Before there was Darfur

29 Mar

Before there was Darfur

Around the world

By TOM MEEK  |  January 17, 2007

With the US bogged down in Iraq and anti-American sentiment sweeping the globe, it’s hard to find an affirmative story about our country’s place in the world. John Dau has one to tell. Ten years ago he was languishing in a refugee camp in Kenya; today he’s building a house, working on a college degree, and providing for the people he was formerly powerless to help. “This country has people who are kind, they like to help others,” says Dau of the US.

A graceful, 6’8” expatriate, Dau is the subject of God Grew Tired of Us, a documentary that chronicles the journey of several Sudanese “Lost Boys” brought to the US through relief agencies. The title of the film falls from Dau’s lips as he tries to rationalize the dire situations he and 27,000 other boys endured when civil war broke out in the Sudan during the ’80s. The Islamic north had made it a priority to target young males in the Christian south to cull off future fighters. As a result the boys banded together and fled, traveling more than 1000 miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. En route, disease, hunger, wild animals, and the enemy decimated their ranks. Dau, who had been forced to flee at the age of 13, was among 3000-plus Lost Boys chosen for resettlement in the US in 2000-’01.

Dau became the focus of the film by chance. “They list the names on a board, and when I was looking, I saw some journalist, people carrying cameras and I didn’t know anything to do with journalism before, so I thought that the government of United States might have sent these people.” The man with the camera was director Christopher Quinn. “He asked me if he could ask me a few questions, and I said, ‘Okay.’ I only thought it would be two or three, but I never got rid of him.”

The transition to a “better place” — he ended up in Syracuse, New York — was not without its pitfalls. At first, says Dau, “coming to America was like a honeymoon. Every day the helper came to our apartment to show us how to cook, to show us how to go to the grocery store.” But after three months, when he was required to start his first job, requests for aid back home started pouring in. “Many of the Lost Boys in Africa know that we are working, so they call us,” he says. “So here you are, you have money, and bills, and people in Africa. If you say no to them it is against our culture, so when you pay the bills it really pulls you down.”

Since then Dau, now 34 and married, has helped raise more than $180,000 for a health clinic in his homeland and in December was appointed director of the Sudan Project, which is raising funds to rebuild Southern Sudan. He also has a similarly titled book coming out and has applied for US citizenship. “When I was in Africa, I was there. Did I do anything?” says Dau passionately, “No. So it is better to be an American citizen and help people back there, and that is very important.”

Violence in Darfur is still severe, but for now there is peace between the north and south. Dau notes the situation’s tenuous nature and points to 2011, when the South Sudanese will vote to unify with the north or secede. “I will go back to campaign to secede. Be independent. That will cut off the problem,” he says. “Let’s live side by side as neighbors.”

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