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
Chris Edwards

"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.”

Big 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.

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.

Her name is Patricia Shafer. The California native had worked in corporate communications before moving to Charlotte with her husband in 2001. Now, in addition to a consulting firm, she was running a nonprofit called Mothering Across Continents; the organization trains volunteer “catalysts,” most of them women, to develop humanitarian projects around the world.

Lubo and Bragg met with Shafer in late 2008. They told her about Lubo’s school idea and about another Lost Boy they knew in Atlanta who wanted to build a school in his village, roughly thirty miles south of Nyarweng. They thought maybe they could combine the projects. Shafer did, too.

They acquired a firm estimate for building, equipping, and staffing a school that would serve about 300 students: $202,000. Shafer and her organization began raising money last spring, dubbing the project “Raising Sudan.” Lubo served as the campaign’s public face, speaking about his experiences as a Lost Boy and the Raising Sudan project at schools, churches, and civic group lunches.

“I think anyone has to be impressed with Lubo’s resilience. I think that’s what got me about it,” says Chuck Edwards, a Charlotte Latin School history teacher who co-led a student effort that raised more than $11,000 for Raising Sudan. “Here’s someone who’s seen the depths to which humanity can sink, and yet he responded not by sinking into despair but by deciding to create something and doing something tangible to bring that into reality. That optimism is something I want my students to learn.”

This spring, Lubo finally saw a return on his optimism.

Contractors broke ground on the school in Nyarweng in mid-March. Mothering Across Continents secured a $50,000 grant to help train ten teachers, who will live in dormitories at the site because of its remoteness. By April, Raising Sudan had raised about $160,000 in a year. Lubo and MAC have formally attached their project to the humanitarian organization Sudan Sunrise’s efforts to build as many as forty-one schools throughout Sudan in the name of former NBA player Manute Bol, a native of southern Sudan who died last year.

The same month, more news—a charter school in Davidson offered to train Lubo to teach at and consult with the two schools. Mothering Across Continents will seek donations to send Lubo back by October, by which time, if all goes well, the school will be ready. He, Bragg, and Shafer hope they can use the Nyarweng school project’s success as leverage to raise money for the second school.

“Many schools will be built in southern Sudan, and I am beginning with one. I believe that from education comes wisdom, and from wisdom comes peace,” Lubo tells the students in the gym in Huntersville. “We will support the birth of the new nation. Children will have access to education and learn to take care of themselves, their parents and grandparents, and future generations.”

That’s his hope, anyway.

 

Of course you want your dreams to become reality. It’s why you dream them. But once they become reality, they lose the quality of dreams. When Lubo dreamed of his school, he dreamed of a sturdy building, eager students, a new nation constructing itself. Reality accommodates that glowing vision, but it also welcomes the aggravation of trucks getting stuck in the mud on the way to Nyarweng in the rainy season, which turns everything to foul brown slush, and grumbling contractors with no place to stay on the job site, and the tedium of transporting desks and school supplies upriver from Juba, a two-week trip by boat.

Reality has to hold the door open for rebel militias, a gaping lack of basic infrastructure, near-unthinkable poverty, high infant mortality, and the lingering question, so common to developing nations, of how a people that has never known representative government can be expected to embrace it.

When dreams become reality, the dreams get complicated.

 

Lubo traveled to Nashville in January to cast his vote for southern Sudanese independence, joining hundreds of Lost Boys in the United States and thousands back home. The long-awaited independence referendum passed with 98.83 percent of the vote.

“I was worried about the process,” Lubo says. “I thought that the northern government might interfere. But it did not. This is what everyone in southern Sudan was hoping for.”

It’s the way it should have been all along. Sudan is, at its heart, two nations.

One is desert, populated by Arabs and oriented north toward Egypt, which it borders. The other is green, sub-Saharan, populated by Dinka, Nuer, and other tribes and concerned with little beyond itself. (Lubo’s tribe, the Dinka, is the largest.) Villages and towns are isolated, especially in the south.

Unity between the two regions was a near impossibility from the start. The sheer scale of the place is one problem: Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest on Earth. If you could pluck Sudan from Africa and plop it down in the middle of the continental United States, it would extend from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Ohio-Indiana border west to where Kansas meets Colorado. Southern Sudan alone is the size of Texas.

Egypt and Great Britain co-ruled Sudan as a joint colony for fifty-seven years—but as separate provinces, under separate administrations. When the two powers agreed in 1946 to administer Sudan as one region in advance of Sudanese independence, they alarmed the southerners, who worried—with justification—that the more powerful north would dominate them; Arabic northerners scoffed at the idea of sharing a nation with what they considered the more primitive south. Civil war was inevitable. It’s telling that the First Sudanese Civil War began in August 1955, four months before Sudan officially became an independent nation.

The war lasted seventeen years and killed a half million people. A peace agreement held for eleven years. Then, in 1983, the Muslim-dominated central government in Khartoum declared Sudan an Islamic state. A rebel group called the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) pushed for southern independence. The Second Sudanese Civil War erupted. This war lasted twenty-two years, killed more than 2 million people, and made refugees of the Lost Boys.

The two sides signed another peace agreement in January 2005, this time with the understanding that the south would function as an autonomous region for six years, followed by a referendum on independence.

The initial glee from the referendum results flitted away in a hurry. At Bragg Financial, Bragg asks Lubo about the contractors taking supplies and equipment upriver to Nyarweng. “They gonna make it, Lubo?”

“Yes, they are going to make it,” Lubo says, “if they don’t have trouble with the rebels.”

 

They’re a phenomenon the Sudanese are all too familiar with—men with guns.

On April 11, I receive an email from Jok Madut Jok, a native of southern Sudan, college professor, and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded humanitarian agency. Jok is in southern Sudan, helping prepare the country for independence. I’ve emailed him to ask about the situation there, especially in al-Wahda, or Unity State; Nyarweng is in the state’s northern end.

“The mood in the new state is one of anticipation of independence to be declared on July 9, but that is also mixed with fears of the burden of independence,” Jok writes. Unity State “is one of the seven states most affected by violence, militia or cattle-rustling violence. At the moment, it is home to some of the most notorious rogue and renegade commanders who broke away from the SPLA. It is a very uneasy place to work, mostly rural, cattle-keeping and oil-producing, the last of which does not benefit the rural poor population, and which is partly responsible for violence.”

“The wise people, they know the importance of being a person like me, who’s lived in a different part of the world. You can prove yourself by doing your thing, teaching the people, and after they learn, they will follow you.”

Rumors have spread among the Lost Boys about those rogue commanders. They may be secretly funded by the north, as Khartoum’s way of undermining southern Sudanese independence through the back door, since it knew the eyes of the world were on the referendum. That’s one rumor. They may just be disaffected generals used to commanding troops and impatient with the slow pace of constitutional government. (Lubo says he’s heard of some short-lived violence in Unity State west of the capital city of Bentiu; Nyarweng is about seventy miles north of the capital.) One thing is known: they are military, and they have military weapons.

“Even in southern Sudan, where you would think there’d be euphoria over the referendum, there’s a tremendous amount of cynicism: ‘Oh, it’s all the same, the politicians are all the same, they’ll rape South Sudan like the others did,’ ” says Linda Bishai, a Washington-based Institute of Peace official who ran education and training programs in southern Sudan during the referendum. “I have real mixed feelings. I’m hopeful for them, and I share their sense of possibility that this new country could be really amazing. On the other hand, I really worry.”

At times, it seems as if the entire country suffers from post-traumatic stress. Sudan Sunrise’s director, Tom Prichard, says a Sudanese church leader once told him that if he ever wrote a book about Sudan, its title would be A Beautiful Land with No Trust. It’s a part of the world that’s never had good reason to trust outsiders, and the Lost Boys’ survival in the wilderness often depended on their distrust of people they didn’t know.

So it is, incredibly, with some southern Sudanese and their attitude toward the Lost Boys. It’s hard to define, but Lubo says he’s sensed it on his visits home, the general dismissal: “These are boys, they know nothing.” Prichard, who knows of about ten pending Lost Boy school projects—though none as far along as MAC’s—says he’s encountered it on his trips abroad, too.

“When somebody in the Lost Boy community says, ‘I am going to build a school in my village,’ there’s usually two criticisms in the Sudanese community: ‘You’re only doing this in your own village.’ Second, ‘This is really just to line your own pocket; you’re trying to make yourself out to be something special, trying to get Americans to donate money,’ ” he says. “That’s why it’s really heroic for someone like Lubo to say, ‘I know I’ll be criticized, but I’m still going to do what I can.’ ”

 

Lubo coined a word: jangabongo. The definition Lubo assigned it is, roughly, “too much.” Too many little things to think about, too many people and responsibilities pulling him in too many directions at once. He usually handles it all with grace and confidence, smiling, knowing he’s alive and free as millions of his people are not. But at times, the pressure squats heavily on his shoulders.

He acknowledges that he and his family—his wife, a Sudanese named Nyandhueng, and twins, a boy and girl born in August, who live in Sudan—may encounter some violence from the rogue militias, or at least ripple effects from it. “That is something we cannot predict,” he says on a recent Sunday afternoon in the sparse apartment he shares with three other Lost Boys.

What encourages him is the knowledge that his countrymen, though uneducated, have a specialized knowledge of their own. They have lived through, in some cases, more than a half century of near-continuous war. They know that schools, like roads and medical clinics, are, Lubo says, “the organs of the new nation.” The people will work at peace because they see what war takes from them.

And if Lubo encounters some resentment from his own people?

“There might be people who say, ‘Don’t bring the ways of the West here, don’t bring the ways of America here, this is Sudan.’ They will say that,” he says. “But the wise people, they know the importance of being a person like me, who’s lived in a different part of the world. You can prove yourself by doing your thing, teaching the people, and after they learn, they will follow you.”

Some of the people who’ve heard his story already are. After his talk in the gym at St. Mark Catholic School in Huntersville, the curious students—who’ve fasted for thirty hours as part of a service project—pepper him with questions: Are you going back? What do you like most about America? Do you have a girlfriend? What’s your favorite American food? (It’s pizza.) He’s behind the lectern, still in formal I’m-giving-a-lecture mode.

But after everything concludes, something else happens: a semicircle of about fifteen students gathers around him, asking more questions, chatting. Lubo eventually takes a seat in a metal folding chair and holds court. He and the students exchange smiles and laughs as they talk. They’re fascinated. It takes a long time for Lubo to tear himself away from the children, and they from him.

Greg Lacour is a freelance writer in Charlotte.

For more information about the Raising Sudan project, see www.motheringacrosscontinents.org

Categories: Feature, The Buzz