Two "Lost Boys" from southern Sudan recently found themselves back in Utah, where they are working to raise awareness of their cause.
August Mayai and Gabe Majok are cousins who were displaced from their homeland as a result of an unstable political climate. After much wandering and hardship, they gravitated to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived until they and a group of other boys were sent to the United States.
The two men are co-founders of The Machara Miracle Network, a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing poverty, lowering infant mortality, helping their people live longer and giving them knowledge and skills to sustain their population.
They also want to educate the people on social change, build a medical facility and stock it with supplies so the people can have basic medical care. They want to build schools to educate the mostly illiterate population.
They are doing all this not for recognition or status.
They are doing it because they love their people. And they feel it's their duty.
"Our people in the country (Sudan) are suffering a lot," Majok said, "and I would like to use the opportunity I am getting here to give back to my people."
"We need to go back and help our own people," Mayai said.
They came back to Salt Lake to meet with Janet Sherwood, executive director of the Machara foundation, to plan a variety of fundraisers to finance their dream. Sherwood said plans for a gala and a speech by a Lost Boy author are among the events planned. Also, she said, some people are "grassroots fundraising," going door-to-door to raise money.
The long journey for Majok and Mayai started during civil war in Sudan.
"In Sudan, when a baby is born, you don't have a birth certificate," Majok said. "So you don't know when you were born. And your parents are not educated so they don't know when you were born."
However, they think they were 5 to 7 years old when they lost their parents. When their village was attacked, people fled in panic. In the ensuing chaos, families were separated. Some of the separations were permanent; parents disappeared or died, families couldn't be found. Children without parents or guardians were grouped together by gender. Without the protection of a family, they had to fend for themselves. They heard Ethiopia would protect them from the civil war, so they left Sudan for the relative safety of Ethiopia, a trip of almost 700 miles.
On their trek to Ethiopia, the boys, often barefoot, had no money and no way to get food. Also, because it is in an arid climate, water was scarce. They hoped for rainfall and drank from stagnant pools.
"Some people drank their own urine along the way as a way to survive," Mayai said.
Roots and leaves from plants were their culinary staples, but anyone who was wearing clothes could exchange a piece of clothing for food in villages.
They traveled at night to avoid the vicious sun but faced predators. When they heard screams from one of their traveling partners, they knew he was soon to be the dinner for a lion. To avoid the same fate, they ran until it was safe.
"It was very scary because you have nothing to defend yourselves," Majok said.
There were other dangers the boys faced. They were "attacked not only by animals but also common enemy," Mayai said, an enemy who looks like them but claims Arabic descent.
Disease and exhaustion were constant companions.
"Some people died because they could not walk any longer," Majok said.
After a month's time, they crossed into Ethiopia. They lived there until civil war upset their peace, so they made the trek back to Sudan. Unfortunately, southern Sudan was still politically volatile, so the boys went to Kenya to live in a refugee camp, where they learned to speak English. After almost 10 years, a dream they had would come true they were headed for America.
When they arrived in Utah, they had expectations. After all, the United States is the land of opportunity.
"You could get your education, money, get a house, get a car," Mayai said, but the reality was different.
They faced culture shock, racism, unemployment and disappointment.
Cars were rare in their village and in America, "dealing with traffic was tormenting itself," Mayai said.
He didn't understand rapid transit or even how to buy a ticket for a bus. His internal compass was off so he didn't know where he was and couldn't give people directions to his house.
It took him five months to adjust to Salt Lake City, a time he took to find ways to "melt into the pot."
Both men had never seen snow, nor experienced a cold winter.
"I thought I would freeze," Majok said.
Also, theirs is a collective culture, one that shares everything. "My food is his food, my money is his money," Mayai said, gesturing to Majok.
Because of that collective culture, wherever they went in the Salt Lake Valley, they went in groups. Mayai said law enforcement thought they were gang members, so they were harassed at times.
They wanted an education more than anything, though, and knowing that education was within their reach bridged the gap between their fantasy of life in the United States and reality.
They are no longer boys who are running from certain death to an unsure life. Mayai, who speaks with an evangelical voice, graduated from Salt lake Community College and the University of Utah. He is working on his doctorate in demography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Soft-spoken Majok also went to SLCC and is a senior at Colorado Christian University studying accounting with a minor in finance.
Mayai is studying population dynamics with a grant from UW-M. and the National Institutes of Health. He wants to teach at the U. Majok wants to work at the nonprofit foundation.Two powerless boys who faced the unknown and grew to manhood are no longer lost.