Giving Back to Sudan, from San Diego – An Interview with Wai John Wai
March 4, 2014 2 Comments
We learned how to jump into bunkers by about age five. We were taught to distinguish the sound of a normal airplane coming to land and the sound of the bombers.
– Wai John Wai
April 2014 Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month:
Remembering the Past toward Healing our Future
A six event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children
Living Ubuntu, in collaboration with Amnesty International – Irvine and six local academic institutions, presents a six-event commemorative film series featuring the stories of survivors and their children. April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, and each film commemorates a genocide that started during April. Living Ubuntu provides education about global traumas as part of its mission to heal trauma in order to promote peace. All films are free and open to the public. On Thursday, April 17, the film series will include an event about the Sudan genocide.
Below is an interview with Wai John Wai, a first generation survivor from South Sudan.
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An Interview with Wai John WaiBorn: Bor, South Sudan (Jonglei State) Age: 29 Occupation: Elementary School Teacher’s Aide, Director and Founding Member, Sudanese-American Youth Center (San Diego, CA). Graduate of Concordia University-BA in History Major: Acquiring Masters degree in Health Informatics
Q: What year did you come to the U.S. and how?
A: 1995. My older brother Simon came here first by himself a year before. Later I came with my aunt and cousins.
Q: Do you have any other relatives still in South Sudan?
A: Yes, my mother is still there, my sisters and about 12 nieces and nephews. My father died of natural causes way before I was born.
Q: Are any other siblings besides your brother in the U.S.?
A: I have five siblings. Just Simon and I are in the U.S. I am the youngest.
Q: What kind of memories do you have of your childhood in South Sudan (both good and bad)?
A: We left around 1990. I was very young. I remember the journey we took. I can’t remember exactly how long it was, but it was a looong journey… many months. We left by cars and were told we couldn’t drive with lights at night because we could easily be spotted. We had to zigzag around the rebel held towns and government held towns all the way to the Kenyan border. We went to meet up with my brother there. At first we were just in the border area for a number of years, not in a camp (refugee). Then later we went to a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. We didn’t stay long after that. I moved to Nairobi with my aunt and cousins for maybe a year then came to the U.S.
Q: How did your brother manage to get everywhere first, by himself?
A: He was working with the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I believe it was World Vision; they were delivering aid to the refugees.
Q: Do you have any special happy memories that stand out in your head?
A: Hmmm I’m trying to think. My friends and I used to love swimming in the Nile, during the rainy season. We used to just play in the water a lot. And eating mangos.. I used to love eating mangos in South Sudan.
Q: Why did you end up coming the U.S. to join your brother and not your other siblings or mother?
A: We ended up being separated in a border town. Some people went toward Kenya, some went toward Uganda. Also my mother just didn’t want to come here. She actually declined three times. She didn’t want to come start all over since she doesn’t speak English.
Q: What was the political climate like in South Sudan when you left?
A: That was when the civil war really intensified, during that time. The current Sudan president (Omar al-Bashir) had just come into power. He came with a new ideology to win the war (Second Sudanese Civil War), and that was to encourage the mujahideen (Muslim guerilla fighters) to fight, so the war was intensifying. A lot of people were displaced during that time.
Q: Did you leave before soldiers in your area were attacking people in their own homes?
A: Yes we left early on, maybe a couple of years before. But the town that we lived in by the border was bombed almost every day. It was called Kapoeta. We were living there, and the capital city of the South, which is called Juba now, was the only stronghold left under government control. They would protect it with the air force and all their arsenals. So sometimes they would send the air force to go bomb all the cities in the south from Juba. Kapoeta was one of the cities that was getting bombed almost every day. We learned how to jump into bunkers by about age five. We were taught to distinguish the sound of a normal airplane coming to land and the sound of the bombers. The high and low altitudes have distinct sounds. We used to say “That’s a higher altitude. That’s a bomber. Let’s go to the bunkers.”
Q: When you came to the U.S. what was the most difficult part of adjusting to life here?
A: Well, we wanted to come here so badly because of all the good things we heard: “the land of the free, and that we would have access to this and access to that.” I would say the most difficult part was the language. It took forever to be able to communicate, especially for the older folks. Sometimes we had to serve as interpreters for the elders. Culture shock was big.
Q: Did you come directly to San Diego, and did you start attending school right away?
A: Yes and yes. About two weeks after we arrived I registered for school. I knew a little bit of English, but no one understood my accent. That took a few months.
Q: How did feel you were treated by the teachers and your fellow classmates?
A: I used to love my ESL (English as a second language) teacher. I’ve actually been trying to find her. I actually wrote a lot about my first experience in American schools. She used to make us sing and encourage us to not be shy. She taught us a lot. We would start the class with music, and once everyone got comfortable, no one would be afraid to talk or ask questions. That was the confidence she was giving us: “If you can sing then talking should be easy.”
Looking back we basically had an international class. We had students from Vietnam, Laos, Mexico, Africa.. all over the world. We were all trying to learn English. I became friends with a lot of my classmates.
Q: How did your brother support you?
A: Working for financial institutions (banks).
Q: Did he go to school for that back home or here?
A: I would say both.
Q: Before the current conflict began, was your family happy about South Sudan gaining independence?
A: Yes, really happy. They were happy they were able to move back and start building. They moved back (from Uganda and Kenya) shortly after the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed. I went to visit them in Kakuma in 2006, and I told them not to move back yet. I said “Stay behind a little bit. Let’s see how things work out.” The Sudan government forces were still in the south. I said to wait until the forces were completely evacuated, but they refused. They went and settled down in their hometown of Bor around 2006 or 2007.
Q: Are they still there?
A: The recent violence forced them to flee back to the refugee camps. Some are internally displaced. Some are in camps in Uganda. I had to let people go rescue my mother in the last three weeks. She was hiding by the River Nile for almost 30 days. She couldn’t move anywhere, just depend on what she could find to eat.. fish in the river or fruits and vegetables growing out there. Thank God she was fine so she was evacuated to the capital city and then to Uganda. She got caught between the rebel forces that took over the town and the government forces that were sent in. She was caught in the middle. She went to the river to hide in the swamp. There was a fight going on right there for almost a month. My sister left her family to go look for her and found her.
Q: So all of your family that was in South Sudan has now been evacuated to other places?
Q: Why did you choose your major?
A: I was a history major. I just want to know why do certain things happen. I want to learn about the past, especially the history of humans, and nations, people in general. It has a lot to do with my experience. The more I know about the past, the better decisions I’ll make in the present.
Q: Why did you not become a teacher or professor?
A: I did a lot of observation hours to become a teacher at Concordia, but changed my mind in my last year. I like working with the kids. But am working on my masters in health informatics. I had a dream of going back home and working to improve the health care system over there. I feel that health technology can really help our people. I realized through my classes that it can help improve the population’s health. There are major tropical diseases that are affecting the people in South Sudan. To eradicate those diseases there needs to be strong surveillance and intervention. If you can establish a technology like ‘tele-health’ to collect accurate data, that data can be used to improve the health of the people.
Q: What do you feel needs to be done to solve the current situation in South Sudan, both internally and internationally?
A: Internally, I feel that there is a pending famine. The more the war drags on, the more people will be displaced. There are now about one million people who are displaced. All these people will be facing starvation in the coming months because they all left with nothing, just what they had on their backs. The international community needs to look out for those people.
In terms of a political solution, that is a tough one, really, really tough. Maybe the ‘Bush approach’ might be the best. When the South Sudanese and Sudanese signed the peace agreement, they were told whoever is not agreeing or negotiating in good faith will be held accountable. So the international community needs to apply more pressure to both sides. Whoever is not negotiating in good faith or committing a crime against humanity will be held accountable. Each party needs to behave accordingly. Right now there are people being killed in their houses, hospitals, in the churches. I feel that if the major international players don’t have their feet on the ground then nothing will be enforced. Those in the security council need to be on the same page when it comes to solving the problems. Most of the time they seem to protect their economic or political interests in the region, and always let the perpetrators get away. This conflict also has a little bit of ethnic undertone. The more rapidly they respond, the quicker this escalation can be stopped. If they drag their feet, it can quickly become worse. I would say it could be even worse than Rwanda if a rapid response is not put into play.
Q: How did you become involved in the Sudanese-American Youth Center In San Diego? What did you want to accomplish by doing so?
A: It started with a group of people – Isaac, Clement Mojus and a few others in May of 2009. The majority of the founders left and went back to South Sudan. I joined in September or October of that year. The president was a man named ‘Mayor’. He’s now in Juba. We wanted to help out young people. A lot of them fall into the cracks, especially in the neighborhood most of the kids live in. The majority of them are born here or brought when they were two or three years old. We want to teach them Sudanese history, values and culture, to be an anchor for them.
Q: Do you think any of your family members would be interested in coming to the U.S. now?
A: They might be now if the opportunity arises. My main concern is the young ones. They were in school, but now they are not. How are we going to cut down on illiteracy if the war continues. The majority of the population is illiterate. I would say because of war, not because they don’t want to go to school. Access to education is always inhibited by war in South Sudan. I never went to school there. I don’t think there was school. The whole region was a war zone. I started school in Kenya, and only went for about two years before moving to U.S.
Q: Growing up, did you ever feel you had a different perspective on life than others born and raised here:
A: Of course. Being from where I’m from, it always accompanies you- the memories, the history. Growing up, someone would always say, “You don’t behave like one of these kids. You act a lot more mature.” I would say, “Yeah, when i was growing up we didn’t used to just ‘play’ because while ‘playing’ you could run into something that might kill you. Other kids would run and jump and be silly. I would sit down and listen to the elders. I asked questions a lot. I had a lot of curiosity about here(the U.S.). I used to play basketball. I would always want to ride in a car with someone who would answer all my questions. I would find someone who liked to talk a lot and ask them questions about every single thing that I would see, every street sign, highway, etc.
Alicia Buly works in San Diego County and volunteers for Living Ubuntu