[Read the related story – Out of the tall grass with Sudanese refugee Peter Magai Bul]

Peter Magai Bul had a dream when he came to Chicago in 2001 as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

“Coming to America, you know, it was a very exciting thing because you think America has everything and you have the chance to go to school, and maybe you will be able to help those Lost Boys who were left in the camps, with the hope that if you have the power to do even more than that, to go back and help people in there in the village.”

More commonly known as Magai, Bul fled when he was only six years old. Over twenty years later, from his home in Chicago, he recalls his dream, and he sees it slowly becoming a reality.

As one of the celebrated Lost Boys, Bul has told his people’s story many times. It leads inextricably from survival through hope to commitment.

The Lost Boys’ survival

Ever since Sudan’s independence in 1956, war has ravaged the country. The genocide in Darfur, in Sudan’s west, has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced over 2.5 million people, according to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

“My journey started in the village in 1988. I fled with others from my village and we ended up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia that same year. But we lost so many children along the way,” Bul recounts.

The first wave of displacement in Sudan began in 1986. By 1991, there were about

27, 000 Lost Boys and Girls who reached the camp in Ethiopia. By 1999, these numbers dwindled to less than half.

“While we were moving, there was no food or water and some of the children just gave up,” Bul explains.

Daniel Kuot’s journey started in a different village in 1987 but took him to the same place as Bul. Twice.

“All the young boys were together, taking care of the cattle. When the war broke out, we tried to run away to go and hide because the army could come to the villages and try to kill all the men,” Kuot recalls. He was only six years old. “We ran and ran until we found ourselves in another country. The UN then gave us the name ‘Lost Boys’ because we didn’t have no parents, we were just wandering.”

It is in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where Kuot and Bul met in 1993. Joining them was Jacob Bul. Though Magai Bul was still a child, there were other children younger than him, including Kuot and Jacob Bul, who needed to be cared for. Magai Bul was just ten.

They stayed in the Kakuma camp for about nine years, Kuot recalls, “We never had enough to eat, maybe two pounds of food for three days and not having enough water to drink, or shade to lie down on. Kids suffering from so much trauma.”

Magai Bul has never forgotten the responsibility that became his to instill the will in others to survive.

He recalls leading groups of Lost Boys from country to country. “I had to make big decisions about how these children are going to survive. What do we have to do to support ourselves? I was just thinking about what should I do with these kids. I was like a parent to them.”

Beginning in 1999, the United States began to interview 16, 000 Sudanese Lost Boys for resettlement. One-quarter of them were selected. Kuot, Jacob Bul and Magai Bul were among them, though they were resettled in different locations in the U.S.

In 2003, the Lost Boys, having acclimated to some extent in the U.S., found each other, and set out together to save a generation.

“We were able to locate ourselves, in Arizona or Texas, and we began to email each other,” says Magai Bul. “We thought to ourselves, now that we are in America, is there anything we could do to help the Lost Boys that didn’t make it to America, especially those left in the refugee camps?”

They turned their attention first to the children in the camps. One of their ideas was to contribute money, to buy books, and if they raised enough, maybe even build a school. And they did.

As inspiration, Bul and the other Lost Boys resorted to their memories.

“I thought of my family school there in the camps, we were taught under the tree, and there wasn’t even an exercise book to write on,” Bul recounts.

Reason to hope

The Lost Boys also have a homeland, one they barely know, but one Bul refuses to give up on. He has reason to hope.

“When I see Sudan as being one of the richest countries in Africa, we have oil, we have the resources which a lot of other countries don’t have,” Bul says. “I knew I had a job to do back in the country. I always think that crazy life should end with me. I don’t want to see another generation of children in my native country go through what I’ve been through.”

The group decided to invest their energies in a project in southern Sudan.

“We decided we could go back to help the children in the village because their only role there is to go after cattle and goats,” Bul says. “There’s no school.”

So in 2004, Bul, with the Ayual Community Development Association, an organization he help to found, built the Pongbrong Primary School, a fully functioning school that started with 300 students and relies on teachers from the local villages. Now the school enrolls 780 students.

Bul is particularly proud of the school’s campaign for girls’ education. “Girls in Sudan are just meant to cook,” says Bul. “But I encouraged families in the villages to allow their girls to go to Pongbrong. Now we have almost an equal number of boys and girls at the school.”

Kuot also believes in the power of education for Sudan. “We need people to be educated,” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense to keep killing each other.”

For Bul also, education is the pathway to peace. “I made it into college,” he says. “If we have educated our people, for them to understand, that their Sudan is a diverse country, maybe they will be able to work together to rebuild the country. That understanding would only come through education.”

Bul believes that with over 100 different tribes in Sudan, nearly 150 official languages, and even more dialects spoken in Sudan, it’s about meeting people in the classroom that brings awareness.

Bul’s commitment draws me in

As we walk towards the Edgewater Library on the north side of Chicago, Bul towers over me. A gentle giant, there is an air of calm around him. He already feels like a big brother.

Bul looks at me and says: “You are from Singapore, and you can meet and learn with people from all over the world. So when I talk about unity and peace, that starts in the class.”

The first time Bul went back to Sudan was in December 2007. It had been almost 20 years.

“It was the first time I was able to see my family since I left them in 1988. Going home, I was very excited because I knew I had the opportunity to see my family, but I had so many mix-up feelings,” he recalls. “I was happy to see my family and able to see my family, but when I look at the destruction that had taken place during the war, that really shocked me.”

His family’s cattle and farm were gone. In their place were rations from the United Nations. People had lost their livelihoods after being displaced time and time again.

Once a year since then, Bul and about 10 other Lost Boys from around the United States have returned to Southern Sudan to embark on various health, water and educational projects. One of his childhood friends is trying to build a clinic just 40 minutes from the school.

“Every time I go back to the country, we just have one mission, and our mission is to help our people and rebuild the country,” he tells me. “And bring peace to the country.”

Bul hopes to return shortly [in December 2010] for the fourth time and stay for the long awaited elections scheduled for Jan. 9, 2011. Kuot doesn’t know if he is going back this year but can hardly wait to see his family again. He hasn’t been home since 1987 and is still waiting for the opportunity.

The elections are about more than candidates. The voting is a referendum that has been in the offing since 2005 when a peace accord between forces in the north and south of Sudan promised autonomy for the south if the people voted for it.

“We are going to have independence in Southern Sudan hopefully and we want to be part of that history,” says Bul. “That’s what we are trying to do now, get people to vote.”

Bul believes that if there is peace, then the country can move forward. If violence breaks out, all their efforts – the Pongbrong Primary School and the other projects – will be in vain.

“There still is a lot of fear but people have a right to be free,” Bul says.

Kuot also shares his vision. “I just want peace in the country. I don’t know what will happen but I know we don’t need any war again.”

I can’t help but be drawn in. Their dream is within reach, their commitment is magnetic. I too believe that education is powerful and is the best vehicle for peace. In a fragile state where the future is so uncertain, dreams remain. So does the commitment to turn them into something real.

For Kuot, it is reuniting with his family and finally going back home. For Bul, it is education, stability, peace and his continuing role in it. Kuot and Magai and Jacob Bul do more than dream now. They live a few miles from each other. Kuot and Jacob Bul both work in a dining hall on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. Together with an actively committed Sudanese community that includes Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls, they’ve created the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois and the Sudanese Community Center on the city’s north side. Now, their eyes, heart and hands are trained on the nation they never could leave behind.