Long Road Home
James Lubo Mijak survived the infamous Sudanese Lost Boys death march and years in refugee camps. He ended up in Charlotte and settled in well. Now he’s facing one of his toughest challenges—he’s going back home
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"My name is James Lubo Mijak," says the man behind the lectern in the school gymnasium in Huntersville. He is dressed neatly, in dress shirt, tie, and slacks, and his skin is so dark it makes spotlights of his eyes and teeth. “I am one of the Lost Boys. You have learned about the Lost Boys?”
“Yes,” the students reply.
“Well, I am one of them,” he says. “We have been on a journey—my brothers, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and me.”
It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-April, and Lubo—everyone calls him that—is here to tell a group of sixty eighth-graders at this Catholic school his story of deprivation, survival, and triumph. Lubo was one of more than 27,000 southern Sudanese boys who fled their homes and villages under attack by government troops and mercenaries during the Second Sudanese Civil War; he was seven or eight or nine when the northerners destroyed his village in 1987.
The boys wandered into neighboring Ethiopia, losing thousands from starvation, disease, and attacks from crocodiles and lions. Then, after the collapse of Ethiopia’s government in 1991, they went to a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, where aid workers dubbed them “the Lost Boys of Sudan.” They expected to stay in the camp for months. The months, even for the luckiest of them, turned into almost ten years. In 2001, with the permission of the U.S. government and the help of social service agencies, 3,800 of them resettled in North America; Lubo was one of about forty who settled in Charlotte.
Here, over the course of a decade, Lubo has made friends, found a mentor and spiritual home, earned a degree, held down two jobs and aligned himself with a charitable project that represents the fulfillment of a dream. He’s learned how to land on his feet in the places where circumstances have dropped him, places alien to him, and survive, even flourish.
Lubo’s story seems at first like a clear case of survival through hardship, then of triumph—a parallel to the story of what will on July 9 become the world’s newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan, finally free after more than fifty years of oppression and murder.
But everything in or from Sudan seems to come equipped with opposing edges. Joy emerges from horror and death; violence mars a time of great hope. Later this year, Lubo will again have to go somewhere new, somewhere foreign, a place where people may greet him with suspicion and rancor, a place as dangerous as anywhere he’s been since boyhood.
Lubo is going home.
The first order of business, Phillips Bragg remembers, was to teach Lubo how to cook. Lubo didn’t cook; he boiled. It’s all he knew how to do.
It was 2001, a few months after the Lost Boys had left the Kenyan refugee camp for the United States. A member of St. John’s Baptist Church in Elizabeth had seen a group of tall African men wandering, confused, around the Harris Teeter in Plaza Midwood. She invited the men to church, and soon St. John’s set up a mentoring program that matched individual Lost Boys with church members—and Lubo with Bragg, a financial adviser with Bragg Financial near uptown.
Bragg had Lubo over to his Plaza Midwood home, where his wife, Leslie, showed him how to make soup from scratch and bake chicken. Bragg was thirty, the product of a prominent North Carolina family and a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest; Lubo was a guy who didn’t even know for sure what his year of birth was. (He’s fairly certain it was 1979.)
The Braggs now live on semirural farm property outside Huntersville. One day, Bragg and Lubo were walking through the woods near his home when Lubo, nervous, asked: are there any cats around here?
Weird question. “Yeah, we’ve got some cats.”
Oh. “No, Lubo,” Bragg said, chuckling. “We don’t have lions.”
Slowly, with Bragg’s help, Lubo adjusted. He enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College, then UNC-Charlotte, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies in 2008. Bragg set him up with a part-time job helping prepare financial reports at Bragg Financial. Lubo still works there until 2 p.m., then goes to his second job as a technician at Presbyterian Hospital, where he sterilizes surgical equipment until 11. When he’s not working, he usually sleeps.
In 2007, for the first time since he’d left, Lubo went back home to the village he’d fled as a boy: Nyarweng, essentially a row of huts along the edge of a pasture where the native Dinka raise cattle. Schooling is minimal in a country with a 10 percent literacy rate. Lubo offered to teach some of the children while he was there, holding classes under the trees with a battered chalkboard.
By the time he returned to Charlotte, he had decided he would get a school, a real school, built in Nyarweng. But he didn’t know how. He consulted Bragg, who made some calls. Eventually, they found someone able and willing to help, and that person happened to live in Charlotte.