Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Monday, August 4, 2008

Achieu and His Courage

After we left Michael and went back to our hotel, we took a walk along Brisbane's South Bank. It's a really beautiful part of the city with restaurants and cafes along the river that won the Wall Street Journal award for being the best planned city walk in the world.  And it was.  With an art museum, a performing arts center, botanical gardens and a University all leading into one another, the river walk was both convenient and beautiful.  We had a great lunch and relaxed.

Later that night, Ellen and I hopped in a cab and went back to Adior's house to meet her brother, Michael's uncle.  In the Dinka tradition, the mother's brother has a special tie to the mother's son.  The best English equivalent I can find to describe this relationship is godfather, but I think this relationship is even more powerful.  Think of the horse's head scene in Godfather I and you'll get my drift.  Just a little sideline here to introduce Ellen. Ellen is an Australian student whom I met while she was studying film at Drexel this past term.  It turns out that Drexel's study abroad program for film students is in--of all places--Australia!  Talk about coincidences. So, when I was looking for a videographer to document Michael's reunion, Tom Quigly, one of my students majoring in film, told me about Drexel's exchange with Swinburne
 University in Melbourne.  Then Dani Ascarrelli of Study Abroad sent out an email to all the Swinburne students on exchange in Philadelphia and within five minutes Ellen responded. Within ten minutes, Ellen and  I were lunching together at the Creese Cafe and she was accepting my invitation to come along.  Ellen lives in Melbourne (she was planning to return home at the end of that week) and she flew from Melbourne to Sydney and met our plane when it arrived on the 28th at 6 AM to document the trip. She's making a short film that will be ready later this month that we'll upload here when it is done.  Anway, she and I wanted to go back to Michael's family's house on Moggill Road to meet Michael's uncle and videotape him for the film.  We thought it would be less intrusive if we went without Teddi, Rick, and Josh, so I hope they get to meet Michael's uncle when we go back to Brisbane at the end of our trip.

Michael's uncle came to Brisbane about 8 years ago and it is he who sponsored Adior and her family's resettlement here.  Without his support they would not have been able to immigrate to Australia. During the interview he filled  us in on the events in Michael's village after Michael and his brothers, Isaiah (who was four-years-old at the time)  and David (who was three-years old), vanished.  He told us how the military had armed Arab Baggara (cattle herders who live in Southwestern Sudan) to destroy their village and what it was like to live in constant fear of being attacked again.  The village was bombed, torched, and attacked by Baggara on horseback who rounded up the adults and raped and abducted the women and girls.  He said that after the attack it eventually became much too dangerous to continue living in Bor and he and his wife, Elizabeth, started their own thousand mile trek through the desert to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.  In addition to the threat of attack, the famine of 1988 compounded the situation making it impossible to stay in Southern Sudan.

When I first met Michael, I was overwhelmed hearing his journey of trekking through the desert.  He walked barefoot and dressed in rags, if wearing any clothing at all, with thousands of other boys through a war zone constantly threatened by wild animals and without water or food.  I didn't know then that average people also were subject to this situation.  Michael's mother, father, stepmothers, uncles, aunts, and even grandmother all survived this journey to Kenya.  
I have read that on the average 1 in 4 people died on this journey.  When I first met Michael's mother, she said to me, "Your family is blessed and my family is blessed."  Survival on such a grand scale is not something to be taken for granted.

As Michael tells me, survival is a combination of "good choices, good luck and good blessings." It's interesting to me that Michael's attitude resembles very much the attitudes of successful immigrants I've met in the US, particularly a Vietnamese immigrant who runs a house painting company on the Main Line and does awesome work, Ta Dieu, and what I remember of my grandmother.  I used to smile and wonder why Yetta and her two sisters, Annie and Rosie, were always thanking God, when one of us children would say something negative.  Instead of berating us, they would say, "God Bless America." Thankfulness and a childlike almost blissful state that I used to consider naive, but now see as the consequence of great wisdom, was their day to day state of being.  When it comes to survival, the mind has a larger role to play than any of us can imagine.  Despite evil portents and actual life threatening situations, the Dinka who survived their walk to Kenya and their years in refugee camps were able to do so with their positive thinking.

Michael's Uncle, Achieu,  reiterated all these ideas during our interview of him.  He told us about the Bor Massacre in 1992 when there was a split between the rebel forces, which resulted in revengeful attacks on the Dinka.  The book to read about the Bor Massacre is Emma's War, which I highly recommend.  The book is written by Deborah Scroggins, who through another freak coincidence associated with our journey, is a dear friend of our brother-in-law, Mark Gloger and Ellen Epstein.  Those in Michael's village who survived the 1988 attack which forced many of the Lost Boys on their trek across Sudan, did not survive the brutal Bor Massacre. 

It was hard to listen to Achieu while imagining all he endured.  In spite of this, Achieu's sweetness emanated from his face as he spoke.  Fluent in English and a father of eight children, he is presently in seminary school training to become a minister.  Michael attended a special sermon that Acheiu gave at a church in Brisbane last Sunday.  I'm sure he mentioned Michael in his sermon and that it was moving and inspiring.  Achieu's story is representative of social upheaval characteristic of the modern day Dinka.  The Dinka have been in contact with other civilizations for centuries, but living in the West presents the particular challenge of retaining values based on a way of life that favors the community over the individual.  When the coverage of the Harriton High School Hunger Banquet appeared on the NBC10 website and Philadelphians were able to post comments, some people wrote in that they didn't understand why Michael couldn't raise the money to reunite with his family in Australia without our help. Frankly I was appalled by these comments and embarrassed by the ignorance of my neighbors. Since Michael's arrival in the US when he was 15 years old and still a high school student,  he has been working two jobs in addition to fulfilling the obligations of his soccer scholarship while a student at Chestnut Hill College and supporting himself solely on his own and sending money home to his extended family in Africa. Once Michael learned that his mother and siblings were alive and living in Kakuma, he sent monthly checks to them there.  Don't think Michael is unique in this.  As many of you know, Africans and other immigrants typically send money home.  People living in refugee camps subsist on a half a cup of runny porridge a day. With Michael's support they were able to buy a little more food--maybe a small piece of gristly meat every so often.   Americans have many lessons to learn about survival from cooperative societies.  Without the support  of our parents, friends, coaches or teachers, how far would each of us ever get?

1 comment:

cheryl said...


It's wonderful being part of your journey - my good friend Karen has just returned from her African adventure. She has many stories to tell of the people in the community in which she spent a month working in a Special Needs Aids Hospital. From her photos the beautiful African landscape is there for all to share - rich or poor.

As I am part of your adventure in an indirect way -
I can feel the blessings and I am thankful.