After barely surviving war-torn South Sudan as a boy, John Bul Dau retold his story Thursday as the second speaker for the spring semester’s University Lecture Series.
Dau relived his leadership role under do-or-die circumstances to more than a hundred attendees who sat silent in their chairs in MSC 2708.
“I am going to talk to you tonight about something you might have read in a book, or seen in a documentary or researched,” Dau said. “I would like to increase your knowledge about South Sudan in order for me to talk to you about what is called leadership.”
Dau was separated from his family as a young boy during an attack on his village. For the next 15 years, he didn’t know whether they were alive or dead.
“When soldiers came, they shoot, burn down houses, loot our cows, abduct young girls, rape women, killing young men, it was total destruction,” Dau said. “Everything was in flames. This is when I was uprooted from my family.”
For three days he ate nothing. The first food they consumed were the large roots of some plant.
His first experience in leadership occurred by chance, as he helped lead a group of boys away from the Northern Sudanese forces attempting to exterminate them. As the youngest child of three, he never expected to take on such a role.
“Are (leaders) born, or are leaders something you go to school for and be trained?” Dau said. “Do you teach a lecture about leaders so automatically you became a leader?”
Dau said his life story is intertwined in his personal experience in the U.S. and South Sudan. He said he would not be the leader he is today if he had never left South Sudan.
“You see, in America, you go one day without food and you say you’re going to die,”
Dau said. “Every night, very cold … there was no blanket, no food at all. We only live on wild fruits like birds, chewing grass like cows so we stay alive.”
Conditions were exceedingly hostile as forces spread throughout South Sudan, looking to exterminate those trying to flee to Ethiopia and other surrounding countries.
The boys usually the traveled by night and walked through deep brush where they were less likely to be detected by northern troops.
To find water, they would listen to the direction of croaking frogs or watch for circling birds. Dau said this meant either something was dead, or water was nearby.
“People were crying, others didn’t want to
go, they say they’re going to die there,” Dau said. “(They) start drinking human urine to
stay alive. That didn’t work either.”
The boys converged with other evacuees at an Ethiopian refugee camp in Kakuma where Dau was tasked with caring for as many as 200 boys, from ages 5 to 18.
“They want to eat food, drink milk, see their mom,” Dau said. “We lie to them: tomorrow it will be OK. Today is bad, (but) tomorrow will be OK.”
Conditions in Ethiopia were difficult. Typhoid, measles, chicken pox and cholera were killing boys every day.
“I remember in my group two or three boys died every single day,” he said. “If we come back the next day to bury some more bodies, we find the buried bodies from the previous day eaten by wild animals … but we didn’t give up.”
Dau and the boys stayed in Ethiopia for four years before Ethiopian rebels based in northern Sudan overthrew the Ethiopian government. They were forced to return to the country that had originally forced them into exile.
After nine months, Dau fled from South Sudan for the second time, and arrived in Kenya.
“Coming to Kenya was good, it was very good news because the Kenyan government would not allow Sudanese troops to cross into their territories,” Dau said.
At 17, Dau glimpsed his first chance to acquire an education.
“Our school was under the trees, sitting on the dirt, using your fingers as a pencil to write,” he said. “When there is rain, there is no school. We work hard to learn. We force ourselves to learn.”
At the age of 25, U.S. aid workers arrived in Kenya to offer help to the boys.
“We were told Americans are here, they will take you to United States of America,” Dau said. “That was my first time to see Americans, very tall guy with long noses and they speak as if they’re speaking through their noses.”
In 2000, the aid workers evaluated Dau. He passed a variety of tests to confirm that he was going to America.
“My friend Daniel was giving us warning, ‘If you go to America, be very careful. American girls crazy,’” Dau said. “And he said how crazy they are is that he said every single girl in the United States carry small bags … do you know what is in those bags? I said, ‘No.’ He said they have guns. So you mess up with American girl, they’ll shoot you.”
Dau arrived in New York and learned the basics of American living — how to turn on lights, control water temperature and how to buy groceries. Dau said he thought automatic sliding doors were magic, and he was surprised to find aisles dedicated exclusively to cats and dogs.
Dau worked at McDonald’s, UPS, as a security guard, and said he rarely slept. He enrolled at Onondago Community College to get his associate’s degree and then transferred to Syracuse University where he received his bachelor’s.
“I said you know what, what am I doing here really?” Dau said. “I must give back. And this is when I started doing my work, starting with the Lost Boy Foundation.”
He raised about $5,000 for the Lost Boys living in Syracuse, and later formed the American Care for Sudan foundation that raised around $185,000. He then formed the John Dau Foundation, which has raised over $2 million to build hospitals.
Dau has since developed the South Sudan Institute, and written two books entitled “God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir” and “Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan.”
As the youngest of three boys, Dau said he would have never been forced into a position of leadership had he lived peacefully in Sudan. Being separated from his family is part of the hardship that transformed him into a leader.
“The situation separated me from my family and put me in that position as a leader,” he said. “The situation of coming to school has taken you away from your mom and dad. Why is that? Putting you into this school is to find how you can manage yourself and manage others. That’s how leadership comes about. Leadership comes about when you are no longer in your cozy, very small box.”
“I think each of you are leaders in your own right. Leaders are not born. They come because of the situation.”