A Lost Boy’s
from the Sudan to America
Gabriel attributes his Catholic faith as the reason why he has been able to forgive the men who raided his village separating him from his family nearly 20 years ago.
Gabriel Wal is tall and thin, all arms and legs, and is quite shy when meeting a stranger for the first time. When he smiles, which is often, he flashes a set of dazzlingly white teeth. He loves playing soccer and basketball, eating pizza, watching Comedy Central. For all appearances, he looks and acts like a regular American young man just entering early adulthood.
That is, until he begins to talk about his past – a nightmarish journey fleeing war and brutality in the African bush.
Gabriel speaks softly, haltingly, in measured English. As he recounts his past life, he waves his arms as he speaks, as if trying to pull thoughts out of the air and yet at the same time beat those hellish memories back.
||Gabriel lived in a refugee camp similar to the one you see here, which is in Kounoungo of the Sudan in Africa.
In 1987 he was living in southern Sudan with his family in a small village. He was very young at the time, four or five years old. Sudan was locked in a civil war, with Muslim militias from the north attacking rural Nuer and Dinka tribes living in the south. During these attacks, the militias pillaged and burned villages, killing men and boys, the women and girls kidnapped and sold into slavery. More than two million Sudanese would die in the genocide.
One day, a group of armed men raided Gabriel’s village. With his family scattering in the chaos, Gabriel joined up with some other children, mostly boys, from the surrounding villages and they began walking to escape the carnage.
For months he and his companions walked eastward, across burning desert sands, over rough mountain terrain, with very little food or water. Hundreds died from thirst, starvation, exhaustion and even wild animal attacks. And some were shot by soldiers. Thousands of survivors from this journey poured into Ethiopia, where a refugee camp had been established. They stayed for three years, only to flee that country when civil war broke out there. These “Lost Boys,” the name given to them by aid workers, with nowhere else to go, made the harrowing journey back across the border to a refugee camp in Pochala, Sudan. After a few months there, rebel forces attacked that camp, forcing them to flee yet again. This time they made their way south, with about 12,000 of the Lost Boys – less than half that began the journey – at a United Nations refugee camp at Kakuma, Kenya in 1992.
Gabriel stayed at Kakuma for the next nine years. The camp, located on a dusty, windswept desert plain, was crowded with more than 80,000 refugees from four war-torn nations. Gabriel and five boys from his village – his new family – lived in a makeshift tent. They existed on one meal a day of sorghum, oil and maize. They received a rudimentary education, learning to speak and read basic English and some math.
||Gabriel Wal, 24, came to the United States in 2001 with about 4,000 other Lost Boys of the Sudan. He now has a good job at Raintree Graphics printing company and is attending FCCJ to complete his GED
“What I remember is sometimes I go hungry,” he said. “There was never enough food. It was terrible, how we lived.”
Gabriel belonged to no organized religion as a child, but was baptized as a Catholic in 1991 during his short stay at the Pochala refugee camp in Sudan. In Kakuma, he learned about the Catholic faith from a missionary priest – “Father Tim” – who taught Gabriel the catechism in Nuer, his native language. The more Gabriel learned about his newly discovered faith, the more he embraced it. What makes Catholicism different from other religions, says Gabriel, is receiving the sacraments, particularly penance, “because we are not perfect sometimes.”
His faith has also helped Gabriel to forgive. When asked if he has forgiven the men who raided his village, separating him from his family and forcing him from his home, Gabriel doesn’t hesitate in answering.
“Sometimes it’s hard (to forgive), in my past life I wouldn’t forgive them,” he said. “But God says to forgive your enemy, and that’s a hard thing to. But the church teaches you to be merciful, to love another even if they did something wrong. That is why I love being in the church; it is different than the way I used to live. That is why we have love in our hearts now.”
In 2000, the United States granted refugee status to 4,000 of the Lost Boys, gradually bringing them to America. Gabriel was brought to Jacksonville through a joint program with the United Nations and Lutheran Social Services. He shared an apartment with four other Sudanese boys. They were shown how to do simple tasks, like operate a light switch, use a refrigerator and the telephone. They were overwhelmed by the generosity shown to them, Gabriel said.
“We were like strangers. But people were willing to help us. They give us food; they give us clothes and other things. It was like finally having a home.”
||The Seethaler family enjoys getting together with Gabriel at their home in Ponte Vedra Beach.|
Holli prepares snacks for everyone as they visit with Gabriel. To the right of Gabriel are
Michael, Amanda, Holli’s husband Mike and neighbor Kelly Duffy.
Having learned to read and write English in the refugee camp in Kenya, Gabriel got his driver’s license and his first job, working the night shift at a brake manufacturing plant. He saved up enough money to buy a car.
Holli Seethaler had always wanted to do volunteer work. She read a newspaper article in 2002 about a number of Lost Boys living in Jacksonville, some of them playing weekend soccer on the athletic fields at Assumption Parish. The mother of two young children, Holli said the Lost Boys’ stories touched her deeply.
“These were young boys, younger than my own children, when they lost their families,” she said. “I could not imagine them not having a mother, having to walk a thousand miles, seeing friends die along the way.”
Holli contacted Joan Hecht, founder of the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan. The alliance raises money and materials to help with the medical and educational needs of the approximately 100 Sudanese young men living in the area. Holli is now the vice-president of the alliance, raising funds, soliciting donations of educational materials and speaking to civic and religious groups about the plight of the Lost Boys.
One day Holli was visiting the boys at the soccer fields when Gabriel introduced himself, saying, “Hi, I’m Gabriel, I heard you’re Catholic. Can I start going to Mass with you?” she said.
Holli, her husband Mike and two children are parishioners at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Ponte Vedra Beach. Every Sunday Gabriel made the half hour journey to the Seethaler’s Marsh Landing home to accompany them to Mass.
“I’m just in awe of him,” says Holli. “I’m just amazed by his faith, his faith is incredible. He’s so nice, so friendly, there’s no bitterness. God led him here.”
Gabriel gradually became part of the Seethaler’s extended family, along with a few of the other Lost Boys. Mike created a job for Gabriel at his printing company. Gabriel now runs a folding machine at the plant. They paid his medical deductible and for his medicine when he was diagnosed with intestinal parasites that he contracted during his stay in the refugee camp. He attends all of their family and holiday gatherings.
“He had no family and we had room in our family for more,” said Mike.
Gabriel now attends Florida Community College at Jacksonville to get his GED. He is making plans to return to Sudan this summer for two months in the hope of finding surviving family members including a twin brother. When he returns, he wants to continue his education and go to college to become a pharmacist.
This Lost Boy has finally found a home.
Help stop the
Catholic Relief Services is
providing assistance to thousands of
Sudanese refugees like Gabriel Wal.
The three refugee camps managed
By CRS and its partner are hosting
30 percent of the refugee population,
of which 88 percent are women,
children and adolescents. CRS is
also providing relief assistance within
Sudan, where it has operated since
the early 1970s.
To learn how you can
help, visit www.crs.org.
For more information about the local
Organization Alliance for the Lost Boys,