Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


An interview with Sudanese refugee James Lual
By Monica Singh and Amy Brammell, Drexel University Students

As young boy living in Ajueny — a Dinka village of 5,000 in southern Sudan — James Lual and other children would work together from nine to six each day, tending the goats and cows in cattle camps on the outskirts of the village. Isolated, Ajueny did not immediately receive news of the war in Sudan, and village elders were unable to explain the drastic changes that Lual would soon experience.

He watched while older boys left the village to fight the government. “I didn’t know why my cousins were leaving. It wasn’t until I saw a plane go and drop bombs that I knew what was happening.” When government soldiers set fire to Lual’s village, he was forced at gunpoint from his home.

Wearing a hand-me-down school uniform and a pair of bedroom slippers cut from rubber tires, Lual walked with a growing number of boys to Ethiopia, 500 miles away. On the emotionally painful and physically dangerous journey across the desert, the boys were plagued by starvation, thirst and wild animal attacks. Lual carried only a water container.

“It was so painful to carry above my head or by my side, but I couldn’t throw it away,” Lual says. After nearly three months of walking, Lual reached Pinyudo, the first of three refugee camps he’d call home over a period of 10 years. There was little food at the camp and the boys relied on fishing and foraging in the jungle for food. Six months later the United Nations became involved, providing food, clothing and shelter. They sent adults to help care for and teach the displaced children, now deemed “unaccompanied minors.” (Lual’s father had been killed; his mother was lost to him somewhere in southern Sudan.)

It was here that the importance of education took root for Lual. “Our first school was under the trees. We would sit on stones and use the dirt as notebooks. We learned our ABCs and 123s,” he says. Each day, boys were recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). “I was so excited about the SPLA recruiting kids. I wanted to join the army. Either you could go and kill or be killed, or die in the camp. Because of my size, I was turned down,” he says. Lual remained behind in Pinyudo for four years, continuing to learn, until another civil war broke out, this time in Ethiopia and the camp was no longer a safe place to stay.

In a struggle to survive, Lual and the other boys began another trek, this time across the flooded Gila River back to Sudan as shots were fired. “There was blood in the water. People would hold onto you until you were both dead. I was lucky that I learned to swim in Ethiopia,” says Lual. When he arrived in Pachala, a camp on the border between Ethiopia and Sudan, it took time for the United Nations to find a way to provide sufficient aid.

“A cup of beans would be rationed for seven people and would have to last five days,” Lual says. Soon the Sudanese government discovered Pachala, and boys were forced to dig holes in the ground to try to protect themselves from the bombing that ensued. Pachala was invaded by ground troops, and Lual was once again forced to move, walking along the border to Kenya.

“The 15-and-unders were taken on the UN convoy trucks. It was so crowded that people stood on top of each other, but I felt lucky to get a ride,” Lual says.

Eventually he reached Kakuma, the final destination for most refugees — a hot, dry desert region with no river. The camp here was very crowded. The UN provided a water tank for the refugees three times a day. People woke up at four each morning to get in line. The Sudanese refugees were often attacked by local tribes who had too little food themselves.

Life became more permanent, and shelters and schools made of mud and thatch were erected. Kenyan teachers were hired and paid to teach the boys, though many were understandably more concerned with getting up early to stand in the water line and to obtain their daily food rations. Lual did not miss the opportunity for education. Living without his parents, “Education was the only opportunity for me. I didn’t take it simple like the other boys who dropped out,” he says.

In 1997, the United States developed a program to relocate the “unaccompanied minors.” Immigrating to the United States was a dream still very far in the distance. He had learned not to get his hopes up over the long year of interviews with U.S. officials. Lual’s perseverance paid off when he received a letter from the United Nations, offering him the opportunity to live to the United States.

In 2001, Lual arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City around 9 p.m. A short flight to Philadelphia delivered him to Janet, a member of Lutheran Children’s Services (LCS) helping Sudanese refugees get settled. On his way to Quakertown, Lual went to his first McDonald’s, and learned how to pronounce “water.” At 20 years of age, Lual’s life in the United States had just begun. Quakertown church members working with LCS volunteered their time to taking care of him and getting him prepared for the GED and then enrolled at Bucks County Community College.

Even as life changed dramatically for Lual, a “Lost Boy” far from his native land, education remained critical in shaping his future. Today, Lual is a Chestnut Hill College graduate with a degree in political science. For the past six years, he has lived with his “mother,” Doris Brown, and recently with another helpful woman, Martha Fisher. Now 27, Lual works with Global Education Motivators as a public speaker at schools, libraries, and humanitarian organizations to tell his story and to make people aware of the suffering in Sudan and Darfur. He’s in the process of applying to graduate school with hopes of someday working for the United Nations.

Amy Brammell and Monica Singh are students at Drexel University.

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