Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The story of Sudanese refugee Nyoun Yok Gargik
By Titus Codjoe and Brett Haymaker, Drexel University Students

The following was adapted as a first-person narrative by Brett Haymaker and Titus Codjoe.

My name is Nyoun Yok Gargik. My mother gave me my first name and I inherited my last name from my father. It is a strong name, strong because my mother gave it to me and because it refers to a building material composed of cement and grass that we use in Sudan. I do not know the year of my birth.

One memory I have is drinking fresh milk we collected from the cows at our cattle camp with some other boys — a far cry from the Ph.D. I am now pursuing at Drexel University to become an electrical engineer.

I remember the day my mother came with a policeman to the cattle camp holding a telegram message from my father. My father had been in Kosti, north of Leir, working as a businessman along the White Nile River, and he wanted us to move there. I was too young to realize the telegram concerned the fighting. I was excited about the prospect of travel.

It was not until years later, after many nights staying up with my father listening to Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) news reports, when I would come to know of Islamic government soldiers burning villages and bombing cattle camps in the south. Leir, my home region, became a battleground. I was lucky. I never saw any rebels.

I moved to Rufah to attend boarding school in 1993. I remember a man at the school who spoke speculatively about Islam and often made religious jokes — something you just did not do. Word spread. Islamists climbed the walls and cut the power so nobody could be seen. They broke into his room and slit his throat with a knife because he spoke badly about Islam. His blood was on the walls.

In 1996, I graduated from school in Rufah and gained admittance into Khartoum University, located in North Sudan. Although I was admitted, I could not begin my studies for another year and a half. There were no students. They all joined to fight for the government, burning crops, bombing cattle camps and tearing down homes built of the material from which I’m named.

North Sudan is dominated by Islam. I am Christian. I am the minority. In Khartoum, I was the enemy.

After some time at the university, I led a bible study group. I received threats often, but there were others that shared my faith, and I was not alone. We knew of the unwritten law to not “reach out” to Muslims, but we organized a “Bible exhibition” anyway so we could demonstrate our faith to others.

A few Egyptian men who were part of our group did not show up the day of the exhibition. They had seen the written warning from Islamists posted the day before, threatening violent demonstration. Even professors from the university signed the warning. We propped up our tent and laid bibles out on tables. There were 15 of us, so when the 300 Islamic students showed up with sticks, throwing rocks and wielding knives, we ran for our lives.

Rocks flew into the tent striking peoples’ heads. A group of men cornered a friend named Peter, which is the English equivalent of his Arabic name. Peter was light-skinned, and did not look southern. They yelled at him, hitting him with sticks saying, “You are not from the South, why are you Christian?” Some protesters did not know what to do because he looked innocent, but Peter was trapped in a corner. A man knifed Peter’s side. He fell to the ground. Blood stained the walls built of cement and grass. All the Bibles burned.

This clash happened on a Saturday. The next day, Sunday, students from Juba University — a southern Sudan School — stormed Khartoum, climbing over the fences. Juba brought many people to chase the few Islamic students and faculty into nearby mosques, threatening to burn down the buildings with the people still inside. I heard people say these things, but I did not support this. I did not want to waste more human life. Luckily, nobody went through with it and the mosques remained.

I pursued legal action against the demonstrators. My lawyer was Arab and Muslim. Because I was a Christian, he did not do anything. The case never went anywhere. He even cursed me out when I questioned him about it.

A few of the demonstrators were connected with Sudanese Security, an organization similar to the Secret Service in the United States. My case against them made me a target, like the man killed at my school for talking badly about Islam. In Sudan, it is very common for people to be taken in the night. Many pastors of churches disappeared this way.

My nights became sleepless. I feared for my life and knew I could not stay. I applied for a U.S. student visa and was granted political asylum. I moved to Columbia, S.C., to live with a Sudanese man I knew from childhood. From there I moved to Indianapolis, Ind. I was not working and had little money. It was in Indianapolis where I learned of the “Lost Boys” community in Philadelphia. An American family in Jenkintown, who were members of the New Life Presbyterian Church, took me in. I’ve been in Philadelphia ever since.

One day I will help in building a stronger Sudan — one whose boundaries do not reflect the composition of the North or the composition of the South but of one united, composed Sudan.

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