31, he’s dedicated his life to promoting peace and taking care of refugees.

“People choose different goals in life based on what they like, but mine is different,” he wrote in his Senate internship application cover letter. In an interview, he said his experiences have taught him “war is nothing but destruction. War takes away life.”

He’s taken this lesson with him.

The rising senior international affairs major at Georgia-based Kennesaw State University has helped refugees settle into the U.S. and even founded a nonprofit, Sudanese-American Voices for Educational Services, which raises money to build secondary schools in Sudan.

Nyok said the memories of his past drive his career ambition. He recalls the 14 years that his empty stomach constantly rumbled and the hundreds of miles he walked barefoot between U.N. refugee camps from Ethiopia to Kenya. Nyok said he lived on a single meal of bread and sometimes wild fruits — but even that was better than the days he ate nothing.

“We had to make a budget,” said Nyok, who, until last year, hadn’t seen his family since the night he fled the cattle camp. “The U.N. food distribution center would give us a small packet every month of flour, oil, salt and corn.” But the rations, meant to last weeks, wouldn’t even fill a child-sized lunch box, he said.

Looking back at the thousands who died of hunger and disease, many of whom he helped bury, Nyok is surprised he survived. “I think I was just lucky. It was not my time.”

But there was one benefit to living in the refugee camps: free education that was otherwise unheard of in Sudan. The camps offered him a chance to enroll in first grade in 1991. By 2001, he’d completed high school.

It was just after graduation that he and 4,000 of the 30,000 orphaned Sudanese Lost Boys and Girls were selected to come to the U.S.

“I was only partially excited,” he said, looking back. “Part of me wanted to be reunited with my family. I was afraid I’d never see them again. But I wanted to go to school and was excited to work and make money, so I decided to see what the future held for me in the U.S.”

By the end of that year, he was sharing an apartment in Georgia with several other refugees, slicing fresh bread with a cutting machine at a local bakery, his first-ever job, and filling out applications to enroll in a local community college.

But, despite the ocean that stood between him and his birthplace, Sudan never quite left Nyok. “I was always thinking about what I could do for my people,” he said.

He began speaking and telling his story at churches and peace rallies. He advocated for the U.S. mediation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan.

In 2006, he started working as a case aide for the International Rescue Committee. He would pick up Cambodian, Thai and Rwandan refugees from the airport, take them shopping, help them find apartments and register children for school.

That’s where his language skills first came in handy — he’s fluent in English, Dinka, Arabic and Swahili. But his greatest connection to those granted asylum was the similar walk of life they shared.

“They’d experienced many atrocities, had come to an unfamiliar country naked and looked like skeletons, just as I did,” he said. After introducing himself to the refugees, Nyok always mentioned that he also was a refugee but that in America, they can learn, get jobs, eventually even buy cars. “Many were hopeless because they’d lost family. I’d felt the same way, but I always encourage them that someday they could return and help out their people.”

Last year, Nyok visited his hometown and embraced his mother and the siblings who survived the war. He hadn’t seen them in more than 20 years. During his stay, he was upset to find that the village children had no place to attend high school — a problem that’s not unique to his village. According to UNICEF, only around half of Sudanese children attend primary school and less than 20 percent go on to secondary school.

Nyok, who believes education is the most powerful weapon for promoting peace, offered to pay for and send his nephews to high school in Kenya and promised to do his best to bring education to Sudan.

“Peace is maintained by educated people because they are able to understand the difference between right and wrong and make rational judgments,” he said. “Those who are not educated, their minds are easily corrupted.”

He single-handedly founded SAVES upon returning to the United States. He established the mission, registered his nonprofit, designed the website and is about to start a fundraising campaign with the goal of building a high school for the brightest 1,000 Sudanese students.

And he won’t stop there. His internship with Isakson has allowed him to extend his reach beyond the nonprofit world to include the U.S. government. “I think government work can reach more people,” he said. Just as nonprofits work with victims on the ground, so too can U.S. policies work to better the lives of people around the world, he said.

Whether his work takes him to the U.N., U.S. Agency for International Development, a nonprofit or the Senate, Nyok hopes to build a career in helping refugees, protecting human rights and promoting peace and democracy. “I have to do public service with a humanitarian agency, the government or any organization concerned with bettering the lives of people caught in war,” he said.

And using optimism as his guide, he believes that with dedication and time, the world — even the warring factions of Sudan — can become “one global village, a peaceful world in one global tribe.”