Sudan child soldier becomes man of healing and Emory University grad student
By CHRISTOPHER QUINN | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: December 30, 2019
ATLANTA (Tribune News Service) — The chasm separating Garang Buk Buk Piol from his dream of attending Emory University in 2018 was wide.
The former child soldier from the Republic of South Sudan would need proof before being allowed into the U.S. that he had money to support himself and pay tuition that his partial scholarship did not cover.
He had struggled eight years before to pay a dowry of cattle for the woman he loved, Awau. Her family had demanded 100 head.
In the years after the war’s ending in 2005, he had worked as an electrician, then managed the compound of the Catholic school where he found a chance at education. After, he worked for Atlanta’s Carter Center in South Sudan, helping eradicate Guinea worm disease, but his salary paid his living expenses and for his education at the Catholic University in Kenya, where he earned a degree in sustainable development.
In the end, with Awau cajoling her parents, Garang succeeded in winning her hand for 16 head.
But there was no bargaining with the U.S. for the visa. The projected cost of his education and living expenses at Emory was about $90,000.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I felt it was possible,” though things looked improbable, he said.
Friends, determination and chance intervened — just as when he survived the brutal civil war, found jobs, and seized the minuscule chance that an illiterate fighter from a poor country would graduate from college. Now, he is one year into earning master’s degrees at Emory in international development and public health. When he returns home in about 18 months, his goal is to pay back his good fortune.
The war that came to Garang’s tiny village of Udhum in 1984 destroyed his village but also led to opportunities he would never had otherwise had.
The Sudanese government deemed Udhum to be supporting the rebels who wanted to break from the country. The attack was quick and vicious. Men were rounded up and killed — his father was away that day. Homes were burned with people inside. Garang, only about 5 at the time, remembers seeing people dumped into a well, gasoline poured in and then lit.
“Seeing my own people dying, I felt bad about it,” he said.
Those feelings festered until he was about 10 — Garang knows only that he was born in late 1978 or early 1979. At that time he and other children and young men walked a harrowing journey south to Ethiopia, where camps to train fighters for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army had been set up.
“I wanted revenge,” he said. “I chose that because of what I had seen.”
But before he was 15, the hurt only grew by seeing friends die, going on raids and engaging in combat, and seeing other innocents suffer.
“After having used the gun, every day was hurting me,” he said.
One outlet was to sit in a building where he lived, writing on the floor the things his commander taught him during lulls: the alphabet.
Garang knew the question would be coming from 2nd Lt. Gur.
“Can you remember what I taught you yesterday?”
Gur, for reasons known only to himself, apparently saw a spark in the dark eyes of the boy soldier. He foresaw an end to the long war for independence and told Garang frequently the new country would need men who learned and understood subjects other than violence. Before he was killed, Gur had planted in the boy a belief that he could become a good man, he could help others rather than hurt them, and that education was a choice to have a different life.
At 16, he laid down his gun and went to school for the first time.
David Stobbelaar was helping coordinate The Carter Center’s efforts to wipe out the parasitic Guinea worm disease in South Sudan in 2008 when Garang was assigned to his team in the area that was the heart of the epidemic. The center had hired Garang out of the Catholic school where he had gotten his secondary education.
Stobbelaar says Garang impressed Carter Center staff with his quiet intelligence, organization, communication abilities and wisdom to work across ethnic and political lines. The region had little stability or infrastructure and could be dangerous. The work was extremely difficult, traveling sometimes by foot, walking more than 12 hours a day to reach remote villages cut off by seasonal rains to educate villagers, check on victims and volunteers and implement the program.
The two became good friends over years and miles, and Garang entrusted Stobbelaar with his story of being a child soldier. When Stobbelaar was talking in 2015 to Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, a friend who is a New Jersey teacher, she was leading her 10th grade English class through Ishmael Beah’s book about his life in Sierra Leone, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.”
“I was talking to David about some of my concerns and bringing my students closer to the humanity of the memoir, and he suggested that he could connect me with a former child soldier who worked at The Carter Center,” she said.
Garang thought hard before accepting. His past had not been something he wanted to talk about, but his education helped convince him it would be a good thing to do and that now was the time. He soon was timorously fielding questions via Skype from Haddonfield Memorial High School’s sophomore English class. He leaned on Dickstein Hughes to moderate.
His talk was so impactful that Dickstein Hughes continued Skyping him for the next three years, became Garang’s friend and came to know of his hopes of coming to the U.S. for more schooling.
“We got to know Garang as a person, not as a subject,” she said.
When he began applying to universities, she wrote a letter of recommendation for him, and his Carter Center friends lent much support. He was accepted at Emory, but the money became the sticking point.
“Nothing was coming to fruition (in 2018), and I told him, I don’t think this year is the right year,” Stobbelaar said.
Dickstein Hughes wasn’t having it. She and her class started a GoFundMe account, went door to door and held fundraisers. When they had enough to pay for the first semester, they found a lawyer who started on the visa application. They ended up with more than $50,000, and Dickstein Hughes and a small group of other adults put their personal finances on the line by guaranteeing the rest, though they are still raising money.
“Garang has proved himself time and time again, and life has challenged him time and time again. He has earned it,” she said.
The experience changed her and her students, she said.
“I think it solidified for me that anything is possible. I always believed that, but through Garang I was able to actually live that.”
Garang initially wanted to study engineering, but his time with The Carter Center changed him. He was working across tribes and regions, and it was easy to see the good he could accomplish, as 2nd Lt. Gur had foretold. Guinea worm dropped from thousands of cases to dozens.
“I saw what people were going through. I realized that we have the potential to change our destiny,” said Garang, who recently turned 40.
In 2018, he left his wife and three children — one was born shortly after he left the town of Aweil in South Sudan and he has yet to see him — to begin his master’s degrees at Emory. He is anxious to return home and recreate the process that changed him.
“I still have that heart of working close to the community,” he said.
In 2013, rival governmental factions in South Sudan plunged into war after the president and his former deputy went their separate ways. A tenuous truce is holding, but the country remains riven by factions and ethnic divisions.
Garang talks of building a community center where people can learn, as he did. As a soldier, as a student, as an aid worker he learned from and befriended people across tribes, regions and nations. He believes in a future where they can work together for a common good.
“That is a feeling I have. I hope to change the life of others…to help them know they have a future,” Garang said.
He is beginning to collect books for a library he wants to build. He would love to go home, but his visa doesn’t allow multiple trips. Leaving the U.S. might mean he would not be allowed back in. It’s one more problem waiting to be overcome. He’s working on it. And the center and library would be some payment for debts he owes.
“That is the best thank you I would know how to give,” he said.
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