After civil war erupted in southern Sudan in the mid-1980s, 12-year-old John Dau, along with 27,000 others—many of them children—fled for refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. These "Lost Boys" trekked thousands of miles across arid desert, and more than half perished along the way. In 2001 relief came, at least for some, when the U.S. government invited 4,000 exiles, Dau among them, to immigrate to America, a journey captured in the new film God Grew Tired of Us (National Geographic/LBS Inc. and Newmarket Films). The 32-year-old survivor-turned-activist is now a public-policy student at Syracuse University and working to establish the first ever medical clinic in his native county in Sudan.
What happened the night your village was attacked?
There was a bombing raid, then gunfire. People were being shot right in front of
their huts. Everyone who could was fleeing.
How did you survive on the run?
I consumed things I never thought I would. I drank my own urine. I ate mud so thick, like mashed potatoes. There was always the threat from lions and hyenas. Once, when we were being attacked with guns, we had to cross a crocodile infested river. You could see their eyes in the water, waiting. We had no choice but to dive in. By the time we got to the other side, I think we'd lost about 3,000 people.
What was it like spending nine years in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp?
There was never adequate food. We got 8.8 pounds (4 kilograms) per person of maize to last for 16 days, but there were always four or more days of nothing. We called those "the dark days"—there were no cooking fires. It was better in other ways; we learned to write our ABC's in the dirt. But there was no future. It was like waiting for your grave. I was thrilled when I learned I would come to America.
What had you heard about life here in the U.S.?
America was always a topic we talked about in Kakuma. I had many crazy perceptions before I arrived: that you can get money just from pressing a button on a machine; that you can eat for free at restaurants if you have a green card tied around your neck; that they will shoot you just for being a black man. Of course none of that turned out to be true entirely.
Was there a point when you began to feel like an American?
I remember the first time I saw snow. I had never imagined anything like it in my life. I loaded a bunch into the back of a car and brought it back to Syracuse to show the other Lost Boys who lived there. I threw snowballs at them, just the way the Americans do.
Are you comfortable being a spokesman for the Lost Boys?
You know, it's funny. I am my mother's third son, so if I were in Sudan now, I would not play any kind of decision-making role. That job would be left to my older brothers and parents. As long as being a spokesperson means I can spread the word about what's happening in my home country, then I am happy to do it.
What kind of message do you hope to communicate to the world?
The civil war in Sudan is a forgotten war, even though two million people lost their lives and many more are still affected by it. Now there is yet another war, in Darfur, and the typical American isn't even aware of it. The U.S. being a big melting pot, Americans can walk the streets without noticing all the different nationalities. That is a good thing. On the other hand, it means Americans stop asking questions about their neighbors and stop learning about their problems.
Will you ever go back there?
It is still really difficult living apart from my family, but I know I'm more help to them here than if I returned. There is a lot more I can do for my people here.
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