By Eric Bertrand
The lights flashed on.
The crowd of about 25 people at the Calvary Community Church in Nebraska City, Nebraska, had just finished spending nearly two hours watching a movie, and as the projector’s humming ceased, it was like the sound had been sucked from the room.
The movie, “The Good Lie,” starred Reese Witherspoon and told the story of the struggle Sudanese children had had to endure in order to reach safety. Some of them had walked for months over hundreds of miles to Kenya or Ethiopia. Some of the children, the ones who were lucky enough to have their names on a list in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, made it to the United States.
“I’m part of the ‘Lost Boys,’” Dhiue said to the people gathered at the church, using the name refugee workers had given to the children.
Sudan has essentially been at war with itself since 1955 with only a few years of no conflict. Sudan suffered through two main civil wars, and in the second one, between the central government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and lasting from 1983 to 2005, an estimated two million people were displaced.
When the second war ended, South Sudan was allowed to have autonomy and to hold a referendum to decide if they would become independent.
In 2011, it did.
About 20,000 young children were orphaned by the violence in South Sudan, which led to the “Lost Boys.”
Dhiue, the man who spoke at the Nebraska City church, was about 9 years old when he began walking. He’s not too sure how long he walked—he said he would have to count the many nights—but he said it was probably three to four months.
“You know it’s a lot,” Dhiue said. “Because you have already seen so much.”
The children learned survival tools, and Dhiue said terrible things became normal for them.
“Seeing someone who is dead, it was not something new,” he said. “That was just life.”
He didn’t talk much about the walk he had endured because he didn’t want to re-live it.
Once they arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp, the “Lost Boys” started school. One of the things they learned was English, which helped once Dhiue get to Grand Rapids, Michigan, nearly nine years later.
His first job in Grand Rapids was as a grocery bagger.
“It get me in touch with the customers,” he said. “I get to talk with the Americans, and people would say, ‘Oh, you have a strong accent. Where are you from?’”
Through these conversations, Dhiue said, people would occasionally invite him over for dinner or write letters of appreciation to store managers.
Dhiue, who has now been in the U.S. for 15 years, wants to go back to South Sudan to help because violence is still in South Sudan.
Yet another civil war broke out in 2013 between the government powers.
So Dhiue wants to raise some $60,000 to build a population center in the city of Wau, which is considered a gateway city in South Sudan.
The center will be a place for Sudanese people to learn English.
This is important because the first language in South Sudan is English, but before they became a country, most people spoke Arabic.
Dhiue was accompanied during his visit to Nebraska City by another Sudanese refugee, Yak, and an actor from the film, Deng Ajuet, who played the character of young Paul.
Yak came to the U.S. in 2004 after spending three years in Egypt trying to get his family to safety. He is not considered a “Lost Boy.”
The priority for Yak was to get his family to safety. One event changed his life.
He heard the soldiers coming toward his home in Sudan. The gunshots were getting closer and closer to his home.
“I’m going to kill one of them,” Yak said.
He picked up his gun and stood by the front door. At least 15 soldiers were coming.
“If I kill one, then I’ll get killed,” he said. “So I dropped the gun.”
The soldiers didn’t harm his family that day, but it was enough for Yak to get his family out of Sudan and to Egypt.
Now, he and Dhiue have a common objective: to go back and help their people.
“This will allow American people to go there and help,” Yak said. “You could go there and be a teacher or also medical help. Whatever area anybody in America can help. That’s great.”
The money raised will go toward buying the land for the center, the materials for construction and monthly living wages for them. Dhiue and Yak would like to start this project by January 2016.
The movie showing and meet-and-greet event was a way to try and raise money for Dhiue and Yak’s goal. One of the people responsible for getting them to Nebraska City was Vic Johns.
“I thought this would be something the entire community could support,” Johns said. “It made sense the way they chose outsiders like us, who probably won’t make any difference in Sudan if we went there, but we could help fund some things.”
One of the people attending the event was Hunter McNeel, a 23-year-old college student from Omaha, Nebraska. He said the film made it easier to understand the struggle Sudanese people went through.
“I know Sudanese people in Omaha,” he said. “I walk by them, but I don’t get to see their story.”