Stories of Mending, Stories of Hope
Mary Opani participates in tailoring training provided by United Methodist Women in Yei, Southern Sudan. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
Victor Chol: “Lost Boy” No More
His name is Victor Chol. Today he’s an American citizen, a soft-spoken college student in Maryville, Tennessee, majoring in international studies. Not so long ago, Victor Chol was one of the 27,000 “Lost Boys and Girls” of Sudan, separated from their parents due to the hardships and violence of war. About 4,000 came to the United States. Victor was one of them. The Maryville United Methodist Church sponsored his immigration to Tennessee and assisted him to find a place to live, a livelihood, and a community. Victor has served as a resource for the Holston Conference.
Victor Chol was nine years old when his father was killed, and he and his mother and siblings fled Twic, a small village in the region around Waw in Bahr el-Ghazal, Southern Sudan. “My father was a teacher in the missionary schools,” Victor said. Anthony Chol was also affiliated with the Sudan Council of Churches, “and he was killed for his association with the church. We moved to the village of my mother.” Militant factions of the northern government, dissidents representing various political positions, militias of different strong-men, and armed thugs continued to “burn and burn,” and to “kidnap and terrorize us.”
“I Ran a Separate Way”
Soon, threatened with further violence, the bereft family had to flee again. They ran on foot. “I ran a separate way,” said Victor.
For three months, he and others in his group crossed the tropical and desert landscapes of Southern Sudan. They crossed the river known as the Mountain Nile on their way to Ethiopia. “There were times we traveled in rainy and sunny days,” he wrote in an email.
“We were lucky,” Victor wrote. There are some who were attacked and robbed by rebel militias, but we weren’t. I was following the crowd. We used to work in groups and when it was time to rest would select some among us to go to the villages to ask for food and water, and they would bring back whatever they were given and share with us. We did that to the point where there were no more villages and had to depend on what we carried with us.”
The Ethiopian border is many miles from Waw. Victor estimated that his three-month journey extended for 1,000 miles. He lived first in Panyudo Camp in Ethiopia. Then the children had to return to Sudan once again. From there they crossed the Gola River, marking the border between Kenya and Sudan, and walked to Kakuma Camp in Kenya. Both camps were facilities for displaced persons. Victor lost touch with others in his family.
“Thought She Had Forgotten Me”
Back home in Twic, Victor had applied himself at school, and he followed that principle at camp. He was selected to receive a scholarship. Officials at the camp isolated the children who did not arrive with their parents. “We lived in groups,” he said, sharing books and materials. There were few text books and test booklets. “If you were lucky, you had a friend to send you a book.” While living at Kakuma, Victor earned the KCE, the certificate of a primary school graduate.
Victor celebrated the new year of 2002 in the United States, sponsored by First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, near Knoxville. When he was ready to go to college, he stayed on in Maryville.
“We organized a traditional dance to raise some money for refugee relief,” Victor recalled. “My cousin came with other refugees and he knew where my mother was. I thought she had forgotten about me.” Victor was working on his mother’s arrival in the US when he learned of her death in 2005. Since then, Victor has served Holston Conference Sudan Action Team as a spokesperson on Sudan and interned in the Yei office of United Methodist Committee on Relief—his first visit to Sudan since fleeing the war in Waw nearly 19 years before.
War for “A Handful of Corn”
Of the war, a Polish journalist wrote: “It is a war over a handful of corn, a bowlful of rice.” Victor Chol concurs. Resources, economic wellbeing, power sharing and religion all come into play, he said. Southern Sudan has many resources, such as oil and minerals—its riches have been the focus of the much poorer Khartoum-led North. In addition, in Victor’s opinion the South has been marginalized for not accepting Islamic values prevalent in the North.
Dreams and Action for Peace
Some of the “Lost Boys and Girls” have created foundations or organizations to provide aid to their homeland. For example, Victor Chol became the founding director of the Sudanese Lost Boys and Girls Volunteers Association in 2007 to use his education and experience to help rebuild Southern Sudan. That same year Victor returned to Southern Sudan for the first time in nineteen years to work at the Yei office of UMCOR. In 2008 he visited his home village, Waw, for the first time since his flight to Ethiopia and Kenya so many years ago.
Goals of the Sudanese Lost Boys and Girls Volunteer Association support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and provide avenues for other Lost Boys and Girls to rebuild infrastructure back home in a variety of capacities, including education, health, and partnerships with other agencies now working in country. Other goal details:
• Reintroduce traditional heritage, customs and culture
• Encourage and develop productive activities among returning refugees
Victor’s partners include the New Sudan Education Initiative, Holston Conference, the Government of Southern Sudan, and the Peace and World Concern organization at Maryville College, where Victor studies. He has participated in a team to train youth in camps and small villages in the Yei area to connect with nongovernmental organizations as a way to serve their communities.
Other plans in 2008 included:
• New community center with clinic and dormitory at Juba
• Borehole and well to ensure a safe, adequate water supply
• Room and board for volunteers
• Literacy and life skills classes
• Recruitment and training of Southern Sudanese volunteers
Read more about Sudan’s Lost Boys: