Yesterday, at midnight, the world welcomed its newest country with shouts of joy and relief, The Republic of South Sudan. After years of genocide, persecution and brutal fighting, the people of southern Sudan can breath a sigh of relief. The road to rise out of the dusts of conflict will be grueling but a renewed sense of hope rings in the country so ravished by war. Kenya shares a border with Southern Sudan and took in thousands of Sudanese refugees who fled the genocide and war that engulfed their home land over the last three decades. But more importantly, I have befriended two refugees from South Sudan who live in Kenya and attend school at Our Lady of Grace. I have been blessed to grow especially close with one of the students, a tall slender young man with the pronounced cheek bones and ebony skin so unique to the people of Sudan. In typical Tommy fashion, I forgot his name after the first time I met him. I had to point him out from a distance and ask a staff member what his name was, the staff member squinted and said, "wait the black one? well I mean we are all African but he is black! He is from Sudan you can tell by just looking at him." He did not say it in a derogatory manner but rather with a tone of respect. He sticks out from the rest of the students as he walks around the school, ducking in every door way to avoid hitting his head. At first, he was that tall guy from the Sudan who bounced around, a head taller than the rest, with a smile plastered to his face. But as I grew to get to know him better, I came to deeply respect him and his people, who have survived and persevered years of conflict. About a week ago while walking around the upper school after Mass just talking and joking around, he began to tell me his story.
He was born in southern Sudan, the youngest of six boys. Like the majority of people in Sudan, neither of his parents could read or write and only two of his brothers were educated. As the youngest in the family his brothers made it a point to ensure that he receive a good education. It quickly became evident that he would not be able to fulfill his aspirations if he stayed in Sudan. His schooling was touch and go. He would have classes for a short period of time until war would inevitably erupt and literally interrupt his classes and force him to wait for a more peaceful time. While speaking about his early years of school he shakes his head and says, "I just wish I started earlier, but eh thats how it is." He is old for a senior in high school but by no fault of his own. Two of his brothers were able to escape from Sudan as refugees. One made his way to the United States, where he still lives and received and education and the other now lives in Nairobi and attends university there. His brother who lives in the U.S supports his family and travels back and forth between the U.S and Sudan frequently to built schools in South Sudan. With the help of his two older brothers, my friend was able to leave Sudan and get to a refugee camp in Kenya. He eventually made his way to his brother in Nairobi and began his education again. He arrived at Our Lady of Grace four years ago and is now preparing for his national exams in hopes of scoring well enough to qualify for the Kenyan government to pay for his education. He is an extremely bright and driven student. He struggles with swahili because, unlike all the other students at the school, he did not have to speak it growing up but he excels in math and science. He placed ninth over all out of over a hundred students at a math competition.
In the days leading up to the independence of Southern Sudan, his emotions ranged from excited and relieved to worried and nervous. He told me that there has been so much persecution and violence that he cannot even explain it. He enjoys talking about his family and how blessed he is to be here but anytime Northern Sudan comes up in conversation he shakes his head, looks away and softly says, "its too hard, I cannot talk about it."
His mood changed a bit over the weekend. Yesterday his nervous anticipation and excitement was palpable. At Mass the Priest offered a prayer for Sudan and congratulated him and the other student from Southern Sudan for the independence of their new nation and the liberation of their people. I do not think that everything sunk in right away. He was visibly happy all day but always seemed a bit nervous when he would ask me for updates on how his new country was doing. But this morning at Mass when I slid in the small spot on the bench next to him, he leaned over to me and in a loud whisper said, "my country has its independence!" I cannot imagine how he feels, years of violence and finally he has hope.
The violence at the border of Sudan and The Republic of Southern Sudan will continue but the hope and desire for peace rings louder than ever. I can see in the eyes of the Southern Sudanese hope and a deep desire to make their new nation great. The birth of a nation is a beautiful spectacle and always shines brightest on the faces of those who have suffered with her.