As southern Sudan readies to become the world's newest nation in July, people like James Lubo Mijak are planning to trade in the relative ease of American life and return to help build the new state.
South Sudan's 'lost boys' set to return home
NEW YORK // Before he reached his teens, James Lubo Mijak fled civil war in Sudan for the United States, having witnessed government troops rase his village and crocodiles devour other fleeing children.
One of the thousands of so-called "lost boys" who escaped Sudan for an uncertain and sometimes dangerous life abroad, he worked his way through college and became a financial analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Now, as southern Sudan readies to become the world's newest nation in July, Mr Mijak is planning to trade in the relative ease of American life and return to help build the world's newest state.
"It has always been in my heart to go back and help because there is a great need for people like me in this new country," Mr Mijak, 29. "We don't have enough educated people, and I feel the need to return."
He is not alone. Some 3,700 of the lost boys were resettled in the US after 1999 and while becoming writers, clergy, human rights activists and clerks, they have kept tabs on each other and their emerging nation.
Mr Mijak has helped raise US$190,000 (Dh697,300) to build a school in his native district of Nyarweng, in Ruweng County. The school plans to open before the June rainy season, a month before the south formally secedes from the north on July 9.
Patricia Shafer, the director of a charity building the school, Mothering Across Continents, said the lost boys were united by their harrowing escape from Sudan and developed a "unique and inspirational" community in the US that is determined to give back to their homeland.
They include Francis Buk, who was captured by an Arab militia when he was seven years old and relived his ordeal in an autobiography, Escape From Slavery, and Lopez Lomong, a 1,500-metre runner and US flag-bearer at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Both men are helping to build schools in their native villages through the charity Sudan Sunrise. The 26-year-old Mr Lomong, who is training in Portland, Oregon, for the 2012 London Olympics, has been hailed as a hero during his visits to the south. Children are enamoured with him.
"They sprint alongside and are so excited to run beside me," he said. "If the country was stabilised, I would love to go back and continue my training there. My presence is empowering, and I could help that young country at the international level."
Not every lost boy is the subject of a feel-good, rags-to-riches story. Unemployment, mental illness, homelessness and alcoholism are not uncommon. "Life caught up with them," said Bob Montgomery, director of San Diego, California, office of the International Rescue Committee. "The trauma from their early years came back."
But those that have managed to thrive are uniquely positioned to help build the new nation, which has less than 100km of tarmac roads, few schools and hospitals and has yet to establish government ministries and currency and tax systems. Much of the territory is unmapped and remote, and estimates of its population range from 3.8 million to 11 million.
Haile Menkerios, the UN special envoy to Sudan, says: "The needs are everywhere and tremendous. It's a new government and a new state. It will be critical to encourage those in the diaspora who have the capacity to return back home instead of providing experts from abroad."
At the same time, the problems they find when they return home will challenge their euphoria about independence, Mr Menkerios said, ticking off the lack of jobs, medical services and education.
Dhieu-Deng Leek, a lost boy who became a rights activist for Sudanese in New York, said southern Sudan must tackle poverty and ethnic strife by harnessing its mineral and agricultural wealth.
"It's about Africans helping Africans," he said via telephone from the planned capital, Juba during one of his frequent visits. "Sudanese from the West are the first group to come back. Now we need more to attend universities in the UK, US and Canada. We need to learn how to fish, grow crops, get loans and join world trade."
Mr Leek, who worked 60-hour weeks as a security guard to pay his way through college and adopted an American name, John Dau, opened a medical clinic in his native Duk County in 2007. The clinic has provided medical treatment to some 41,000 people, including members of the rival Dinka and Neura tribes.
Although Sudan's president, Omar al Bashir, says the Khartoum government has accepted the referendum results, key issues remain unresolved between north and south, especially control of the oil-rich region of Abyei.
Abraham Nhial, a former lost boy who now serves as the Anglican bishop of a diocese in southern Sudan, fears the tensions over Abyei could trigger wider fighting.
Bishop Nhial, 34, who earned his theology degree at Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania and returned to southern Sudan last year, says: "We must put more pressure on Bashir so he will accept Abyei to have its own referendum."