Jok Nhial, a "Lost Boy of the Sudan" who now lives in Federal Way, hopes to bring peace to his country through education. He's started a nonprofit, the Liliir Education Project, to raise funds to build a school in his home village.
Almost two decades have passed, but in Jok Nhial’s quiet moments the memory returns.
He was 6 and asleep in his parents’ thatch-roof hut in South Sudan when suddenly there was horrific chaos — gunshots, screams, fire.
Nhial became separated from his family as it tried to escape. Fearing for his life, he and others — some as young as 3 and 4 — ran from the village along a dirt road strewn with the dead. Focusing on the setting sun, they traveled for days, drinking water from wet mud. Those who stopped fell prey to lions and hyenas. Finally, they came to a refugee camp.
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Nhial is one of the 27,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a title the International Rescue Committee gave the children displaced or orphaned during Sudan’s 21-year second civil war, one of the bloodiest civil wars of the 20th century.
He also is one of the lucky ones. After spending most of his young life drifting from refugee camp to refugee camp, he received a visa to come to the United States.
Now 26, he’s a tall, slender, neatly dressed man, a graduate of Gonzaga University and an American citizen. He could leave the past behind, bask in the attention of his adoring foster mother and loyal Seattle-area friends, live in comfort in his Federal Way apartment. But he feels a responsibility to the country and people he left behind.
Not long ago, he started a nonprofit, Liliir Education Project, to raise money to build a school in Liliir, a cattle camp near his village, Alian, in the Bor region. While there are other nonprofits seeking to build schools in Sudan, most are built in cities, leaving countless children in the rural region of the south with little opportunity for an education, he said.
Before Alian was attacked in 1991, Nhial walked miles to school through 100-degree heat, only to sit beneath a tree, writing ABCs in the dirt with his finger because there were no pencils or paper, desks or classroom. The teacher, who often would not show up, had less than a high-school education, Nhial said.
In a 2008 study, UNICEF reported 61 percent of the Sudan population older than 15 can read and write. But most of the wealth and education is in the oil-rich north, which is ethnically and culturally different from the south.
Many in Nhial’s South Sudan Dinka Tribe — his grandfather who raised cattle, for example — had no formal education at all. So when government forces came and killed the cattle and burned the village, his grandfather had nothing left.
“Education can’t be taken from you,” Nhial said. “There’s not a lot of educated people in South Sudan. Education is the way to peace. It’s the way to stop this tribe taking from that tribe, and all the tribal conflict.
“The thing about poverty, how can you get a job without education?”
Even in the refugee camps, those who could speak English had a better chance at getting out and getting work, he said.
Moved by his story and ambition to help those in his homeland, his Seattle-area friends have held fundraising basketball tournaments. He’s been speaking to numerous church groups and is scheduled to address the Bellevue Rotary Club in October, always seeking donations for his fund. So far, the tax-exempt nonprofit has $4,000.
He started it with $500 of his own money, earned while working at the Tacoma Urban League, a job he just lost during a budget cut.
He’s a long way from his $300,000 goal, which he says he needs to build a school, “but we’ll do it,” he said. “We will succeed.”
His foster mother, Andrea Reubel, of Tacoma, is on the board for the project.
“He has a true passion and commitment to his tribe, to the people he grew up with. He has such a good heart; one of his goals in coming here was to be able to get that American education and be able to get help for his tribe and village,” Reubel said.
Nhial and his brother, whom he found in a refugee camp and immigrated with to the U.S. in 2001, came to live with Reubel when they were in their midteens.
They learned English and went to Foss High School, Nhial winning a scholarship to Gonzaga. His brother, Jacob Nhial, later got a job on a fishing boat in Alaska.
Jonathon Isacoff, a Gonzaga associate professor of political science, called Nhial “one of the kindest, most caring and memorable students I have met in over 10 years of teaching. He is always smiling, always thinking of ways to help others … . There aren’t words sufficient to convey how good and compassionate [he] is.”
Isacoff said the Liliir Education Project Nhial founded is a logical extension of who he is.
Nhial seeks “to make the world a better place by helping those most in need, through education and compassion. Many recent college graduates say they want to make the world a better place but claim they don’t have the experience or connections to do it. [He] went right out and did it, no questions, no complaints. I am impressed,” Isacoff said.
As a second part of his fundraising, Nhial would like to provide scholarships for students to study in Kenya or Uganda universities, with the understanding that they will return to teach in South Sudan for two years.
When he gets the funds raised, he’ll return to Sudan to start his project — and visit his family. Some of the members he hasn’t seen in almost 20 years. Others he found living in refugee camps — dire places where one scant meal a day barely sustained life. He saw many die there from unsanitary water or starvation. Medical care was about 45 miles away.
He plans to return to the U.S. once his project is launched and go to graduate school, knowing he’s getting what most in his tribe never will — a good education.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org