Below is a partial transcript of my conversation with Thon Moses Chol from the Nov 30th Food for All Summit. Thon is a member of the Lost Boys of Sudan who now works as an educational specialist and social worker with the Child and Family Services Agency in Washington D.C.
Thon was fortunate to have survived years of war and genocide in Sudan (his parents did not survive). Now with a Master’s degree and working with the US govt in DC, Thon recently returned to Sudan to speak with politicians and villagers about how civil discourse — not violence– can better facilitate the economic growth and citizen empowerment that the Sudanese are yearning for.
Thon’s incredible trajectory from Lost Boy refugee to Washington DC activist has been the result of hard work, faith and perseverance that followed an opportunity of good fortune amid death and tragedy. Today, in appreciation of his good fortune, Thon dedicates his life to cultivating opportunities for the downtrodden and forgotten to thrive.
Give thanks for your good fortune by helping to bring the dignity of opportunity to the planet’s downtrodden and forgotten who face death on a daily basis. Bottom Billion Fund is committed to bringing financial tools and training to the world’s poorest people living on less than $1.25 a day so that they can work more productively to survive, and to improve their lives.
Partial transcript from my conversation with Thon Moses Chol at the Nov 30th Food for All Summit: (special thanks to Joshua Zieve for the transcription)
Tom Coleman: Thon Moses Chol is from South Sudan, but grew up in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Thon, what was your childhood like? How did you end up in refugee camps?
Thon Moses Chol: I was born in 1983 in the Kapa Nile state in South Sudan. I was part of the group known as the “Lost Boys and Lost Girls” of Sudan, the group that fled their home to escape the violence of the civil war.
I’m not sure if all are aware of the situation in Sudan, but there has been a civil war there for about the past 25 years. Because of that, I was separated from my family at the age of four. I fled home in 1987 with some relatives and friends to Ethiopia. Along the way, we lost a lot of kids. We didn’t have much assistance while we were traveling, so a lot of people died from starvation, thirst, various diseases, wild animal attacks, and drowning while crossing rivers on our way to Ethiopia. I got to Ethiopia at the age of seven and stayed there almost four years.
It was not an easy thing leaving home where someone was overseeing my general welfare as a child, and then ending up in Ethiopia, in refugee camps, where I had to take charge of my own life. I had to develop to be independent, instead of dependent on anybody, because at the time there was no one there for me. But as time went by, I learned to stay with other kids and that’s when many people heard that unaccompanied minors were a part of their group.
In the ‘90s, due to disruption in Ethiopia, I fled Ethiopia and came back to South Sudan, where I stayed for a couple months between the border of Sudan and Ethiopia in Pochala. At that time, there were a lot of bombardments from the northern government. Also, there was a shortage of food. As a result, we made our way, walking again, to the Sudanese and Kenyan border. It took us a couple of months, and we experienced a lot of anguish with more lives lost. But we kept moving, with the hope that things would eventually change. In 1992 I entered Kenya and lived there [in refugee camps] for most of my life, until 2000, when I got an opportunity to come to the US.
Life in the refugee camp was really difficult because you depended on aid. Food was distributed every two weeks. When you run out of your food, you have to wait. The northern part of Kenya is semi-desert, so most of us were unable to do any sort of farming.
At that time, I received education. Started at grade three, and then went on to fourth grade at a private school. Many of us coped with the situation. Around ‘94 or ‘93 a lot of young men and women went back to Sudan, joined the forces, and joined the war. At some point, I decided to go, but I was too young, so I was not able to go. I was told that it was best for me to go to school and stay in the camp. So I lived in the camp. In 2000, I gained employment. Soon after, I was very fortunate to be part of the group that was given permission to resettle in the US. I was part of the Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan.
I was resettled by a Lutheran refugee camp affiliate service. Because I came as a minor, I was put in the US foster care system. I was able to continue my schooling and completed high school in 2001. I then went on and pursued my Associate degree, and then my Bachelor’s degree, and then my Masters degree (in 2008). I am currently working for the US government in DC as one of the educational reform specialists with the child resettlement services agency. I’ve been in this position for the past three years. Prior to this appointment, I was interning with US senators, first Carl Levin and then David Robertson.
In 2010, I testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. I spoke about my experience as a refugee in the US and also as a refugee abroad. I gave some concerns and some of my recommendations about what the US can do to serve refugees well, both domestically and internationally.
TC: Can you share with us some of the specific recommendations that you made to Tom Lantos and the committee about refugees?
TMC: A first recommendation was regarding protection. When you come from camps in Kenya, and other various places, there is quite a bit of insecurity. When people are going through security issues, those people should be given priority.
The second was refugee funding. Because of the type of funding, it has been very, very difficult for more refugees to come to the US. Last night I met with [the head of UNHCR’s resettlement service] Wei-Meng Lim-Kabaa. One of the things that she shared is that the US is taking less and less refugees, which is a huge concern. The US was the world leader in taking in resettled refugees, but the number has decreased. I think in part it is due to the economic crisis.
One of the things that really helps refugees is giving them the right foundation, because a lot of these refugees, when they come to the US, they want to begin a new life. And when they begin a new life, a lot of them do not really ask for a handout. Rather, they ask for where they can find employment and where their children will go to school. For young people, like myself, they focus very much on getting an education or vocational training. So the other area where I made a recommendation was concerning mental health. There are quite a number of refugees, some who have gone to war, some who have gone through torture or persecution, or all kinds of things. So when they come here, they have a variety of mental challenges. And the Department of Mental Health should make some appropriate approach to help some of these refugees, in order to give some mental assistance that can ease their integration into society.
TC: I’m so glad you mentioned that, and it just seems to me a very important challenge for us to address.
TMC: I’ll give you a specific example. When I first came to Michigan in 2001, my foster parents took me to a circus where you go to watch animals. I’m sure most of you are familiar. It was ok at first. Eventually the family went down to watch the fireworks. What I didn’t know was that it was a lot of sound and explosions and everything. They didn’t know, but to me as a person who has been in war and has seen people dying and has been bombed several times and ambushed on a couple of occasions, though I thought that I had gotten over my fear and post-traumatic stress, after I went with them and was watching fireworks, I got really scared. I told them that I wasn’t really enjoying this because it reminded me of what I went through in my hometown, and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me because the sounds were too scary for me and were bringing back a lot of memories. After I explained that, they took me back home.
There are some things that someone may go through, whether witnessing whatever sin that happened or being involved in the sin that happened. If there is no proper treatment, it can still come back. Small things trigger it. Mental health is a big issue for the refugees.
Culture plays a big role, too. Some people prefer a specific way of approaching mental health. For instance, in my culture, we’d be much more comfortable to talk to fellow people or fellow Africans about our mental states, but if I have to see a professional counselor or a psychologist, people will have a different connotation… that I have a mental condition that is a big problem. So a lot of refugees shy away from being coined that way. Prior to coming to this country, I had never seen a doctor, never seen a nurse, never had a dental check. When I came here I went through a lot of check-ups and stuff like that. Though I went through the program, there were other refugees who didn’t have the chance, or they have no way of getting treatment because they cannot afford to see the doctor. Health is a huge concern, especially for those who are here.
Regarding employment, a lot of refugees came with skills, but sometimes it takes quite a while for those skills to be translated here. And because there are no programs that help people translate those skills to here or to the workforce, it creates barriers. I know someone who had a degree in electrical engineering, but he ended up working in a factory. So you can see someone who had a higher degree working a manual job. So those are some of the anxieties that people go through, especially for families, because it can take a while for people to adjust. For me, I was 17, so it was a lot easier for me to adjust to a new country, to adjust to a new life, to adjust to a new culture. But for some of them who have lived for years and years abroad, it is difficult for them to easily integrate into a new society. And when they find themselves doing manual jobs, they become frustrated that they life that they dreamed of is really not coming true.
TC: I know that you are planning to go back to South Sudan with a group to work on peace reconciliation issues next month.
TMC: Because of the war that just ended, there are so many arms in the hands of kids. There are so many guns everywhere in South Sudan. There is also a lot of intertribal conflict: A lot of fighting, a lot of raiding, and all that stuff. The government is doing the best they can, but it is becoming harder and harder everyday. So what we did here is we were able to organize ourselves because it is time for us to help our government, because the US cannot bring everybody here. So for the few of us that had an opportunity to come to the US, we should give back. It is an opportunity to give back, given what has been done for me.
We have organized ourselves in our thinking that no one else will come and mediate the conflicts among our own tribes. So we are gong back to and try to talk to them and say that you gain nothing by killing each other. Economically you are the ones that are trying to gain. As a result of insecurity, the local people have not been farming. As a result of the insecurity, many people have not had the opportunity to do the same things that they have done to support their lives, and that has created a lot of famine and other concerns. So we are going as a team, we call ourselves an ambassador group: influential individuals from different communities around the US who were selected by their peers to go back to the state of Jum Lei and start the dialogue. One friend is today meeting with the president of South Sudan and also meeting with the high bishop. The rest of the team will be traveling two weeks from now. Our main job is to go to work with the local chiefs, with the commissioners, with the state governor, and also with all of the villagers to ensure that we put the point across that you do not have to kill someone to make a point, but you have to be able to debate and resolve issues as respectable citizens.
TC: How long has it been since you were in Sudan?
TMC: This will be my first time going back in 23 years, since I left in 1987. This will be my first time home. It will be emotional because I know a lot has changed and I do not have my family. Most of my people were killed, my father included. They do not have a grave where I can go to pay tribute while I’m in the area, because during that war no one was buried. So it will be a little emotional for me to know that while I’m in the district, I will not even know where my parents were killed.
TC: Thank you so much for your story and for what you’re doing. Best wishes from all of us as you go back to Sudan.
TMC: My pleasure.