July 8, 2011

‘Lost Boy of Sudan’ recounts harrowing story of survival

Human rights activist John Dau, now a resident of Syracuse, N.Y., talks about his fundraising efforts to help provide medical care for thousands of people in southern Sudan. He is a former “Lost Boy of Sudan” who survived countless threats to his life during a civil war that started in 1983. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Human rights activist John Dau, now a resident of Syracuse, N.Y., talks about his fundraising efforts to help provide medical care for thousands of people in southern Sudan. He is a former “Lost Boy of Sudan” who survived countless threats to his life during a civil war that started in 1983. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

By Mary Ann Wyand


Human rights activist John Dau, now a resident of Syracuse, N.Y., understands the meaning of that word better than most people.

He knows firsthand the harsh reality of struggling to survive in a hostile world where he was nearly killed many times, and often went without food and water for days during his perilous childhood years in war-torn southern Sudan.

Dau is a former “Lost Boy of Sudan” who miraculously survived death countless times, and amazingly helped many other refugee children escape with him from the horrors of an unbearable life of fear, suffering and horrific atrocities in their homeland.

During his keynote speech for a World Refugee Day program on June 20 at the Archbishop O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis, Dau recalled his daily struggle to live and protect other children, and his sorrow when many of the starving boys were killed while attempting to flee from Sudan.

“Some of us were shot and killed, others drowned, others got eaten by crocodiles,” he said. “We lost many.”

Dau also offered his heartfelt thanks for the opportunity to live in safety in the United States, and encouraged refugees throughout the world to never give up on their hopes and dreams for a better life.

Through the John Dau Foundation, he continues to help impoverished people in southern Sudan by raising funds for desperately needed medical care at clinics that he established in his homeland.

Before creating that foundation, Dau founded two other nonprofit organizations in the U.S. to help refugees.

World Refugee Day recognizes the critical need to help refugees from many countries find safe living conditions. The United Nations estimates that 44 million people were displaced from their homes and became refugees in 2010 alone.

Since 1975, the Catholic Charities Indianapolis Refugee Resettlement program has resettled more than 18,000 immigrants in central Indiana by providing housing, food, clothing, job placement, employment skills, medical care, education, English-language classes and community orientation.

“We appreciate you and Catholic Charities for the work that you have done—and continue doing—helping those who are coming [here] from somewhere else,” Dau said. “It’s wonderful.”

Dau immigrated to the United States nine years ago “without knowing anybody, without knowing where I was going.”

Organizations like Catholic Charities make it possible for refugees to begin new lives, he said, again offering his thanks to the staff and volunteers.

“I am originally from southern Sudan,” Dau said. “The government in the north [has been] mistreating southerners. ... This country has been fighting for many years. … Yet another war is still going on right now in our country in the western part of Sudan known today as Darfur.”

As a child, Dau was caught up in the violence of a civil war that started in 1983 and continued until 2005.

“We were very happy,” he said of his family’s life in southern Sudan before the war started in 1983.

“In 1987, when I was 12 years old, this is when my village was attacked,” Dau said. “It was attacked by the northern troops. They came into my village after midnight. They started bombing. The whistling of bullets, the bombardment, woke us up in the middle of the night. We ran out, and my mother was calling for us outside. … As I was running, I saw somebody and thought it was my father. The man grabbed my arm and pulled me into the [tall] grass because the long line of troops was coming. It was the middle of the night, and we couldn’t see anything.”

He realized that the man who rescued him was a neighbor. While they hid in the bush then fled from their village, the soldiers shot many of the people, burned all the houses, and raped women and girls.

“This is when I was separated from my family,” Dau said. “I was with [my neighbor and several other villagers] for three days. We went for three days without food. … We kept going, but there was nothing to eat.”

They had to “chew grass like cows” and keep running, he said. Many villagers who tried to escape the troops were killed by local tribesmen hired by the government.

“Some of us were killed, others eaten by hyenas or lions,” Dau said. “… We went for two days without water. … Some people died there, and others kept going. The boys came from different directions. … I was taking care of some of the others. My group became 1,200 boys from age 5 to age 15. These boys wanted to see their mothers. They wanted to eat food. They wanted to drink milk. … There was nothing I and the others could do. We just said, ‘OK, today is bad. Tomorrow will be good.’ ”

At an overcrowded refugee camp in Ethiopia, the boys were grateful to receive food, medical care and second-hand clothing supplied by the United Nations.

“It was getting better, but diseases such as malaria, cholera, typhoid, measles, chicken pox and whooping cough, all these diseases, killed boys every day,” Dau said. “… In our group, two or three boys died every day. We would bury their bodies, but because we were so skinny and had no energy we had to dig shallow graves.”

Despite their efforts, hyenas dug up the bodies at night, he said. “That was a very graphic part of our life story.”

The fighting continued, and again the boys had to flee from the civil war.

“The new government in Ethiopia gave us about seven days to leave [the camp],” Dau said, so the Sudanese children and adults had to return to southern Sudan where northern troops again attacked them.

In 1992, the refugees were relocated to Kenya by the United Nations and the International Relief and Development organization.

“At the time, I was 17 years old,” Dau said. “This is when I started to learn A-B-Cs and 1-2-3. I had never been to any school before that time.

“Education is [like] my mother and father because education can protect you,” he said. “Education can give you food. It can give you things that help you survive.”

When he was finally resettled to the United States nine years ago, Dau studied diligently and resolved to find ways to help his people still suffering in southern Sudan.

Now, he focuses on raising funds through his foundation for clinics in southern Sudan that provide medical care and immunizations for thousands of people.

Work hard to lead productive lives in America, he advised other refugees attending the program. “Don’t ever let what has happened in your lives many years ago or yesterday hold you back. Move on from where you are. You can succeed and change your lives for the better.” †

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