It's a long way from Sudan to the Springs.
When Sudanese refugee Daniel Deng McBol Aruai, 24, first arrived in the Springs, he was afraid of the weather, sickened by the altitude and shocked at the sight of snow. Aided by Lutheran Refugee Services, the Independence Center, the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Pikes Peak Work Force Center, Community Health Centers, Inc. and many other organizations and individuals, Aruai, who is confined to a wheelchair, eventually adjusted to his new home, got an apartment, found a job and began an independent life.
Now Aruai wants to take his good fortune and turn it into something useful for his people -- natives of Sudan whose lives have been ravaged by the longest ongoing civil war in the world.
In the past 17 years, more than 2 million people have died in south and central Sudan and over 4 million have been displaced from their homes. At least a half-million Sudanese have fled the country and are now refugees in other countries. Almost 2 million people now face potentially deadly food shortages in Sudan, and aerial bombardment by the government is on the increase.
Aruai's dream is to start a philanthropic organization to provide aid to his people. He has already applied for 501-C3 nonprofit status for SUDPHISER, Sudan Philanthropic Services, Inc. Having dealt with many of the relief organizations already at work in Sudan and neighboring Kenya, Aruai says he's aware of where those organizations fall short. He believes his personal experience as a Sudanese in exile and as a disabled person who has overcome many physical obstacles will make him an effective communicator of the real needs of his people.
The Independent spoke with Aruai about his experiences growing up in Sudan, his life in exile and his plans for the future.
Indy: Can you tell us about your upbringing in Sudan, your family, and how you lost the use of your legs?
Aruai: I was born in southern Sudan along the River Nile, in the same house where my grandpa and my dad were born. As far as I know, that was a good place to live.
One day, our village was attacked by the government of Sudan and other tribal supporters and was destroyed. We were attacked at night and heavily armed militias circled the whole area. They started shooting from all directions. Many people were killed, houses were set on fire and a lot of people were thrown into burning houses. Thousands of people were carried away as slaves. All the food we had was confiscated and they drove away with our animals.
I lost many uncles, cousins, nieces and lots of relatives. It was a mass killing that left thousands of people dead and thousands homeless, wandering around in the bushes.
We started our trek to Ethiopia. That was about 12 years ago. Walking from Sudan to Ethiopia was the toughest thing I've done in my life. I didn't know I was going to sit down and rest some day. It took us more than two months, walking day and night. There was no water, no food. Many people were sick and there was no medicine. We faced hostility from different tribes we were meeting on the way. When we got to Ethiopia, we found that we had lost a greater number of people than the ones alive.
The camp was not secure, and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement Army came in and took all the boys 10 years and older. I was forcefully recruited into the military when I was 11 years old. I served for four years until I was finally shot in the leg.
We went back into Sudan, but there was no place to stay so we set off on foot again for Kenya. It took us a year to [get there]. After we arrived, I got progressive weakness in both legs, resulting from early childhood illness, malnutrition and injuries and duress I had sustained over the years. I had two surgeries, one on my ankle and one on my knees, but the doctor messed up with my nerves so after the operation I could not walk.
Indy: Where is your family now?
Aruai: My dad and mom and one sister live in Kakuma Refugee Camp about 800 kilometers north of Nairobi. My brilliant young brother got a scholarship award and he is studying in high school in a different town. Two of my wonderful sisters are married.
The camp where my parents live was established in 1992, in the wake of great influx of Sudanese fleeing the fighting between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement Army and other factional warring parties in south Sudan. The camp is in a semiarid zone south of the equator with temperatures ranging from 100 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit daily. More than 80,000 refugees, all from the Horn of Africa countries, live there. (Kakuma is operated by a group of ecumenical relief organizations under the funding and supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR's budget was cut by 20 percent last year resulting in massive worker layoffs and severe shortages of food, medical suplies, clean water and educational opportunities.)
At Kakuma, people eat once a day or once every 30 hours, only maize (corn). You are just barely living there, maybe without severe pain, but barely existing. Many people live on blood transfusions from family members. Most of the people who live there have no dreams and they don't even know what tomorrow holds for them. Everyone is traumatized and depressed, so they do bad things. I didn't have any dreams until I decided to force myself out of the camp.
Indy: How did you make your way out of the camp and eventually to the United States?
Aruai: My legs continually deteriorated in the camp due to no exercise. I tried writing letters, but you can't receive communication there. After spending years of incessant dismay, poverty, lack of education, lack of a wheelchair, lack of proper treatment and absolute insecurity, I decided to go to Nairobi to get an education and to try to communicate with refugee support organizations.
In 1996, in Kakuma, I had met an American, a government official sent to assess the situation of 16,000 unaccompanied Sudanese minors. I was brought to Michael O'Keefe, Refugee Program Officer for the U.S. Department of State, to translate for these boys. It was not hard at all for me to speak for them. I talked about the suffering at the hands of politicians, their need for education, better health and general living conditions. Mr. O'Keefe asked me, 'What do you think the American government can do to help you boys?' I said, 'They need rest and peace of mind.' I said the government could make it possible for us to go to the U.S. to go to school, to work and plan our futures. Mr. O'Keefe promised me that I would come to the U.S.
In Nairobi, life was hard, but I got scholarships from Jesuit Refugee Services and I went to college and learned computers. In early November 2000, I flew to the U.S. with hundreds of Sudanese boys. Finally, I found myself in Colorado Springs and I love it here.
Indy: Tell us about the relief organization you are organizing and what you need from others to get started.
Aruai: The organization will be a nonprofit, organized to alleviate the suffering of millions of Sudanese living in displaced camps within the country and in neighboring countries by providing educational opportunities, relief supplies and medical services to vulnerable groups.
I appeal to all Americans who would love to help the Sudanese victims of war and natural calamities to contribute in any way possible. I need everything from resources to manpower. I need volunteers, board members, advisors, an attorney, office equipment, office space, money. I welcome comments, ideas on how to make this work.
I know there are many organizations already helping in Sudan, but it's not enough. An organization like the one we are forming will oversee the problems of all the Sudanese regardless of their religious beliefs, disability, sex, educational background or political differences.
Will I fulfill this dream? Certainly, I will. If others have made wonderful things happen on the earth, why don't I also do what I can do? My life put into two words is 'Keep trying.'