‘Never give up:' Former ‘Lost Boy’ speaks to cadets at NCLS

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
John Dau wasn't like most speakers at the 2015 National Character and Leadership Symposium here Feb. 27.

The tall Sudanese-born Dau, 41, was a "Lost Boy," a title no other NCLS speaker could hold, and the name given to the thousands of young Sudanese men who walked more than 1,000 miles from Ethiopia to Kenya after fleeing the Republic of South Sudan when it collapsed under the weight of political and religious strife in the 1980s.

In 1983, President Nimeiry, the fourth president of Sudan, declared Sudan an Islamic state. Senior military officers staged a coup in the Republic in 1985, suspending the country's 1983 Sharia-based constitution but Sharia Law was never rescinded.

"The new prime minister implemented Sharia Law in this non-Islamic country," Dau said from the Arnold Hall stage. "Most of the people were Christian."

The Second Sudanese Civil War between the Muslim-controlled government in northern Sudan and the non-Muslims in Southern Sudan began, and the government responded by going village to village and "killing anyone they could," Dau said. "In 1987, they got to my village."

Until then, life in his village of Duk Payuel had been serene for Dau, who tended to the community's sheeps and goats.

"My village was not concerned about politics - we were happy," he said. The Republic of South Sudan was in some ways good. It was tranquil. There were no schools and no hospitals but we were happy. But in 1987, bullets ripped through my village at night."

Dau joined a group of neighbors and began a three-month journey to Ethiopia, hunted by government militias and wildlife, wrestling with disease, thirst and starvation.

"We chewed grass like cows and ate fruit from trees like the birds," he said. "We looked for frogs and birds to find water."

The group reached an Ethiopian refugee camp and lived there for four years, until the Ethiopian government was overthrown in 1991.

"The new government wanted us to go back to South Sudan," Dau said. "There were about 27,000 refugees."

When the refugees returned to South Sudan, they found themselves hunted again, sometimes by Russian helicopters.

In 1992, the group crossed into Kenya, and that's where the rest of Dau's life began.
"I started school at the age of 17," Dau said. "Education became my mother and father because it replaces all those people I lost."

In 2001, Dau was one of almost 4,000 Sudanese refugees brought to the U.S. and among 140 refugees to begin a new life in Syracuse, NY.

He worked several jobs, including a stint at McDonalds and UPS Inc., but began to wonder, "What am I doing here? I must go to school," he said. "When I came to the U.S., I came with nothing. I thought, 'How am I going to give back?"'

Dau went to school.

Before graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in Policy Studies in 2011, he founded three nonprofit organizations. The most well-known is the John Dau Foundation.

Formed in 2007, the foundation works to develop and sustain medical clinics in South Sudan, according to the foundation's website.

Dau encouraged the audience of cadets to take advantage of any and all forms of education, work hard to reach their potential and never give up.

"It never crossed my mind that I would ever give up," he said. "If I still have life in me, I will never give up. I knew I would survive the wild animals, the starvation and the threat of attack by fellow human beings."

Dau said cadets will face regular challenges while they serve as officers.

"Tough times will come to you, but push harder," he said. "If you want to succeed as a leader, you must accept the struggle. Ask yourself, 'Can I fight a bit harder?' There is nothing so difficult that you cannot overcome it. Helping others is the way forward," he said. "Think about all you can do in that gap (between your birth and your death). You live forward - you don't live backward."

Cadet 2nd Class Agnes Mutoni met with Dau after his NCLS presentation to ask how she could help Africans reach their full potential.

Mutoni's family fled Rwanda during the country's civil war, escaping a genocide carried out by the Rwandan military and police forces that would claim more than 500,000 lives.

"Remind them of all the opportunities they have," Dau said. "Remind them to go to school. Remind them of all they can accomplish just by seeking out education."