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'Lost Boy of Sudan' gives back to his country

​John Dau

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series profiling winners of the 2014 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented April 8 at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in Washington, D.C.

Few Americans can imagine spending their teenage years the way John Dau spent his.

At age 13, the Sudanese native and 27,000 fellow “Lost Boys of Sudan” were driven from their villages by the Arab government, which took up arms against the ethnic minority population in South Sudan. Dau spent the next five years leading groups of “Lost Boys” more than 1,000 miles to refugee camps in Kenya, where they faced dangers like rebel snipers, crocodiles and all manner of weather.

Only half finished the journey.

“None of us had taken anything as we fled. No food, no cooking pots. We ate almost nothing — wild roots, a pumpkin from a farmer’s field. At night the mosquitoes would torment us as we tried to sleep. Then, one day, a group of militia ambushed us,” Dau once wrote. “What horrified me most was the night. I was afraid of wild animals, leopards and hyenas, and it was very, very cold, about 40 [degrees Fahrenheit]. I had no clothes or covering to stay warm.”

A place to grow ideas

The six-foot-eight Dau spent most of his 20s in the refugee camp, where he got turned on to education, earning a Kenyan Certificate for Secondary Education in 2000. He probably couldn’t imagine what happened the next year, when Catholic Charities sponsored Dau and other Lost Boys to come to the U.S. and continue their education.

For the first time, he experienced electricity, indoor plumbing, plentiful food and plenty of culture shock while working two or three jobs and earning his associate degree in humanities from Onondaga Community College (OCC) in Syracuse, N.Y., in 2004. Dau later transferred to Syracuse University and received a bachelor’s in policy studies in 2011.

Dau describes OCC’s role in his life as being an incubator for his ideas and dreams.

“An incubator brings life to something: that’s what Onondaga Community College did for me,” he says. “When we came here, I started going to that school when I was about 18 months in the United States, and I did not know anything about the culture and the education system in the United States.”

For example, faculty and fellow students at OCC brought Dau and his fellow Lost Boys up to speed on American holidays, like Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas.

“Maybe some Americans would assume that everybody celebrates those,” he says. “There’s no Halloween in South Sudan. There’s no Christmas tree; there’s no Santa Claus. As we asked those questions, the teachers at Onondaga Community College told us, and even gave us a task to find out.”

Many extra miles

When it came to academics, professors were similarly patient.

“They changed my life to where I am today,” he says. “The teacher would put in the time for you to meet one-on-one, in their free time, even during let’s say a weekend. They would allocate those times when they could have done something with their families. … In America it is what it called ‘the extra mile,’ but that was many extra miles.”

Dau remembers learning about ethics in his philosophy classes, reading and writing in English, and how to type on a computer. OCC also taught Dau to integrate with a diverse population, one life lesson he had not experienced in the Sudanese refugee camps.

“It was my first time to be mixed with that many people,” he says. “That helps me today, to be able to work with other people who are not necessarily related to you, or from your tribe, or community or family.”

Mark Ende, now a professor emeritus of English, left a particular “mark on my mind,” Dau says. When he made a mistake in class, Ende did not simply say, “Oh no, that’s wrong,” he says. “He would walk you through it: ‘Here’s a better way to do it.’ He took a really long time to help us — not just South Sudanese, but other students. He had this strong patience.”

Ende clearly taught because he wanted to help young people succeed, Dau says.

“He came, sat at the table, talked to you very nicely and motivated you, even for those who were very shy, and bring something out of you,” he says. “He lured you out of your shell by asking soft questions, by helping us, by touching you when you are struggling to make a point.”

Dau also remembers a professor of public speaking who taught him the nitty-gritty, although the overall art came relatively naturally to him; and another professor who taught philosophy of religion, a tough grader but one who taught that “there was no right answer,” he says. “The better you argued your position, the better mark you’re going to get. I liked the debate. It helped me understand who God is.”

Recently departed President Debbie Sydow recalls that while a student, Dau served on a forum about the international student experience and helped with fund raising and legislative lobbying.

“His message was always, ultimately, about gratitude,” she says. “He, in almost every presentation, talked about how his life was saved by coming to this country and having the good fortune to be educated in this country. That’s what I’ve always found so powerful about John’s message: It’s not a story about horrific circumstances, and it’s not even a story about overcoming adversity. It’s a story about gratitude, and that’s what people find so compelling about him.”

Making a difference

The experiences of Dau and two other Sudanese refugees were captured in the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” which received a 2006 Sundance Film Festival Award. Participating in that film and talking about his past deepened the gratefulness Dau felt for the help he had received along the way, and he has since co-founded four nonprofits aimed to bring peace and hope to Sudan.

Dau serves as president of both the John Dau Foundation and the South Sudan Institute, as well as a board member of Angelina Jolie’s organization, Kids in Need of Defense; and he has led the former organization in raising $3 million to construct and operate the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, located in Duk Payuel, Dau’s home village, which serves many children who have never seen a doctor. Dau visits Sudan annually and raises additional money to build clinics, schools and churches.

In addition to running his foundation, Dau travels throughout the United States, Canada and Europe as a motivational speaker.

“I talk about Onondaga whenever I speak and travel around the world,” Dau says. “I thought it would be another way to spread the word about this great community college. I’m going to continue to run this organization, the John Dau Foundation. This is the big heart of America. I tell my people: ‘To see the greatness of the United States, I will continue to run this medical clinic for our people.’”