Out of the tall grass with Sudanese refugee Peter Magai Bul

Bul, now approximately 27, lives in North Chicago.

Read the related story – Hope in Sudan: Rebuilding the homeland from Chicago]

When most children his age were still using night-lights to ward off monsters under their beds, Peter Magai Bul sought refuge in the dark of night. He and thousands of other displaced children walked barefoot for months, doing so only by moonlight to ward off attacks from the encroaching civil war.

“We could not walk during the day,” says Bul, “because if you walk at daytime, the government would see such a crowded group of children and bomb you, and many of the children would die. So we used to walk at night when it is totally dark.”

Bul embarked on his journey out of Sudan as a child in 1991, accompanied at first by his mother. But after only four days of walking, a swollen leg injury prevented her from continuing the arduous trek with her son. Thus, under cover of night, amidst the foliage of unbeaten paths, Bul faced the ever-present dangers of wild animals and poisonous snakes without the comfort of a single blood relative. But neither the dark, nor the predators, nor even the loneliness could compare to the harrowing reality: Death itself had picked up their scent, and was perpetually lurking just behind them in the tall grass they walked through.

“When it [was] dark, many of the children would just give up; no one would see you vanish in the tall grass,” says Bul. “So many of the children who would have survived the journey just disappeared and, of course, they died there, in the grass.”

For many of the thousands that would flee Sudan between 1983 and 2005, the story ended tragically, there in the grasses of East Africa. But Bul, soft-spoken and now approximately 27 years old (by his estimation), stands nearly seven feet tall, and can now see the world well beyond that sea of tall grass that swallowed up his friends. For him, the story of the aptly named Lost Boys of Sudan is one of survival.

“I always told myself I would walk until I fall down, and die perhaps. But if nothing happened to me, I would just keep going, and we walked until I ended up with the group that survived the journey,” says Bul.

——

The prolonged civil war in Sudan, coupled with accusations of genocide against the Dinka people, meant two million would perish in the struggle before any tangible peace was reached. But in 2001 alone, approximately 3,800 of these wandering young Sudanese gained refugee status in the United States, and came to be known in the U.S. as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Their trying stories flooded the American media—and for the first time, Americans got an up-close look at the dire situation in the home countries of their new neighbors.

One of these chosen few, Bul was offered the opportunity to come the U.S. after spending 12 years in four refugee camps. His resettlement in Chicago would happen just four years before the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought the civil war in Sudan to an end.

The agreement, signed in Kenya in January of 2005, was meant to develop democratic governance countrywide and split the oil revenues that had been primarily controlled by Northern, predominantly Arab factions, despite the oil fields’ southern location.

Furthermore, it set forth a timetable: Southern Sudan would have a 2011 referendum on its independence.

Map of Sudan. Blue area is South Sudan. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Click on map for more.

——

Dr. Isaiah Majok Dau, a Sudanese and Bishop of Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa (PEFA) in Nairobi, Kenya, recently spoke at an event organized by Bul. He commented on the particular importance of the impending referendum. “Whatever the outcome will be, the referendum will forever change the reality of the Sudanese political identity,” says Dau. “If we implement the CPA faithfully, it will be the best thing that has ever happen to Sudan in a long time.”

“Our conversations are always about politics now that the referendum is coming up,” Bul says of his Sudanese friends. In fact, he adds, he and the other Lost Boys who live with him rarely even interact these days on a frivolous level, so engrossed are they in pre-referendum efforts.

Dau highlighted the importance of international supervision, to ward off corrupting factors that have plagued free elections in Sudan in the past. While the referendum offers an opportunity to settle differences peaceably, it also stands to re-ignite the violence that had forced Bul to flee.

“There are many, many thorny issues that inhibit the process of implementation,” says Dau. His list includes many of the CPA protocols that, even after six years, have yet to be implemented. It also includes the lack of a clearly demarcated border between Northern and Southern Sudan, something he believes has largely been stalled because of the discovery of oil.

“Every time oil is discovered, the border moves,” says Dau.

With the approaching referendum, Dau hopes to eliminate the thirst, exhaustion, hunger and fear that were a daily regimen for the young Lost Boys and other displaced groups during the last civil war. According to him, more than 3.5 million southern Sudanese were displaced in the course of the 20-year civil war.

Despite the fresh memories of a war-ravaged South, violence is still probable. Northern governing factions are likely to lose their oil holdings if the South votes in favor of independence.

Like Dau, Bul recognizes the need for change in Sudan, and hopes to be a part of it through the events he sponsors with equally invested “brothers,” such as Dau. Today, his actions speak volumes to his dedication to a better Sudan tomorrow. What he sees most in his country is potential.

Bul wears a bracelet on his left hand with the word "Pamoja," which means "unity" or "togetherness" in Kiswahili.

“Sudan should be the richest country in Africa. Sudan has cattle, it has oil, it has minerals,” Bul says. “But we are the poorest because we fight.”

Bul’s only memories of a relatively peaceful Sudan date back to his early youth.

Before fleeing in 1991, Bul spent his childhood years in a small village of the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan, where he lived with his parents and six older siblings.

Most of the other Dinka children spent their days outside in the African sun. They kept busy herding cattle and making clay figures from the rough soil on the riverbank. In the evenings they learned lessons from their grandmothers, steeped in the oral traditions of their tribe.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/dinka-oral-tradition.mp3] Bul recalls those exchanges.

But Bul was faced with a far more demanding daily life than his peers. Throughout his childhood, he acted as the primary caretaker for his father, a village elder, after an illness left him permanently blind.

“I had to take him to weddings, to community meetings, to the court sessions, all of those activities,” Bul recounts. “Wherever he wanted to go, I would be the one taking him there.”

Bul would spend his early years closely observing his father’s career as a community leader. While his father met with the other elders behind closed doors, he says, he sat outside those doors for hours, intently listening in as the elders conferred with one another on community issues and settled local disputes.

Bul’s father, he says, felt guilty about the impact of his disability on his family, and often felt he was imposing a burden on his son’s childhood.

“Sometimes he would not tell me if anything [was] happening within the village … or if there was a wedding, or anything that the elders would go to,” Bul says. “He would try to hide them from me so I would have a chance to go and play with the other kids.”

But Bul insists that his father would be in attendance at every event, and began verifying his father’s schedule via his mother. “I wanted my dad to be with the elders and to be part of that community and because people of his age always wanted him at these events because these were events where he would have to talk and give opinions and all of this stuff. So I would go anyway.”

“That was a learning opportunity for me,” says Bul, who likes to be called Chut or Chutmagai in honor of his grandfather. “That’s something I would have missed if I were spending time with other kids.”

Now a community leader himself, Bul is grateful for the years of up-close exposure to his father’s leadership. But within just a few years, Bul would be putting those lessons to use sooner than anyone anticipated.

“I think the more I did that, the more that really got me close with my dad,” Bul said. “And I think that helped me later when we were displaced and ended up in Ethiopia.”

——

Two years later, Bul was the acting leader of more than 30 other displaced children in Ethiopia’s Dimma refugee camp. Though chosen less for his maturity than his striking stature, the eight year old nonetheless dutifully reported each morning on the status of each of his 30 compatriots, accounting for who had eaten, who had not, who had died during the night, and who had survived.

“We lived like we [were] in a military,” says Bul. “Nobody wanted to order anybody to do something, but we when we had children lying down dying, we had to bury them.”

The few oldest boys were put in charge of the thousands of children, and from there, the groups were broken down accordingly so that each leader was responsible for a smaller number of children. They established a chain of command, delegated tasks and did their best to survive on the limited amount of resources they could scavenge.

After four months of being displaced at Dimma, Bul and the other Lost Boys would once again be forced to flee as civil war broke out in Ethiopia. Setting out on foot once again, the boys faced a 1,000-mile journey to the border of the two war-torn nations.

Like the tall grass that swallowed his friends, the Gilo River that divided the two countries would present another monstrous obstacle. Trying to cross under enemy fire, young boys were swept away in the tumultuous currents as they attempted to cross back into Sudan. For those who made it, life would once again revolve around hiding in the brush along the Sudanese border.

The idea of returning home and joining the ranks of the Sudan People Liberation Army gave some boys hope. The SPLA, in many of the boys’ minds, was a band of heroes, embodying the masculinity the Dinka culture idealized and defending the cause of their tribe. Joining the ranks of the SPLA meant the possibility of escaping the helplessness the boys felt as refugees. Bul even recalled piling on clothes in hopes of making himself appear bigger, and therefore more attractive to army recruiters.

“We were tired of living in the refugee camp,” says Bul. “It was not a life you really want[ed] to live. I was really willing to go join the SPLA and perhaps fight, but we were not given that option.”

Despite the media reports that would make claims to the contrary, Bul was discouraged from joining the army and his older brother who served there. Still, he knew some of the Lost Boys who had vanished would reappear later within army lines.

“Some of the SPLA knew that this war had to be fought by certain people, but there have to be people at the end of the war to take over and do something,” he says. “So they didn’t want us to join them and fight, because they [knew] that this struggle was going to continue.”

Graphic by Joshua Chan. Click on map to read story in The Queen's Journal on the Student Refugee Program

In 1992, Bul arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.  He would remain at Kakuma for nine years, with no word from his family or knowledge of their whereabouts.

By this time, NGOs like the Red Cross had arrived, bringing with them the bare necessities that the boys had lived so long without. Small rations of food, blankets and material for building shelters were distributed amongst the stricken populations gathered in the Kenya camp. School was held for the children under a tree in the camp. But while school allowed for a much-needed diversion, it failed to fully distract anyone from the daily confrontations with death.

“Because of the disease and all of the problems and the fact we didn’t have enough food, some children continued to die anyway in the refugee camp,” says Bul. “We struggled there for nine before the U.S. decided to bring some of us to the U.S.”

During his time in the camp, Bul busied himself with learning, picking up a little Arabic along the way and some guitar. Bul often played his guitar and sang to distract young children from the piercing hunger that kept them awake in their beds at night.

But no amount of learning or study would prepare Bul for the last disorienting leg of his journey. In 2001, Bul was offered an opportunity to resettle in the United States.

——

After several rounds of interviews with American resettlement agencies, Bul and some 3,800 other Sudanese refugees were approved for resettlement in the U.S. Bul and several other Lost Boys boarded their first-ever airplane flight, departing from Nairobi, Kenya, headed for Amsterdam.

“I was very excited to have the opportunity to come to America,” Bul says. “I was happy, because if there was a chance for me to make my life better then I would do so, so that I [could] help my people. That was the goal.”

Bul, who estimates his age at the time to have been around 18, was “mostly prepared” and ready for the journey — and he was more than ready for the destination. As Bul and his comrades got off the plane, they were greeted by people and surroundings they couldn’t quite comprehend.

“They were speaking to us with this European English,” Bul says, “and we couldn’t understand much of it. They brought food and said, ‘Do you want to eat?’ The food was new to us anyway, and I was like, I just want to go wherever I’m going.”

That “wherever” was Chicago, and it was still almost a full day away. The Lost Boys flew from Amsterdam to New York, and from New York to Chicago. The weary travelers finally reached their destination more than 48 hours after leaving Kenya.

Bul fondly recalls the first night he spent in America. Upon his arrival in the early hours of the morning, he and two other Lost Boys were escorted back to an apartment to sleep for a few hours before agency officials would arrive with paperwork for them to complete.

None of the three had eaten or slept during the two-day journey.

“We saw some beans and said, ‘Oh, beans are easy to cook,’ and we were shown how to operate the stove. But then my roommate Peter said, ‘Guys, let’s sleep,’” Bul says. So they put it to a vote: eating versus sleeping. Ultimately, two of the men agreed to cook while the other one slept. Sleep, however, soon overcame hunger as the three makeshift roommates took a more costly nap than they were expecting.

“We turn on the stove and come and sit, but a few minutes later, all of us fall asleep and then the water dries up,” Bul recalls. “The beans started burning, and we were busy sleeping. Then someone from the next building called the fire department.

“I was like, God, we have committed our first crime in America,” Bul says.

——

Nine years after that first culinary catastrophe, Bul can still be found cooking beans, rice and beef for his roommates almost every night. Bul and his roommates, all Lost Boys from different Dinka villages, met in the refugee camps back in Africa. Today they live together and dine together “just like a family” in their apartment near the Indian-Pakistan area of Devon Avenue on the city’s north side. But given Devon’s ample selection of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, Bul jokes, “I’ve been about to give up on cooking.”

Bul, who once piled on layer after layer of clothing in order to look bigger, now stands out from (and above) the crowd at an imposing height of 6’7″, and while he once upon a time soothed his friends with music in the tents of an African refugee camp, today he brings many of those same friends along as he frequents Chicago’s myriad jazz, folk and world music festivals. But for Bul and his friends, things have also changed in a less tangible way.

[audio:http://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/train-all-the-way-to-95th.mp3] Bul explains what he learned about Chicago and America from riding the el back and forth.

“Now, in America, people are busy,” Bul says. “So that time of being together is no longer there, and when you’re on your own, you think about all these problems. You know — you’re not going to school, you have a job, you lost your job, maybe you have never seen your parents for the last two decades. These are the troubles now.”

Still, Bul says, the Lost Boys are committed to supporting one another, no matter the circumstance. Unmarried Lost Boys still commonly live in groups, according to Bul, and often the Lost Boys who have jobs provide financial support to their “brothers” who are unemployed.

He and the other Lost Boys in Chicago also maintain an active commitment to providing aid to Sudan. In addition to organizing events to spread awareness of Sudan’s political situation, Bul and his roommates attend other Sudan-awareness conferences all around the country to network with other resettled Sudanese living in the United States. According to Bul, e-mail and social media sites like Facebook make it easy to locate and connect with other refugees.

Bul is also currently enrolled as a student at Northeastern Illinois University. Now in his third year, he is pursuing a major in political science and a minor in economics.

What’s next for Bul, whose boyhood education consisted of Sunday school lessons in the shade of a tree?

“Law school,” he said.

Though post-graduate education is  a far cry from his humble beginnings, Bul has proven his commitment to learning is a force to be reckoned with. Upon arriving at his permanent home in Chicago, Bul was advised to enroll in ESL and high school-level courses to get the basic education required for low-wage work. Instead, Bul gamely insisted on taking the necessary entrance exams that would put him on track for a college education.

“I decided I didn’t want to waste time,” Bul says. “So I took the exams and did well in sciences and math and all the subjects except the American Constitution … and then I enrolled in credit classes.”

Bul and his mother, reunited for the first time in over 20 years.

——

In December 2007, Bul made his first trip back to Sudan since childhood. He had waited until he gained U.S. citizenship, then went back to the village where he was born. There, he was reunited with his mother for the first time since 1991.

Bul had managed to reconnect with one of his brothers just before coming to the United States in 2001, and had located the rest of his family through his brother.

“I think it was 2004 — that was the first time I had heard from my mom,” Bul says. “I called her, and she couldn’t believe it was me. But I said, ‘well, it’s me, and I hope one day you will see me.'”

He returned to Sudan in 2008, and this time he was able to meet all of his siblings save for one sister who had  resettled in Australia. This trip, however, had a different purpose: Bul had returned to Sudan to contribute to the construction of Pongborong Primary School, an educational facility funded by the Lost Boys through an organization called the Ayual Community Development Association. The school is located in the village where Bul was born.

The Lost Boys, he says, have strategically chosen to reach out to small villages in Southern Sudan rather than attempt to negotiate with government officials.

“There is a high level of corruption in the Sudanese government,” Bul says. “A lot of the Lost Boys are so frustrated with the SPLA because they forget their goal was to give people a chance.

“The people in the village are more likely to listen to what I say when they can say, ‘Oh, that’s Peter, he built us that school,'” Bul adds.

Children from the Pongborong Primary School in Sudan.

Bul says Lost Boys who return to Sudan often become discouraged when villagers dismiss their points of view as “Americanized” and reject their efforts to help. “It’s a slow progress,” Bul says, sighing.

Still, he says, the spirit of Sudan’s lost generation won’t be broken anytime soon. “We know where we came from. We know what we’ve been through,” Bul says. “During our lifetime, we’re going to see change in Sudan. They know their time is coming.”

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