Esperanza Academy Students Talk with Sudanese Lost Boy John Yak

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The following article was written by Esperanza Academy student Sarah Santiago for The Esperanza Post, the school newspaper. 

On September 18th, 2015, Esperanza Academy High School students and staff had the opportunity to hear a speech from John Yak, a Lost Boy of Sudan who left his war-torn country for a better life in America.

The Lost Boys of Sudan was the name for a group of over 20,000 boys who became refugees after the Second Sudanese War. The tenth grade students of Esperanza Academy have knowledge of these topics, as the AP World History classes have been studying genocide in their classes and watched the documentary God Grew Tired of Us. The Lost Boys of Sudan were also covered during the Oppression Unit of the 10th grade Genre Studies classes. John Yak, the co-founder and Director of the South Sudan Master Peace Program, came to Esperanza Academy to speak to the students about his struggle, and his journey regarding being a Lost Boy.

Before John’s speech, the students were able to watch a short 10 minute clip from the 2006 documentary movie, “God Grew Tired of Us,” which features the 3 lives of Lost Boys of Sudan on their journey to America. The video showcased the history behind the Sudanese Civil War, and showed how lengthy and debilitating the journey was for the many Lost Boys to find a safe haven after they were invited to America. “What was it like, to see those images of the starving children again?” senior Huascar Vargas asked Yak, regarding the many pictures and videos of young Lost Boys who were visibly suffering from malnutrition. “It’s not just an image,” explains Yak, “It’s real life. It’s trauma. When I see those images, I look back to how I once was. I think about how I was there once, but now I am here.”

“I was the grown up,” says John Yak, explaining his journey of being a Lost Boy, “even though I was one of the youngest. When I crossed the River Gilo, we created a rope so we could pass through. I carried my brother on my shoulders so we could survive.” John Yak left his village at the age of 13. He described a good life: being able to play with his friends, hunt animals, and be with his family. When the war broke out, not many people took the news seriously. “We had a great life,” says John, “so when they said, ‘There’s a war happening!’ we didn’t take it seriously. We didn’t believe that a war was going on, and we weren’t prepared to just pick up and leave the only home we knew.” John talks about how there was no certain destination for him and his people, a group of about 2700. “There was no A point or B point. We just walked, and kept walking. We didn’t know where, just that we had to be somewhere,” concludes John. When they finally settled in Ethiopia, the surviving people in his group had formed a new family for John, who hasn’t been able to get into communication with his biological family since 1987. “I loved going to school, just having an education. It was different than it is for you guys, because you have pencils and books. I learned how to write my ABC’s and 123’s in the dirt. Over and over again, with my classmates, just memorizing my alphabets,” says John about his first experiences in a school in Sudan, “It wasn’t easy, but we made it work.”

After John’s speech, many of the students had the opportunity to ask questions in a Q and A session, with microphones set up in the middle rows for all to participate. The questions came from many of the AP World History students, from topics ranging from religion, to the actual meaning of being a Lost Boy. “If you could go back in time,” begins sophomore Javieris Marrero, “What would you change?” The question is followed by a sigh from John, and a laugh from the audience. “Such a hard question! A hard, but good question…I think I would want to change the violence. If I could go back in time, and maybe stop the violence from happening, and the war, I would. I would not let it happen again in my life,” responds John. “How did your sense of religion change after coming to America?” asks sophomore Jose Martinez. “I like to think of it like this: If there was no war, what could have been?” says John, responding to Jose’s question, “I could have been a Muslim. War affects you, and when people try to destroy your religion, it destroys your life. Imposing religion on others is destroying one’s life,” concludes John. “What was it like being called a “Lost Boy?” asks sophomore Claribel Aponte. “How would you feel if you were called a Lost Girl?” asks John Yak of Claribel, who responds with a confused look. “That’s how I felt! None of us knew what a Lost Boy was at the refugee camp. It’s a political term. It is how I got in to the United States. If I was asked, ‘Are you a Lost Boy?’ I would say yes, of course! Because I wanted to come into America. It was my identity,” he says.

Also accompanying John Yak was Robin Heydenberk, a professor at Lehigh University, who compared the makeshift family that was created by the Lost Boys to the family we have here at Esperanza. “I can feel it,” says Robin, “There is a sense of unity and of family right when you walk into this school. It is exactly like what John went through as well, creating a family away from his own family.” Robin also spoke about war, and of how there is always a constant struggle everywhere one goes. “Every war plants the seed for the next conflict,” Robin explains, “but it takes a right-minded person to stop that cycle, and to not be a bystander to the problem that is happening.” Many of the students have been learning about war and conflict in their World History and English classes, and many of them already understand and demonstrate the need for less hate in this world.

Both John and Robin work for a non-profit organization called Master Peace International, which focuses on providing conflict transformation and peacebuilding strategies in embattled communities, such as Sudan. Although there have already been 3 schools started in Sudan, the peacebuilding strategy isn’t something that has taken root in their curriculum. ”It didn’t work out, really, because of the diversity of the kids. Many of the kids came from different parts of the Dinka tribe, and they were not able to really get over their difference. That is why I enjoy this school so much, because although you may come from different backgrounds, you can still come together as a family and learn,” says John.

The Second Sudanese War, which lasted from 1983 until 2005, was a struggle between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The civil war started after President Nimeiri’s decision to incorporate punishments from Islamic religious law into the penal code of Sudan. Many of the Southerners in Sudan and non-Muslims living in North Sudan faced violence because of these changes, and the problem was not able to be reconciled after many ultimatums and agreements by the Sadiq al-Mahdi government.

Lost Boys of Sudan was the name given to almost over 20,000 men who were forced to leave their homes in Sudan and find shelter in surrounding countries, such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. About only 10,000 boys survived the long walk they endured trying to find safety, many dying from disease and hunger. The boys were able to stay in Ethiopia until communists overthrew the Ethiopian government and forced them out at gunpoint. Many of the boys had to pass the River Gilo in Southwestern Ethiopia, where many of the boys drowned or were eaten by crocodiles. The boys were fortunately able to find refuge in Kakuma, Kenya, where many of the Lost Boys of Sudan resettled, including John Yak.

“So,” says sophomore Quinten Torres, asking the last question of the session, “What was the first T.V show you watched here in America?” The audience burst into laughter, and John chuckles to himself as well. “Well, I really like…do you guys know ‘Martin’? or ‘Big Mama’? I really love those shows,” John says, laughing, “Although, because of my daughters, I usually watch Peppa Pig.” All in all, the visit and speech from John Yak was a very inspiring and informative event, and many of the students in the 10th grade class will be continuing with their lessons and projects regarding genocides and war, such as the one in Sudan.