May 8, 2007
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Will walk at May 12 commencement
'Lost boy of Sudan' finds home at Slippery Rock University
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Gabriel Ajang walked 1,000 miles across Sudan to escape the hostility and violence of civil war. By age 9, he had already witnessed his parents being butchered and his village being uprooted by violence beyond belief - citizen against citizen.
"Even playful childhood life was cut off," said Ajang, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" who were forced from their homes in the 1980s due to ethnic conflict.
Ajang, 28, will take another walk Saturday - across the stage at Slippery Rock University -- to receive his degree in community health. He will graduate with a 3.3 grade-point average, 3.7 in his major.
"Both mental and physical scars remain as permanent marks and are unforgettable," he said of his ordeal, "but Slippery Rock University has prepared me to the point where I ask myself, 'What will I return to the community here and in southern Sudan?'"
The Lost Boys of Sudan are a group of refugees who walked across Sudan to Ethiopia to escape one of the worst civil wars in history. Ajang, who began the passage in 1987, said more than 30,000 boys and girls fled. Thousands died or were killed.
The group clung together and trekked through the sub-Saharan heat and wilderness, forced to fend for themselves to obtain basic needs such as water and safety.
"The walk was roughly two to three months," Ajang recalled. "We covered hundreds of miles and faced gunfire, lion and crocodile attacks and disease."
Ajang spent three years in Ethiopian refugee camps before being forced in 1991 to flee yet more gunfire. Chased by tanks and armed militia, "We frantically tried to cross the River Gilo between Sudan and Ethiopia, where thousands drowned, were eaten by crocodiles or shot," he said.
Those who survived the crossing, including Ajang, settled in a refugee camp in northern Kenya in 1992. "Some 10,000 survived this journey," he said. "The majority of us were between the ages of 8 and 18, and I was within that age range."
His parents and five siblings perished; two siblings survived.
In 1998, the U.S. government and the United Nations moved to give the lost boys refugee residency status in the U.S., he said. Ajang relocated to Pittsburgh in 2001 and enrolled at the Community College of Allegheny County.
Fluent in Dinka and knowing a little Arabic, he persevered with his studies and transferred to SRU in 2006. He lives in Kraus Hall, where he likes to listen to music and read the Bible in his native language, although he reads and speaks English as well.
"A year ago, when I decided to come to Slippery Rock, I was uncertain of how things would be but having friendly learning environment, small classes, friendly classmates and faculty members who care let me appreciate my decision to chose SRU," he said.
"He has lived the very essence of community health - learning of the absolute necessity for clean water, shelter and food during a disaster," said Wendy Stuhldreher, SRU professor of health and safety. "He has seen the ravages that result from lack of adequate public health - malaria, TB, AIDS, parasitic diseases and more. All of those maladies we study in international health, Gabriel has lived."
"Graduation marks the next stage of my journey," Ajang said. "It was not easy and it will never be easy to stay for days without food, or not knowing where one will be for the days to come. It is horrible to be separate from friends, relative and parents whether alive or dead. It was painful to see a relative and friend dying. Now I move on."
Ajang said he wants to attend graduate school, perhaps Arcadia University, and plans to work in health care. He puts it at 50/50 as to whether he'll return to the Sudan.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.