Giving Back to Sudan, from San Diego – An Interview with Wai John Wai

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.

* * *

An Interview with Wai John Wai

Born:  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.”

Read more of this post