The most striking thing Jok said upon returning from Sudan was, “Now I know why people are so happy to see their family, it is so good!” Jok Kuol Wel, now 25, hadn’t seen his family since their village in Sudan was attacked when he was only five. He became part of a group of 40,000 Sudanese boys now known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were all traveling opposite their only guide, the sound of gunfire. They walked hundreds of miles from Sudan to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and finally to a refugee camp in Kenya. The Lost Boys traveled on bare feet, with no parents, no food, through torrential rains, swam across a branch of the Nile River, and braved attacks by lions and hyenas. It sounds like fiction; even to those that lived through it, but the fact that at the end of the journey only 20,000 remained proved its sad reality.
Jok came to the US from Kenya in 2001, shortly before September 11, after which the US government rarely accepted any refugees. While he was glad to escape, he was torn by the fact that so many of his friends and family were left behind. After a ceasefire agreement between the Northern government of Sudan and the provisional government in the South in 2003, the Sudanese in Kenya began to repatriate into the South. Jok and three other Lost Boys living in Chicago, Ajang Bol, Duot Aguer, and Chau Thon, decided the time had come to help those back home.
After recruiting some American friends in March of 2005, HELPSudan was formed. During those first few meetings, the Lost Boys decided that the best way to help back home was to provide an education for children. In August 2005, Jok talked to his cousin Abraham Akech, a teacher still living in Kenya, about starting a school in their hometown of Bor. Abraham enthusiastically embraced Jok’s vision and began making plans to move back to Sudan. By April 2006, Abraham held the first classes under a tree in Bor.
All the while, as HELPSudan hosted interest meetings in Chicago, more people began to talk about the best way to move forward. A core group of 11 attendees became the founding board of HELPSudan when it filed for 501c3 status with Jok Kuol Wel as President.
When Abraham reported to Jok about the school in May 2006, progress was greater than expected. The community in Bor had refurbished the remnants of an old school building, called Thianwe, and there were now more than 400 students. By December 2006, the school had grown to over 1000 students, 14 volunteer teachers, and now had a campus of 11 mud and straw huts called tukels. Catholic Relief Services began giving food to Thianwe, which was then prepared by Sudanese women so that each student could have a meal during school.
HELPSudan’s costs to this point, including a small stipend for Abraham, largely came from the Lost Boys’ own pockets as well as a few donations from close family, friends, and supporters. Yet, they risked losing the volunteer teachers at Thianwe to paying jobs with the new provisional government in the South or to teaching jobs in Kenya.
Jok, Abraham and HELPSudan’s board decided Jok should visit the school in person to conduct a needs assessment as soon as he could gain his US citizenship which would assure his safe travels. Jok and two other board members, Eric and Del, began making plans to travel to Sudan in March of 2007.
HELPSudan hosted a fundraiser and birthday party for the Lost Boys in Chicago in January. (All of the Lost Boys have the same birthday because when they came to the US they did not know their actual birthdates and were all assigned January 1.) With that event, HELPSudan raised enough money to send the trio to Sudan as well as a few months pay for the volunteer teachers. Several supporters also pledged monthly donations, allowing HELPSudan to accomplish the 2007 goal of $40,000.
While in Bor, Jok, Del, and Eric provided mosquito nets, blankets, notebooks, and pencils to students. They toured the school and interviewed the volunteers to listen to their views on the school’s progress. Jok reunited with several family members, including his sister, grandmother, and aunt who did not know whether Jok had survived the attacks as a child.
Jok stayed in Sudan for three months getting to know his family, the community, and working with Abraham. He met with education officials in the Southern government, set up an account at the new bank in Bor, registered HELPSudan as a relief agency in Sudan, and bought a plot of land for $50 where HELPSudan will establish its Sudan headquarters. Jok also counseled a local gentleman, who was struggling to feed his family, on how to start a business in Bor. Within a month, the man had made enough profit to support his family for a year. This has inspired Jok and HELPSudan to consider possibilities for Adult Education in Sudan, teaching skills and business principles to those who did not receive an education while growing up.
To date, HELPSudan has committed to paying one year’s stipend to Thianwe’s Headmaster Abraham, the Deputy Headmaster, nine teachers, as well as three cooks to prepare meals for students. Our next step, and the biggest request from the community in Bor, is to build a permanent school building. The tukels they are using now require repairs to the walls and a new roof each year. We are now in the process of researching the best way to accomplish the task and raising the funds to complete this goal.