In 1989, when
government troops attacked my village in southern Sudan, my
peaceful world fell apart. As a boy of 7 I ran barefoot and
naked into the night and joined up with streams of other boys
trying to escape death or slavery. We crossed a thousand miles
of war-ravaged country without hope of sanctuary. Bullets
replaced food, medicine, shelter and my loving parents. I lived
on wild vegetables, ate mud from Mother Earth and drank urine
from my own body.
We walked for
five years, occasionally finding shelter at a refugee camp, only
to have to leave again when it was attacked by Sudanese
soldiers. Finally we made it to a camp in Kenya, where I lived
for nearly a decade on a half cup of cornmeal a day and went to
school. After several interviews with workers from the Office of
the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I was chosen,
along with a few thousand other "lost boys," to go to the United
When I arrived
here four years ago, I found that the skills I'd learned in
order to survive in Sudan were useless. I knew how to catch a
rabbit, challenge a hyena or climb a coconut palm, but I had
never turned on a light, used a telephone or driven a car.
International Rescue Committee provided us with classes and
mentors to teach us basics about computers, job interviews and
Western social customs. Within a month I understood how to work
most modern conveniences and started my first job as a courtesy
clerk and stocker at a Ralph's grocery store in San Diego.
Things like mangoes, chard and yams were familiar, but when
customers asked about Cheerios, mayonnaise or Ajax, it was as
though my years of learning English in the refugee camp were
became acquainted with most things in a modern grocery store,
but I still faced a much greater challenge. I'd lived with war,
but I still needed to learn to live with peace. At work people
joked around and although they made attempts to be friendly, I
couldn't understand or connect with much of what they said. It
often felt as if their jokes were about me. When one woman said,
"Al, you are hot!" I didn't know what it meant and assumed it
wasn't good. I began to dread going to work, school or anywhere.
Always the outsider who was ready to fight, I existed in a cloud
of anger and depression.
It would take
two more years for me to understand that these difficulties had
little to do with language and cultural differences, and more
with being caught up in conflict as a young boy. I could not
forget the sound of guns or the cries of women and children
dropping next to me like leaves shaken off a tree in a storm.
For so many years, the smell and taste of death had spread
within me like poison.
I felt like I
was dead when people around me laughed, and their smiles only
made me feel more isolated and unhappy. I carried a weight as
heavy as the earth. Anger boiled inside me and made me wonder if
I was losing my mind. Sanity could not exist as long as I held
onto the desire for vengeance against those who had taken my
childhood. Trapped by my mental confusion, I blamed myself for
what I was feeling, and lashed out at everyone around me.
Now I realize
that the gigantic void created within me when I was young wasn't
my fault. There was nothing I could have done. The emotions I
held onto for so long only kept me from interacting with my new
countrymen. I could not reach out in a friendly way or through
humor because I lived in a fog of rage.
making friends and adapting to my new country. When my friend
Adam took me to a football game, the sound and smell of the
halftime fireworks brought back bad memories and made me dizzy,
but he understood and I managed to stay for the whole game. I
drive a car, work as a medical-records clerk at Kaiser Hospital,
attend college and even have a cell phone--a convenience I
deeply appreciate. There was no way to call 911 years ago on
that terrible walk.
I can't identify
an exact turning point in my emotions, and I'm still struggling.
However, I've found that speaking about my experiences at
schools and community organizations and writing my memoir have
helped. Sharing my feelings has lessened the burning inside me.
I do worry that
when the American soldiers return from Iraq, even without
cultural differences to deal with, they, too, will find that
happiness in others can feel insensitive. At a time when they
need it most, they may find it difficult to reconnect
emotionally with their families and friends. Writer Jose Narosky
said, "In war, there are no unwounded soldiers." I would add
that there are no women, children or animals who escape
Still, I know it
is possible to move on. For all those years I lived with revenge
on my mind. Now I'm a man with the seeds of love, dignity and
hope in his heart.