John Bul Dau
Photograph by Becky Hale
John Bul Dau explores territory few can imagine—the depths of inhumanity and the boundaries of endurance. In 1987, at age 13, Dau fled his home in southern Sudan, narrowly escaping troops sent to exterminate all black Christian males. As his village was burned, women raped, children enslaved, and young men shot, Dau began a perilous journey spanning more than 1,000 miles and 14 years.
He joined thousands of boys, now known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan," who were crossing sub-Saharan Africa on foot—pursued by armed soldiers, wild animals, starvation, dehydration, and disease. "We chewed tall grasses and ate mud to stay alive," Dau remembers. "I was barefoot and wearing no clothes; at night the desert was so cold. We thought about our parents all the time."
As one of the older boys, Dau led and cared for younger children. More than half of them died. The survivors found temporary relief in an Ethiopian refugee camp, but when the government was overthrown, they fled across the Gilo River back to Sudan. "Rebels were shooting at us, so we had to dive into water infested with crocodiles," Dau recounts. "Thousands of boys were eaten, drowned, shot, or captured."
Upon learning they had returned, the Sudanese government ordered twice-a-day bombing raids on their refugee camp. "When the bombardment became unbearable we moved south." Many were killed or abducted before reaching a refugee camp in Kenya, where Dau spent the next ten years. "There, at age 17, I started my formal education, writing letters and numbers with sticks in the dirt."
Then, 7,000 miles away, a United States church volunteered to sponsor several Sudanese refugees. A few weeks later, Dau, who had never seen electric lights or flush toilets, landed at the Syracuse, New York, airport. "On my first trip to the supermarket I couldn't believe there was an entire aisle of food for cats and dogs. At home, even people have no food."
The story of his cultural relocation and assimilation is traced in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary God Grew Tired of Us. "The filming meant giving up my privacy," Dau explains, "but I knew it might spread the word and help my people."
Helping his people has become a focus of Dau's American life, along with working 60 hours a week to cover expenses while taking classes toward a degree in public policy from Syracuse University. "I was helped by so many people," he says, "I want to give something back—not just receive, but give."
Through Dau's initiative, the Sudanese Lost Boys of New York Foundation was established, raising tens of thousands of dollars to cover the academic and medical expenses of Sudanese refugees. Determined for his efforts to directly touch lives in Sudan, Dau created the American Care for Sudan Foundation, which has raised more than U.S. $170,000 to build a clinic in southern Sudan. "Right now, if you get sick in Duk County, you need 20 strong young men to carry you 75 miles to the nearest medical facility," Dau describes. He was recently named director of the Sudan Project at Direct Change, where he is working to raise funds for health and education projects in southern Sudan. (You can help Dau at www.johndaufoundation.org.)
"I feel I survived because God wants to do something with my life," Dau shares. "I don't want to waste any of the time I have left. So many people are still in Sudan needing clinics, schools, and churches. I cannot forget them."
"I think people refuse to try things because they fear failure," he observes. "There have been many impossible situations in my life, but I keep trying. My family in Sudan thought I was dead and I feared they were dead, but 20 years later we were reunited. You can't give up."
Dau carefully watches the tenuous peace declared in Sudan during 2005. "With peace everything is possible, but it must be protected, not just for Sudan but for all peace-loving people in the world. Hope must not be lost. All those miles in the desert, I always said maybe tomorrow will not be like this."
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The John Dau Foundation is fulfilling the dream of the former "Lost Boy" and genocide survivor John Dau to provide healthcare in the war-torn region of South Sudan by building and sustaining medical clinics and training community health workers.
What are John Bul Dau and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
There have been many impossible situations in my life, but I keep trying. My family in Sudan thought I was dead and I feared they were dead, but twenty years later we were reunited. You can't give up.
John Bul Dau
When Sudan's militias began slaughtering young boys, thousands fled for their lives.
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