Promises to keep: Refugees refuse to forget those they left behind

Published: Tuesday, May 8 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Dut Aguer Bior, right, studies with Judith Sluga at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville, Wednesday, May 2, 2012. He came to the United States as a refugee and is starting a nonprofit organization to put people in his home country through school.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Dut Aguer Bior doesn't like to talk about his past. He doesn't like to remember the night when, as a small boy, he was separated from his family in Sudan by gunfire, or discuss the 1,000 mile journey he then made, hungry and barefoot, to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. When asked about life at the camp, where he spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence, he clenches his jaw and the light in his normally sunny brown eyes dims.

"It wasn't nice," he says, after much prodding. Now, he's perched on an aluminum bench on the Salt Lake City Community College campus, long legs stretched out in front of him, dress socks peeking out between the cuff of his pants and slightly scuffed, black shoes. "It was like living in a box with no opportunities. I felt stuck."

Bior, who is in his mid-20s, prefers to focus on how he left all that pain and hopelessness behind. He wants to talk about education.

"Education made my life better," he says. "I want to share that."

To that end, Bior recently founded a nonprofit that provides scholarships to orphaned Africans like himself. His endeavor is a moving story of sacrifice. Despite his own struggles as a poor college student, Bior has been setting aside money for this purpose since he came to the United States as a refugee in 2006. But he is just one of many refugees who reach out to lift their home countries after resettling.

"As a group, refugees are remarkably generous," said Patrick Poulin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. "Economically, refugees often encounter very poor conditions when they come to this country but many still feel compelled to help people who are far less well off overseas."

A path to empathy

Bior donned a cap and gown last weekend and proudly accepted an associate's degree in computer information systems from SLCC. On the other side of the world, at Uganda's Ndejje University, another Sudanese orphan is preparing for graduation, too.

His name is Malaak Ayuen and Bior put him through school.

Ayuen and Bior met in a dusty refugee camp in Kenya when they were both teenagers. The two, who Bior said, "weren't that interested in extracurricular activities," bonded over their love of learning.

Both had spent most of their lives in refugee camps. Roughly 27,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups were displaced or orphaned during Sudan's civil war, which began in 1983. Bior was separated from his family when he was about 6. Ayuen's mother died when he was 4. His maternal grandmother cared for him for a few years until he, too, was driven from home by escalating violence.

In the refugee camp, their world consisted of miles of tents and "waiting for food to come from nowhere," Bior said. Inside the small, mud-brick school building, though, they discovered geography and science and hope. After school let out in the afternoon, the two would sometimes stay five hours or more, devouring book after book.

"It was a a place I went to hide from reality and to learn how to escape the condition I was in," Bior said.

But then Bior was selected to go to the United States. Ayuen was not. Bior promised his friend, "I will do my best to help you out."

Sometimes refugee's philanthropic contributions are simple, like sending money home to loved ones, Poulin said. Even pennies add up, though. Money transfers from foreign workers to their home countries totaled $90.7 billion and accounted for 40 percent of foreign aid coming out of the United States in 2009, according to The Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances.

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