[by Jessica Goldstein and Phyllis Shaikun]
A number of you probably read the recent story in the Courier-Journal about Gabriel Kwai, one of the “Lost Boys” of Southern Sudan, who found a home for himself and his family in Louisville thanks in large measure to the support they received from Congregation Adath Jeshurun. Kwai, who was recently reunited with his wife, Alek, and their 19-month-old daughter, Agotich, whom he had not seen until their tearful meeting at the airport last month, spoke at the synagogue during Leyl Rosh Hashanah services on Wednesday, September 8, to thank the clergy and the membership for their generosity over the past year.
He told the congregation, “My life has been changed forever, and I lack the words to express the deep gratitude in my heart.”
Adath Jeshurun member Paula Cohn was instrumental in arranging for Kwai and several of his friends to perform at last year’s selichot service. Kwai told his life story and Rabbi Slosberg was moved by hearing his experiences. When Kwai mentioned he was saving money to bring his wife and daughter to Louisville from Khartoum, where they had been living, the rabbi determined to make that happen before Rosh Hashanah 5771. The clergy and members of the congregation opened their hearts and their pocketbooks and raised more than $6,000 to cover expenses to reunite the family.
Kwai’s story is one of remarkable courage and resolve.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa, located just south of Egypt. Its population is mostly Christian. Since 1956, when Sudan won independence from Great Britain, it has suffered three wars. The longest, a civil war between the country’s Arab/Muslim North and the Sub-Saharan African/Christian South, raged for 21 years. By its end in 2005, 2.5 million people had died and created another four million refugees. The most recent war, which has been ongoing in Darfur since 2003, has already claimed 400,000 lives.
The 31-year-old Kwai was the youngest of his father’s 19 children by eight wives. His father was the mayor of their town, Bor, and life was good for him and his siblings. In 1983, oil was discovered in the south and the country’s Muslim president tried to turn the nation into an Islamic state. The southerners opposed the plan, and when war broke out, Kwai’s parents remained in Bor while he, his siblings and his stepmothers moved to the countryside and learned how to farm and tend livestock to support themselves.
His father was killed by forces from the north in 1986. Shortly thereafter, the village Kwai was living in was attacked and, not knowing what else to do, he joined other young boys who were running for their lives.
The group swelled in size as they met up with thousands of other children in similar straits and walked as a group to Ethiopia (roughly the distance from Kentucky to Michigan). In all, up to 30,000 Sudanese boys made this perilous journey – his group numbered 1,200. He had no idea where he was going, he just followed the crowd.
They walked at night since it was cooler and ate and drank whatever they could find – leaves, dead animals, dirty water – or they had no food at all. The walk to Ethiopia took six weeks.
Once there, the children settled in a refugee camp, where they lived in grass huts they built themselves. Every morning they would gather leaves and cook them in tin cans. He saw “unforgettable tragedy” there – 10 to 20 children died every day. That went on for four years until the Ethiopian government forced them to return to Sudan.
As they prepared to cross the Gilo River, which lies close to the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, their group was attacked by the Ethiopian and Sudanese armies. The children jumped into the river to escape their attackers and some drowned while others were shot trying to flee. At the end of the day, 5,000 had died.
Kwai survived, and he and the others who were left walked for two days until they reached a small town in the south.
Four months later, the Red Cross warned them of an impending attack and suggested they should leave. This time, they walked for four months until they reached the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where he spent the next nine years.
“You might question why a government would attack thousands of helpless children,” he said. “It was because they were afraid we would do what I am doing right now, which is raising awareness of what is happening there. Those in the north used to say that people in the south were illiterate and incapable of ruling themselves, but we now we are telling the world we are capable of surviving their attacks and speaking out for our people.”
Fourteen years after they ran from their homes, half of the “lost boys” were granted asylum in Australia, Canada and the United States. With the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Kwai came to Louisville in 2001 and was welcomed “with open arms.” But he has never forgotten his early struggles. As a survivor of the Second Civil War, he and the others feel it is their duty to stand up and speak out for the defenseless population in Darfur. “I believe,” he says, “that education is the most powerful force to help bring an end to these atrocities.”
His has been a difficult journey: Kwai lost his father, four of his stepmothers, eight of his siblings and his homeland, but he survived and his life is now a good one. He became a U.S. citizen in 2006 and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems and finance from Murray State University in 2007. He recently began a career at Republic Bank, where he has advised his co-workers: Never give up hope; never give up working; and learn to give back.
Kwai is doing just that by serving as treasurer of The Sudanese Refugee Education Fund, which helped pay for his college education. The nonprofit scholarship organization has raised more than $100,000 to put refugees through college and, since 2005, Lost Boys have collectively earned more than 30 associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
While in college, Kwai also established the Women’s Educational Empowerment Project or WEEP for Southern Sudan, which has so far raised $21,000 and sent 10 girls to boarding high school for four years. Republic Bank has supported both of those organizations.
Meanwhile, Adath Jeshurun continues to maintain a close relationship with Kwai and his family. Agotich attends the AJ preschool two days a week and is beginning to learn English. Alek is becoming more proficient in the language as well. Members have been contributing gift cards for the family to help them set-up their apartment and offers of household goods and children’s items are coming into the synagogue office on a daily basis.
If you would like to help the Kwai family, you may call Adath Jeshurun at 458-5359.