‘Lost Boy’ Ngor Mayol talks about being found

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 16, 2013

In 1992, 20,000 young Sudanese boys — most of them orphaned — fled a terrible civil war and walked thousands of miles to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Many died along the way from starvation, dehydration, wild animal attacks or ambushes. Many more were pressed into service as child soldiers. The rest of the world called them “The Lost Boys.”
It’s not an unfamiliar story. And on Thursday, Salisbury residents had the opportunity to watch a documentary, “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” at Catawba College. Sponsored by the Catawba College Historical Society, the event featured special guests Karen Puckett, founder of Sudan Rowan, and Ngor Kur Mayol, one of the Lost Boys.
The documentary tells the story of two Lost Boys and their journey to America in 2001. The relocation was part of a humanitarian movement in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia to bring the boys over and send them to school. However, once they arrived they were often left on their own to find jobs and earn an education.
Ngor Kur Mayol was one of the boys who came to the U.S. in 2001, and after the documentary he described his own experiences. Mayol fled the fighting in his home village, Aliap, when he was in his early teens. He walked from southern Sudan to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and from there to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
When he was relocated by aid organizations, Mayol found himself in Atlanta. He said that when the Lost Boys were brought over, agencies grouped them into houses of five to seven. Other than that, Mayol said, they had no community, and often felt alone.
“Before, when we were refugees, we were lonely but we were in our own group,” Mayol said.
There was also a language barrier to overcome. Despite some schooling in the camps, learning English was still difficult. Americans often had trouble understanding the boys’ accents, and they had to repeat themselves frequently. Mayol recalled standing at bus stops and trying to start conversations. People often didn’t respond.
“They make you feel like you are not a human being,” he said.
But attending school proved to be one of the greatest challenges the boys faced. Mayol received some education at the Kakuma camp and was able to attend high school and community college in Atlanta. But many of the boys didn’t have the certifications that would allow them to attend college. Some tried to take the GED, but often met with failure.
“You might fail the writing or fail some other subject and have to go back again and again,” Mayol said.
Even though the main purpose of sending the boys abroad was education, some never attended school. But, Mayol said, many went on to receive a bachelor’s or a graduate degree.
In 2011, the southern portion of Sudan — where the boys were from — voted to break away and declared itself the independent nation of South Sudan. Now, Mayol says, the Lost Boys are returning home. Some hold positions in office, some send financial support from abroad, some return to teach, and some — like Mayol — return to build schools.
Mayol is aided in his mission by Sudan Rowan, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to build schools in South Sudan. Its founder, Karen Puckett, became involved with the Lost Boys in 2007 when she saw the documentary.
“This is kind of my obsession,” she said, “It’s been my obsession since 2007.”
She met Mayol the same year. Together, the two dreamed of building schools in and around Aliap.
When asked about their passion, Puckett chimed in first. “A school is an anchor,” she said.
But Mayol had different reasons. “I’m preparing the tomorrow leaders, doctors, engineers,” he said.
To Mayol, an educated country is a powerful one. An educated community is always talking about solutions, he said, and not about conflict.
“It’s been denied to them from generation to generation,” Mayol said.
With a 25-year civil war that ended in the deaths of more than 2 million people, there is nearly an entire generation of South Sudanese that never had access to education. Shakeisha Gray, a board member of Sudan Rowan, said that for the country to move forward, the children of South Sudan need to go to school.
“You need to start at the ground” Gray said, “with elementary schools and primary schools.”
But there’s still a long way to go. Together Mayol and Puckett are working on building two schools. One is almost complete, but the other is just getting started. They’ve received a grant from the Peeler Foundation, and Mayol plans on returning to Aliap to work as a project manager to ensure the community is involved in supporting and running the school.
Each school costs $300,000 — often more with inflation and corruption. And Mayol has designed the schools to have dormitories for teachers and a well for the village. The well is vital, he said, because many children spend hours each day walking to get water for their families. With a well nearby, those children can attend school while still providing for their families.
Mayol is teaching each village to invest in the school, and when the time comes, its maintenance will be turned over to the community, and in time, the country will be turned over to the children. The more children go to school, Mayol believes, the more conflict will be eliminated.
After the discussion, Mayol expressed his gratitude to Catawba College President Brien Lewis, to Puckett, Gray, and to the audience. He said hoped that his story would inspire others to become involved in advocacy and helping others.
“I like people to get involved, not just in South Sudan — anywhere in the world,” he said.