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Q&A: Shading tree education gave Lost Boy start in life


Q&A: Shading tree education gave Lost Boy start in life

John Dau is one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan. Dau, who spent years on the run and in refugee camps, was resettled in the United States in 2001. He tells how access to education transformed his life as a refugee.
19 October 2007 Also available in:
John Dau towers over American singing icon Tony Bennett, as Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Craig Johnstone (centre with black suit) and others look on.

SYDNEY, Australia, October 19 (UNHCR) - John Dau is one of the so-called Lost Boys of southern Sudan. His life on the run or in refugee camps in the 1980s and 1990s is recounted in the documentary "God Grew Tired of Us." The two-metres-tall Dau, an ethnic Dinka, was lucky; he was chosen to resettle in the United States in 2001 and has excelled in his studies. He has also been supporting UNHCR in fund-raising campaigns such as ninemillion and the Christmas Star Appeal, where he stresses the importance of education. In a telephone interview with Australia for UNHCR writer, Alison Gibbs, he explained earlier this year how access to education in north-west Kenya's Kakuma camp had transformed his life as a refugee. Excerpts:

When and where did you receive your first education?

It was 1989 in Ethiopia, in Panyido Camp. It was not a school, but I started to learn there. But it was not until 1992, in Kakuma, that I first went to a real school. I'm now at one of the best universities in the United States - Syracuse - but I believe that the education I acquired in Kakuma was far better, in many ways, than what I am getting now. Why? Because that was the opening of my eyes. I was like a blind person. You can imagine yourself as a blind person; you can't see anything and then someone comes and opens your eyes and you see the whole world. That's what it was like in my case.

At Kakuma, we started our schooling under a tree - there were no classrooms in the beginning. UNHCR was working hard to get them and to bring in teachers - Sudanese teachers. Each tree had a class. We'd start school at about 8.30 or 9.00 [in the morning] ... we'd go and sit in a circle under the tree and the teacher would stand inside the circle with a blackboard in one hand and write with chalk in the other hand.

We'd move around the tree, following the shade. We'd write with our fingers in the dirt. We'd move all the way around the tree with the shade and then later we'd go home and - with our reading companions - we'd sit down and talk to each other and do dictation and write our ABCs.

Did you have any writing materials?

Not in the beginning. We wrote with our fingers; we even did exams using our fingers. Later, UNHCR worked very hard to supply notebooks.... They would cut one exercise book into two and give half to me and half to another student. And it smelled so good! And they cut pencils into three so that we could have a piece each.

We used these books - you'd start English on one side and on the other side, you'd write your mathematics. And in the middle, your geography, history and civics. And then on the other side, you'd write science. And if we worked really hard, we could each have one whole exercise book.

What about school buildings?

First we were under a tree and then, after two years, UNHCR and other NGOs started constructing buildings ... they used local wood and mud and a grass roof. We were allowed to build our own benches out of mud. And then after another two years, they replaced these buildings with ones made out of what we call green brick. The roof was corrugated iron and that was really nice! And UNHCR got carpenters to build moveable benches - and they were great, really. These were really nice things that the UNHCR got for us.

For us, there was only one thing in that camp - school. There was often not enough food and sometimes no security, but there was education. And it meant everything.

How many children were attending school?

Maybe 13,000. There were lots of schools around the camp. One school would have maybe 1,000, so there were maybe 13 schools.... We worked so hard and we'd pick up anything we could find - reading materials, books. UNHCR or the teachers would buy us books and exercise books.

And we'd get really nervous, you know. Because when there wasn't enough food and people would say, "What can we do? Maybe we should take resources from the school and use it to buy food." Us students, we'd get really nervous about this - that they would take things away from the school.

The school was that important to you?

Yes, because we knew that when you go to school you can become a teacher, a doctor, a camp manager.

What you had was a vision of the future, this belief in what you could do.

Yes. Sometimes more, I think, than children in America. A lot of us were orphans. The only thing left was this education. We had no parents, no relatives, nothing but education. Education replaced your mother and father.

How can education replace your parents?

When you look at the African way, your mother and father are what you depend on for food, protection. When you have your mother you know you will eat. When you have your father you feel protected from harm, from humiliation. You are surrounded by this security. Then your mother and father are not there. Education becomes the way to get food back on your table. You get a job, security, control of your life.

How did you end up at Syracuse University?

That happened after I came to the United States. After one year, I decided to go to school [in New York state] and I started at the community college. I did my examinations - English and Mathematics - and I was accepted. I worked so hard, two jobs, and I did my associate degree at the community college.

I had really wanted to go to Syracuse, only it was too expensive. So I went to community college and, when I did really well, I received some scholarships. So long as I keep my grades high, I pay nothing.

Are you still studying now?

I took one semester off and it's likely that I will be taking another one because I am now engaged in a project to build a medical facility in Africa, in the place where I was born. We have a doctor and some nurses and I'm going to build maybe another five [clinics].

In America they have a saying, "strike while the iron's hot." I have this film and now many people know me, so the iron is hot and I want to use that to raise money. Already we have raised over US$500,000 to build these clinics. This is how I can help right now.

I only need 15 more credits - one more semester and I'll be done. So I have to strike while the iron is hot and then I'll go back to school.

What degree are you taking?

Public policy. Public policy is what I want to do because it directly helps the people. It's about seeing a problem in the community and coming up with the resolution. And that is what I like. I'm a resolution man!

How important is education for young refugees?

I think of education as being like a cup. If you don't have a cup, it's very difficult to drink water. Giving money to help can be like giving water when there's no cup to hold it and it can just run away. You have to provide education so that people can use the help to change their situation - to rebuild their community, change the world. It [education] is so important.