Gabriel, a handsome middle-aged man with a brilliant smile, addresses the audience in a deep, rich voice. He is speaking English with an accent that hints at his African upbringing. Like most successful businessmen, he has an impressive academic and work resume that includes college degrees and great accomplishments. Currently, Gabriel’s business card identifies him as CEO of the Hope for Ariang Foundation, an organization that provides access to education in South Sudan. Under his leadership, Hope for Ariang has built schools, trained teachers, dug wells, and empowered women in his childhood village of Ariang, South Sudan. It seems as if this lecture will be a well-intentioned attempt at inspiring me to donate money to a cause in a country that I can’t even find on a map.
Then, Gabriel begins to share his story of self, a story about a ten-year old boy living in a bucolic village in southern Sudan in 1987. In a cashless society where one’s wealth is measured in cattle, young Gabriel is honored to be asked to spend the day watching his family’s cattle herd, his family’s entire net worth. As he proudly tends to the cows, he can see his village in the distance and he thinks about all of the people in his life: his respected father, his wise mother, his many siblings, and the kind neighbors who share parenting of each other’s children.
At that moment, his life is shattered by a sound he does not know: gunfire from Murahileen militiamen, involved in a Sudanese civil war. Initially, he fears that the gunmen were trying to steal his herd but he soon realizes that his village is erupting into flames; this is much more than cattle theft. Instinctively, he hides in the long grass, lying there for hours until he believes the militiamen are gone. Finally, he stands up and runs back towards his burning village in search of his family. On the way, a fleeing neighbor grabs Gabriel and throws him onto his shoulders as he runs away from the village. Instantly, Gabriel hears gunfire again and the man below him collapses. Gabriel rolls into the dirt covered in the blood of the dying neighbor who had tried to save him. Again, Gabriel’s instincts protect him as he decides to hold very still had play dead. A militiaman pokes Gabriel with the butt but decides he is dead because he holds so still and his covered in his neighbor’s blood.
After night fall, Gabriel climbs into a high tree and hides there for more than a day. Eventually, refugees from a different village take solace under his tree. Hidden above, he listens to their conversations about gunmen burning their villages and slaughtering their families. Finally, Gabriel begins to weep. In Africa there is a belief that your child is my child so the refugees below welcome Gabriel into their traveling band and they begin a journey of terror that includes walking barefoot for 1,500 miles and swimming across the Nile River to get to a refugee camp. Members of this group would be eaten by lions and crocodiles and die of illness and starvation before reaching the camps where Gabriel would spend the next ten years of his life.
Oddly, Gabriel’s childhood spent in refugee camps is not a story of hate, but a story of hope and strength. Gabriel remembers listening closely to the wise elders in his family when he was a small child. They told him that “You can move Mount Kiliminjaro through hope.” As one of the many orphans now called the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Gabriel tells himself that his perished parents’ wisdom will always protect him. Looking around the camp, he sees that each boy has his own mountain and Gabriel remains fiercely determined to move his own mountain through hope.
Finally in 1997, Gabriel is accepted into the Refugee Resettlement Program and is allowed to move to Syracuse, New York. Catholic Charities sponsors his move and helps him find a job and begin his formal education. In respect for his fallen parents, his new mantra becomes “Education is now my mother and father.” In time, he graduates from college and is a successful mathematics teacher. Gabriel acquires a palate for American cuisine and considers Subway chicken teriyaki subs and boneless wings the ultimate treat. He learns to drive. He truly has moved his personal mountain through hope but he still can hear one more quote from his mother echoing in his head: “Human worth is measured in how much one gives back.”
Honoring his mother’s legacy of giving back, Gabriel returns to Ariang, South Sudan in summer 2007, twenty years after he fled his home village. He is pleased to learn that two of his siblings still live in Ariang. But as a mathematics teacher, he is saddened to see that there is little formal education for the boys in Ariang and no formal education for the girls who spend their days carrying water because there are no drinking wells here. On the site of her death, Gabriel hears his mother’s voice again and he knows what he is called to do.
As I sit in the lecture hall listening to Gabriel sharing his personal odyssey, I realize that this is no longer merely Gabriel’s story of self, or a narrative of people in a place that I cannot find on a map. This is now a story of us. Through his storytelling, Gabriel has pulled me into his village, his family, and his dreams for a new Ariang, South Sudan. He has shared the wisest words of his elders with me. Instantly, I know that inaction is no longer an option for me. I need to know more about the people of Ariang and the Foundation that is helping them improve their lives. I need to help them move Mount Kilimanjaro.
In a student-led initiative, Gabriel Bol Deng spoke at Toledo St. John’s Jesuit High School in February 2013. HOPE for Ariang Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to providing South Sudanese with inclusive access to education, opportunities, and resources, with a special focus on women and girls. http://hopeforariang.org