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Church youth group helps man travel to see his family in Sudan
Lost boy from Sudan sees mother after 22 years apart, thanks to a local church youth group

 Joseph stands with his sister during his visit. She hadn't seen him for 22 years and thought he had been killed.
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Date published: 11/6/2010


The first time she heard her grown son's voice, Awel Bal didn't believe her ears.

The first time she saw his face, she couldn't believe her eyes.

"She just kept looking at my face," Joseph Awol said of last summer's reunion. "I think she does not believe I am her son."

Before that, Bal last saw her son when he was 7 years old. This time, he was 29.

For most of that time, Awol thought his mother was dead, killed by soldiers or lions in Sudan.

In 2004, Awol, who had come to live in Virginia, learned his mother was alive. He called Bal, who was living in Kenya. A few years later, Bal returned to the family's native Sudan. Communication grew spotty, and Awol couldn't talk to his mom.

He dreamed about meeting her, seeing her face. Yet that seemed out of reach for the refugee turned college student.

And then Awol came to speak to the youth group at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Spotsylvania. Earlier this year, one of the youth leaders asked The Lost Boys Foundation in Tennessee for a speaker to share stories of fleeing Sudan during a civil war.

Tabernacle's youth leader Cynthia Hay hoped the group would develop a heart for missions worldwide and learn that even teenagers can make a difference.

She had no idea how immediate that lesson would be.

During his talk, Awol said how much he wanted to see his mother, but couldn't afford the airfare.

The youth group decided then and there to give the money netted from their mission fundraiser to send Awol to see his mother.

"It would've been wrong not to," said 17-year-old Elliott Hay. "You can't just listen to something like that; it can't be a one-way street."

Awol spoke of his life as one of the Lost Boys, a group of more than 20,000 children separated from their families during Sudan's civil war in the 1980s and '90s. The boys, ranging in age from 7 to 17, trekked hundreds of miles through Sudan to safety in Ethiopia.

Awol said he was about 7 when fighting broke out in his village. His sister woke him in the middle of the night, saying, "Let's go! Let's go!"

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Sudan became independent in 1956. Since then, the eastern African nation has been embroiled in many civil wars. One of those wars broke out in 1983, and the fighting displaced more than 4 million people and killed more than 2 million.

The mostly Muslim northern region is often at war with the predominantly Christian southern region.

A peace agreement was signed in 2005. Peacekeeping troops still struggle to maintain order, and humanitarian aid groups have had trouble helping the Sudanese. Under the peace agreement, southern Sudanese will have the chance to secede from the north following a referendum on Jan. 9. Many worry this will lead to more violence.