By Seth Gonzales
Special to The Texas Catholic
The students at St. Patrick Catholic School watched bug-eyed as Reng Ajak Gieu towered over them and recalled his harrowing story of survival during the second Sudanese civil war, a conflict that lasted 22 years.
“Dealing with the civil war challenges that I encountered was not easy,” said Ajak Gieu, who became a refugee in his own country by the age of 7. “I did my best to survive as a human being, but the real reason of my survival was almighty God. He was the ultimate protector during the bad days of my life.”
Ajak Gieu was one of thousands of children between the ages of 7 and 17 who were displaced from their homes as a result of the second Sudanese civil war. Relief workers dubbed the group the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” though girls were also among the refugees.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund estimates that the Lost Boys of Sudan number around 20,000 boys and girls.
Life is much simpler and better these days for Ajak Gieu, known to the St. Patrick community as “John.” He is a Dallas resident now, holding a college degree in business administration and employment at the Dallas Arboretum, all the while harboring aspirations to help his native home.
“Since my arrival in the United States of America I have met wonderful people that are generous and kind in their hearts,” said Ajak Gieu, who was given the opportunity to come to the United States in 2001 while staying at a Kenyan refugee camp. “Some of them made my transition into American society much easier than I thought it would be.”
Enter St. Patrick parish, which began an Outreach Program specifically for the Lost Boys of Sudan who found themselves in the Dallas area. Therese Sabine heads the program and has seen it evolve since it was established in June 2001.
“We recognized the need and so we banded together and started it,” Sabine said. “Now, it has transitioned to help refugees from many other countries such as Burundi, Congo, Sierra Leone, Togo and Myanmar.”
Today, while Ajak Gieu calls Dallas his home, he is passionate about helping his native village from afar, especially as it pertains to educating the next generation. That passion only intensified after a 2012 visit to Sudan that culminated in a visit with his mother and father for the first time in 24 years.
After visiting the only primary school in the village, Ajak Gieu immediately thought to help.
“Some of the children I have met have a burning interest in education but they have been alone,” Ajak Gieu said. “They sit under trees as a class. They attend class lectures always in harsh conditions, sunny days and rainy seasons. Therefore, I think let’s get them school supplies and it may give them hope. It will be an inspiration that one day education dreams may be realized.”
At the moment, with the help of Sabine and a friend, Ajak Gieu is developing plans to do just that and the students at St. Patrick used their Buck-a-Jean Day event to contribute funds for Ajak Gieu’s cause.
For the students at St. Patrick, the message Ajak Gieu had for them is simple: have respect and character.
“I have to do the same thing every day, whether people see me or they don’t see me,” he said.