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Church youth group helps man travel to see his family in Sudan

November 6, 2010 12:35 am


Joseph stands with his sister during his visit. She hadn't seen him for 22 years and thought he had been killed. RL1106lostboy2.jpg

Joseph Awol's mother, Awel Bal (right), stands with her two sisters in front of their house in Sudan.



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!"

Awol heard gunshots as he ran. In the tall grass, he lost his sister. He couldn't find his family, didn't know what to do. He climbed a tree--hoping to avoid lions--and slept there.

In the morning, he joined a band of young men. At first, Awol assumed the group would take him to his family. He learned that all of the boys had been separated from their families. They were told their villages had been destroyed and looted.

During the civil war, soldiers from the northern section of Sudan often raided southern villages at night, killing the men and kidnapping the females.

Awol stayed with his group, where the teen boys looked after the children, letting them eat or drink first when sustenance was available.

The boys ate leaves and drank their own urine. When Awol grew thirsty enough to drink his own urine, he became sick and passed out. The next thing he knew, the group was in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Camp life was tough, and boys often disappeared overnight.

"People were just dying," Awol said. "And you think, 'If someone died yesterday, tomorrow it could be me.'"

For three years, Awol spent every day expecting to die. In the fourth year, he started to have hope. He and a few other boys would act like children, running and playing.

Then war broke out in Ethiopia. And the boys walked again.

Eventually, Awol ended up in Kakuma, one of the largest refugee camps in Kenya. There, Awol went to school for the first time.

But there wasn't enough food. Awol studied, but his mind often wandered.

And then U.S. officials agreed to take 3,600 Lost Boys. After three rigorous interviews, Awol learned he would go to America.

He was resettled in Richmond some seven years ago. Awol was getting the hang of America and attending school in Iowa when another refugee said he knew someone else named Awol.

It was his younger brother.

From his brother, Awol learned his family was alive. He got in touch with his mother. And Awol headed back to Virginia, to find work so he could pay for his younger brother's education.

Awol enrolled in community college. Last year, he transferred to Shenandoah University in Winchester, where he's studying psychology and mass communications.

Returning to Sudan last summer, Awol experienced culture shock. Nestled in a hut, listening to wild animals nearby, he couldn't sleep.

Awol was dismayed to walk 45 minutes to wait for hours in a line for water from a well. Children don't go to school simply because getting water is an all-day affair, every day.

Awol hopes to return to Sudan one day to help in his homeland.

And the youth group at Tabernacle wants to support him.

"It gives you sort of an outlook on the world and the things that are going on and how privileged we are," said youth group member Jenna Aylor. "Getting to be part of this story definitely has an impact on your life."

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973

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.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.