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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Sudan’s Lost Children Speak at UMB

David Gai discusses his journey from Sudan to UMass Boston
David Gai discusses his journey from Sudan to UMass Boston

BY COLIN KELLYStaff Writer

On Wednesday, April 27, tucked away on the sixth floor of that numerical paradox gone awry we call Wheatley Hall, the Joiner Center, in conjunction with the Africana Studies department and the Creative Writing program, held a panel concerning UMass Boston’s Sudanese students entitled: “The Mind In Two Worlds: The Lost Boys of Sudan and Their Journey to UMass Boston.”

Kicking off the event, David Chanoff, moderator and academic advisor to the Sudanese Education Fund, started by explaining to the audience that the Sudanese students in the panel were just a small fraction of the vast number of persons displaced, misplaced, or killed after the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out in 1983. Chanoff also took care to explain that the distance between Sudanese and Western culture is more than just geographic-in the Sudan, the majority of peoples speak a language that is non-literary. In a manner of speaking, the typical Sudanese villager speaks a palette not designed for reading, writing, and meticulous recording-their language and culture is rooted more in oral tradition and community as opposed to our Western culture steeped in individualism and a heavy crutch-leaning on the written word in the stead of memory. These cultural factors, in addition to what can only be assumed to be a staggering sense of deracination and isolation that would result from being forced to flee one’s country, made the road of transition that lead these students from the Sudan to UMass Boston’s Dorchester campus that much more challenging.

As panelist and UMB student David Gai related, he and many of Sudan’s other “lost children” will be the first generation to receive a college education. Gai added, and this was supported by his fellow student-panelists and Sudanese scholars, Matiop Wal and Ayuen Adet, that a driving force behind his desire for knowledge and education were his elders at the refugee camps, who stated quite simply that for his generation, education is the only way to succeed.

It was not easy getting an education in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, especially after Ethiopia’s own civil war broke out, forcing the refugees back to Sudan, and then from Sudan on to Kenya. But still, the refugee children were educated by volunteers and other learned people through the few resources they had available. “We have always been determined to learn out of nothing,” Gai said. Not an easy feat, given the fact that paper and textbooks were scarce practically to the point of nonexistence. Many of the children learned their ABCs by drawing in the sand with their fingers, for want of writing materials. Later on, with the increase in aide and volunteers, children would share what books were handy, memorize entire textbook chapters at a time during class, and take notes later on that night, all from memory. “Studying is hard, especially when you don’t have something to eat,” Adet added.

After their education crystallized during their refuge in Kenya, many students went on to study for their GEDs in America, and many went on to universities like UMass Boston, home to more Sudanese refugees than any of New England’s other four-year college institutions.

Many Sudanese students have driven themselves to succeed in their academic careers, despite the cultural differences that at times can seem like a comparison of night to day, overwhelming odds, a civil war, and a thousand mile trek across East Africa simply to preserve their right to exist.