History is in danger of repeating itself in the African nation of South Sudan, where a generation ago a lengthy civil war killed an estimated 2.5 million people and displaced millions more.
In 1987, 12-year-old John Dau and other young boys fled violence in Sudan and began walking across Africa, separated from their families, seeking shelter and safety.
They became the Sudanese “Lost Boys,” 3,800 children who eventually were resettled in America.
“You couldn’t tell if you were going to survive that day,” John said, noting that many boys died from disease, malnutrition or animal attacks. “We went through that for 15 years.”
John settled in Syracuse, NY, in 2001, and said he had three options: Try to recover his lost childhood . . . Be bitter and ask God, “Where are you?” . . . or “Take it from where I am, and move on.”
John chose to move on. He’s now at the forefront of relief efforts in South Sudan, a sovereign nation formed when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
The John Dau Foundation arose from the connections he made with First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles, NY. The foundation built a medical clinic and hospital in South Sudan in 2007, thanks to what John called the “big American hearts” who have donated money and provided medical care.
“We’re able to deliver life-saving medical treatment,” John said in an interview. “The generous American people have given us a platform to be able to heal. . . . It’s no longer hopeless.”
John spoke recently at a gathering in Syracuse’s ArtRage gallery, where the current exhibit, “Impressions: South Sudan,” showcases photographs by Syracuse photojournalists Michelle Gabel and Bruce Strong, who made separate trips there in 2009.
John’s talk followed a showing of the documentary, “Duk County: Peace is in Sight in the New South Sudan,” filmed in 2011. It is an incredibly powerful 40 minutes, and the story it tells is as inspiring as it is gut-wrenching.
The film follows a visiting medical team from the United States that performed eye surgeries on hundreds of South Sudanese. The volunteers restored the sight of children, adults and elderly alike.
The documentary’s portrayal of gratitude and joy amid extremely harsh conditions is powerful. The team returned in 2012 and restored eyesight to another 600 people.
But violence has returned to South Sudan.
In late 2013, the John Dau Foundation’s clinic was forced to move nine miles away after rebel fighters looted all of its supplies. The buildings still stand, but are empty.
Bloody conflict has intensified in recent months, including the rape and murder of women and children, according to media reports. Animosity between the leaders of two powerful tribes sparked the renewed violence.
The clinic continues to treat people — more than 130,000 thus far, John said. Trained staff provide maternal health care, nutrition screenings, vaccinations, infectious disease treatment and many other medical services.
And, John told the gallery audience, it doesn’t turn anyone away.
“Those who destroyed the clinic, their children, the women and elders, their families can get care,” he said.
Treating and healing all people regardless of what tribe they come from, John hopes, will help bring peace. “We’re helping them. That’s what the Lord would want us to do.”
Living in America for more than 13 years has shown John that people can live in peace. When Americans get together, he said, they talk about movies, travel, their jobs. “When South Sudanese people get together,” John said, “they talk about war and losses — who lost who, and how many people you’ve lost.”
He hopes the fighting stops and peace returns. In the meantime, the John Dau Foundation has work to do in South Sudan.
“What we do is help people who need help the most,” said Executive Director Daniel Pisegna. “We can help people in so many ways.”