By NOAH RANKIN
By the time he entered high school, Ayuen Ajok grad had already lived the horrific life of a war refugee: Over a span of 13 years, Ajok walked thousands of miles among three countries, nearly died from disease and starvation and lost countless friends and family members to war.
Ajok is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the 20,000 Sudanese children who were displaced from their homeland and separated from their families during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
“As a child, I was told that Arabs would come to our villages and convert us and kill us,” Ajok said.
When his village was attacked, knowing “that death was around the corner and that anything could happen” to him, five-year-old Ajok escaped immediately, unable to meet with his parents before making the several thousand-mile trek to Ethiopia on foot with other refugees.
“We encountered things like people dying from dehydration, animal attacks, children being kidnapped by bandits at night,” said Ajok, adding that people died from lack of medical care, as well as from depression and suicide.
The main thing that encouraged him to keep walking was the hope that his parents might have survived, he said.
“Thinking about my parents, where they were and how their safety was was something I thought about all the time,” he said.
In Ethiopia, Ajok was grouped with 27,000 children refugees into isolation camps, where he remained for four years until 1991.
“There were no houses when we got there, just trees,” Ajok said. “We did not have tools, [and] we did not have infrastructure like hospitals or clinics. During the rainy season, the cholera endemic became a big issue, and some of the friends I made there died. It was the first time I had to witness a friend die.”
The only real adult figures at the Ethiopian camp were the volunteers there, who periodically disappeared once they were called off to war, according to Ajok.
Ajok was forced to go back to Sudan once gunshots rang out one morning in 1991.
“I just ran. Everyone had to leave, toward Sudan. We were not prepared for it, and rebels were shooting everyone. They didn’t care if you were a refugee or not,” he said.
Ajok returned to Sudan as an internally displaced person. For three months, he and other children lived off berries, eventually trading what little clothes and supplies they had for food.
Then, in order to get to a refugee camp with real food and water, they walked further south in Sudan, single file, walking only at night and leaving the sick and injured behind. During the journey, Ajok caught malaria and had to be carried by his two colleagues. Eventually, they reached a refugee camp in Kenya, where he stayed for eight years.
At this camp, Ajok began his education and his eagerness for learning. Though lessons were given in charcoal on pieces of cardboard and the children only had the ground to practice, Ajok said he became very driven about practicing his English.
In 2000, Ajok was among the refugees who were brought to the U.S. to escape life as a refugee. He described coming to America as a “culture shock,” only having a small idea of what America was like based off of a viewing of Charlie’s Angels in the Kenyan refugee camp.
“The first night I spent in America was in a hotel in New York City,” Ajok said. “I left my shoes on while I was sleeping, because I was so used to always running.”
Having refused to be placed in a foster home, Ajok was placed in a home in Philadelphia along with a relative of his mother.
“I thought I was going to another refugee camp,” Ajok said, before discovering the lack of violence in his new home.
“People walk past each other on the street without bothering each other,” Ajok said. “Whether you are Republican or Democrat, in America you can still get along. We never shoot each other from left to right over political differences.”
After studying hard and receiving support from a local church, Ajok was able to excel in school and graduate from high school as well as Temple University, where he transferred to after spending a year at Penn State.
In 2007, Ajok finally reunited with his mother in Uganda, where she lives as a refugee.
“I view America as my first home and Sudan as my second home,” Ajok said. “America gave me the opportunity that my country did not give me. With my American passport, I can travel anywhere. I want to be an advocate for Sudan’s cause. For a society to move forward, it involves community, civil society and government.”
At Cornell, Ajok has given presentations on margin markets in developing countries, as well as talks at local high schools. He believes that for children growing up in a developed country like the U.S., the curriculum should expose students to the humanitarian crises across the world and incorporate the United Nations’ Millenium development goals into teaching. He said he thinks that on all levels, from academic down to the family level, students should be made aware of inequity in the world.
“Parents should play a great role to give children a different perspective so that they grow up with enthusiasm not about their own problems, but children in developing countries,” Ajok said. “A lot of kids have dreams, but they don’t have opportunities. Don’t take things for granted.”