Part I: Introduction
It seems like a simple question: “So…how old were you when all of this started?”
But the answer is complex, much like the lives John Manyok and Samuel Mathon have led since being forced by violence to leave their villages in south Sudan in the late 1980s, fighting as child soldiers in a bloody civil war, and making their way to refugee camps, to Canada, and eventually to the convocation stage at Lethbridge College.
How old were they?
“To be honest, many of us, we don’t know our age,” says Manyok. “We were so young when we left. So I think I was nine or 10 at the time, but I don’t know for sure.”
“He left a year before I did,” adds Mathon. “I think I was about 10.”
Manyok and Mathon are two of an estimated 26,000 children – mostly boys – of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced or orphaned during the 22-year-long Second Sudanese Civil War. Called “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” they travelled by foot for more than 1,000 kilometres through the bush and across the deserts, first to Ethiopia and then back to southern Sudan and on to Kenya, searching for safety. Just 10,000 boys are estimated to have survived the years-long threats of soldiers, wild animals, illness and starvation they endured during the conflict.
But Manyok and Mathon did survive. As they prepare to convocate from Lethbridge College, they look back at the remarkable journey that began with the abrupt ending of their childhoods in two small villages in south Sudan and brought them to this ceremony in a sunny Canadian city almost 30 years later.
Part II: Africa
It was the promise of education that convinced Mathon’s family to let him leave his home in 1988.
Soldiers in the north, supported by the northern government, and in the south, fighting in the newly-formed Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), had been dying in the civil war for more than four years, and cities, towns and villages throughout south Sudan had been ravaged by violence.
“Our local leader, he was a very smart guy,” says Mathon. “Our leader says, okay, how are we going to get more soldiers? So he went to the village elders and said they wanted us to be trained and to go to school. That was the trick. There was no school. It was a lie.”
The southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang did have plans at one point to educate the young people of south Sudan, with the idea that they would be the doctors, lawyers, engineers and economists needed to build a new and independent country. But in the end, only about 600 children travelled to Cuba in 1985 for their education.
The vast majority of the children, including Manyok and Mathon, never saw schoolbooks, and instead many were given weapons. Manyok says it was the promise of army training and a gun – and the hope to come back and protect his village of Ciir from attacks from the Murle tribe – that convinced his family to let him go. “War is war, right?” says Manyok. “People are going to die, right? People aren’t going to come back. We didn’t have a choice.”
After leaving their hometowns in the late 1980s, the boys walked more than 1,000 kilometres to Ethiopia. Manyok went from his home village near Bor to the Pinyudo refugee camp, while Mathon walked from his home village near Wau to the Dima military training camp. There, they lived with thousands of others, mostly boys and young men who were also far away from their families. By 1989, they started receiving military training and then, as Mathon says, “we fought, we fought and we fought.”
The different bands of boys moved throughout the region, propelled by politics and changes in regimes. Manyok occasionally encountered different uncles during his time away from his village, and one of them took him to a different military training facility in Ethiopia. Mathon at one point was taken in “by a girl captain who said I could pretend to be a bodyguard to her, and I left with her to another city. She tried to save my life and take me away from the front line.” In both instances, the boys likely avoided injury or death by making these moves.
“At first it was a like a dream,” says Mathon. “You didn’t know what was happening. You just keep shooting. We were lucky enough.”
There were many hardships along the way: a two-month period with almost no food; battles with automatic weapons where, as Manyok describes, “if you are lucky you were not being shot;” and friends dying of dehydration, starvation, animal attacks, illness, gunshot wounds and more. Both men still suffer at the memories of injured and lost friends.
“For your friend to die and you be the one to do the funeral…” Manyok says.
“To be the one to bury them…” Mathon adds.
“I was 10- or 11-years-old, and it happened to me,” continues Manyok. “We had walked seven days from my hometown. And one of our lost boys was attacked by a lion and killed. We lost a lot of young men in the Pinyudo camp. And we would try to bury them but when we came back the next day to bury another, we would see the body we had buried the day before had been taken by an animal.
“This is not a good memory for me.”
“All in all, this is something that is really painful,” says Mathon. “But we have to remember that we have freedom. We have a nation. And whoever died sacrificed for our nation.”
As time went on, the groups of boys set their sights on walking to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. “Anyone who went to Kenya, they went to school,” Manyok says. Manyok came to the Kakuma camp in Kenya in 1992 but returned to Sudan in 1993 because he connected with a cousin, who was a captain of a post, and went to stay with him. “I should have stayed with the other guys [in Kenya.] But my goal the whole time was to come back to my own village and see my mom, and I thought my cousin and I could go home and see her. When we were in Ethiopia, my mom was told I had died. My goal was to go and see her.”
But Manyok and his cousin got drawn back into the fighting and then were slowed down by a flood, and Manyok never made it to see his mother. He arrived back at the Kenyan refugee camp in 1995 and would live and work in different parts of the region for five years. Eventually, he was able to apply to the United Nations in Kenya to come to Canada as a refugee and in 2000, the application was accepted. “I was 21 or 22,” Manyok says. Mathon arrived in the Kenyan refugee camp in 1998.
One of his uncles was also at the camp and would be the first in the family to leave as a refugee to Canada. Once in Calgary, the uncle contacted a local Catholic church, which sponsored the application for Mathon and five relatives to come to Canada.
“It was 2001 when I came here, when I was about 20 or 21 years old,” says Mathon.
The civil war in their homeland would continue for four more years, making it one of the longest civil wars on record. About two million people died during the conflict as a result of war, starvation or disease, and four million people in southern Sudan were displaced at least once, and often several times. The civilian death toll is one of the highest of any war since World War II. In 2011, six years after the signing of the peace treaty that ended the civil war, South Sudan became an independent state. Civil war broke out again in December 2013 and fighting is again underway.
Part III: Canada
Mathon remembers a woman at the Calgary church who was particularly helpful and encouraging after he arrived in Canada. Her name was Antoinette.
“She said, ‘Sam, you are going to go to school!’” Mathon recalls with a smile. Instead, he went to Brooks, Alta., where he worked at Lakeside Packers for eight years.
Manyok arrived in Toronto and stayed there with other Sudanese refugees until January 2002. He had heard about job openings in Brooks, and so came to Alberta. The two Lost Boys found each other on the factory floor and became friends. Mathon had at one time travelled through Manyok’s village during the years he was displaced, but the two had not encountered each other until they arrived in Alberta.
The work they did at Lakeside Packers was gruelling. “Working in a meat plant is one of the hardest things you can do,” says Manyok. “That job is just not an easy job.”
Manyok stayed in Brooks until 2005, when he got a job in Fort McMurray. He left in 2009 after seeking four weeks of time off to visit his mother in Africa but being denied. “I hadn’t seen my mom in 23 years,” Manyok said. He ended up travelling to Africa for 14 days and spent 11 of them with his mother, a reunion which he simply describes with a smile as “very good.”
After Manyok returned to Alberta, his employer “wasn’t happy” and Manyok lost his job. He reconnected with Mathon, who had started taking ESL classes at Lethbridge College.
“I realized the best thing I can do is go back to school,” Manyok says. “I was making money, but nothing changed. It was a tough decision to go back to school. But education is the key to everything.”
Mathon agrees. “It is very hard going to school while you are in your late 20s,” he says, adding that he wishes he had started school as soon as he had arrived in Canada.
“Learning the language is one of the things we struggled with,” adds Manyok. “But we had many of the teachers supporting us.”
Over a seven-year period, Mathon and Manyok moved from the ESL program to the Upgrading program at Lethbridge College, which offers learning opportunities to students through to a Grade 12 equivalency, and finally enrolled in the General Studies program.
It hasn’t always been an easy experience, especially connecting with other students.
“The experiences we had can make it difficult sometimes with people here in Canada,” says Manyok. “I came here with goals. I wanted to learn. I got some negative feedback from some people, but that didn’t affect my goals. It can be hard to explain our life experiences to others who have grown up in a peaceful country. We overcame all of these issues. We have lost so many family members.”
While relating with other students was sometimes challenging, Manyok and Mathon have made deep and lasting connections with their instructors.
“We could not have done this without the support of our professors,” says Manyok. “They know our weaknesses and show us how we can improve our weaknesses. They encourage us. They are like our parents.”
“Our instructors gave us so much encouragement, even when we wanted to quit,” adds Mathon. “We would like to thank them all.”
Social sciences instructor Keith Dudley, whom Manyok and Mathon call “Uncle Keith” as a sign of respect for his age and position, is grateful for how much the two have contributed to the classroom over the years.
Dudley says their humour and their resilience, particularly in his “Sociology of the Family” class, was especially valued. “They were willing to talk about all of the traditions of their homeland – engagement, dating, dowry and bride price,” Dudley says. “They were very willing to talk about what was going on in their personal lives” and that has added so much to class discussions.
Psychology instructor Jennifer Davis agrees.
“I first ‘met’ John in an online class I teach on child development,” says Davis. “The experience and insights he brought to that class were truly mind blowing for many of his classmates, and for me. It expanded everyone’s ideas of childhood far beyond anything the textbook or other online materials could have provided.”
Davis has taught Manyok and Mathon in two additional classes since then and says their presence has made a real difference on campus, and not just for the increased diversity they brought to the classroom.
“Sam and John force the class to think beyond Lethbridge, beyond southern Alberta, and even beyond Canada, to how these principles apply in the broader world, and it focuses their attention on the existence and importance of that broader world.”
Their instructors hope the two will continue with their studies at university – and that is the goal Mathon and Manyok have both set.
“I hope to continue my education and go to university to pursue a degree in social work,” says Mathon, who has also worked as a volunteer at Lethbridge Family Services during his time as a student, putting his Arabic, Swahili and Dinka language skills to use as a translator. “I love working with people and would like to help. One day I would like to be working with the [United Nations]. Also I think in the future, I might get into politics.”
Manyok, too, has chosen to go into social work as a way to give back. He has applied to the University of Calgary’s Social Work program, which is offered at the University of Lethbridge. “If that doesn’t work out, I might do addictions counselling at the University of Lethbridge,” says Manyok.
Davis says she hopes they pursue that dream. “Personally I think they should go on to university,” she says. “I wish them all the best in their future. Wherever they go from here they will be successful.”
Part IV: Conclusion
When Mathon was a child, he dreamed of being a soccer player, or maybe a lawyer in a big city. When Manyok was a child, he dreamed of one day being able to defend his village.
During the years Mathon was in the bush, “my dream was to keep fighting for my freedom and for my land.”
During the years Manyok was in the bush, “things were totally different. The question was what could you do to help the people who are dying right next to you. At the time, I was thinking ‘how can I stop this from happening?’”
For the last seven years, Manyok and Mathon have shared a common dream: education. On April 22, part of that dream will come true when they become college graduates. Their families – Mathon has three daughters and Manyok has two sons and a daughter – will be there to celebrate.
The two Lost Boys have big dreams for their children.
“I feel happy my children will have opportunities I never had,” adds Mathon. “They come home with Canadian children who are their friends. They speak English very well. My daughter corrects me!”
“My children know where I come from there was no education, that I started school when I was more than 32,” Manyok says. “But they know what it is to be a doctor (the dream of his daughter) and they know what it is to work a trade or be an engineer (the dream of Manyok’s older son.)
“They dream of education.”
Part I: Introduction