Sudanese activist inspires students with life story

Humanitarian activist and Sudanese genocide survivor John Bul Dau.
Humanitarian activist and Sudanese genocide survivor John Bul Dau.

March 19, 2012

By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( “Do you know why I survived? Because of the almighty God. God spared my life.” John Bul Dau stood tall over the podium at La Sierra University Church on March 13, telling in detail his story of years spent in great fear, hunger, thirst and cold as he repeatedly ran for his life with other “Lost Boys” of South Sudan.

His tale of great struggle and survival, and that of two of his friends, was the subject of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us.” The title derives from a comment Dau made about the violence that descended upon his village in 1987 triggering his 1,000-mile, 14-year ordeal. Actress Nicole Kidman narrates the film which is executive produced by actor Brad Pitt and directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker.

Dau’s talk launched the new Distinguished Lecture Series at La Sierra University Assembly, an annual lecture designed to impact students’ lives. The student assembly took place at 11 a.m. at the La Sierra University Church. A video of Dau’s assembly presentation can be viewed by clicking here. The Distinguished Lecture Series, coordinated by the university’s Intellectual Life Committee, will be held once a year in the spring and emanates from the office of university Provost Steve Pawluk.

Dau’s life-altering journey began one night in 1987 when he and his family were awakened by gunfire from northern Sudanese troops storming their South Sudan village of Duk. The troops burned huts, killed men and boys, raped and abducted women and girls. Dau, age 12 at the time, escaped with his neighbor into tall grasses, but in the mayhem lost track of his family. Many years later, after his immigration to the United States and after much searching, Dau discovered his parents and siblings had miraculously survived the conflicts.

Dau traveled hundreds of miles with tens of thousands of other “Lost Boys of Sudan.” They walked many months to reach refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya where they joined a massive United Nations camp in Kukuma. They endured lion attacks, bombing raids, swam a crocodile-infested river that claimed many lives, ate mud, chewed grass, went days without water, traded scant clothing for food, shivered naked through countless cold nights, and missed their families. Many boys died along the way, some choosing to give up rather than press on.

“It was just desperation. It was terrible,” Dau said to La Sierra students during his talk. “This is what I went through and I am still alive.”

After four years in the Kenyan refugee camp, Dau and his friends Daniel Abol Pach and Panther Blor were among 3,800 young Sudanese refugees selected for settlement in the United States and a chance for new lives. The “Lost Boys” arrived in Syracuse, New York in 2001 where they got their first look at electric lights, a refrigerator, and other modern miracles. A first trip to a supermarket was an eye-opener. “There was a magic door that opened by itself like this,” Dau said to the audience. “We came across an aisle of dog and cat food. I thought, ‘this country is so wealthy even the animals have their own aisle.’”

With the help of their sponsors the young Sudanese found jobs and struggled to assimilate while constantly thinking of those they left behind in Africa. Dau grilled burgers at McDonald’s and worked as a security guard. He aided his learning of the English language by mimicking the pronunciations of broadcast news anchors on CNN, he said.

“Do you think I’m here to show off? I have to tell you, I will never, ever forget,” Dau told his attentive audience. “Let me tell you this. If you want to succeed, success and struggle is a package. …You’ve got to move from where you are forward.”

John Bul Dau meeting with students during the special assembly.
John Bul Dau meeting with students during the special assembly.

Dau earned an associate’s degree and recently completed a Bachelor of Arts in policy studies from Syracuse University while working several jobs. Anxious to aid his fellow countrymen, he established three nonprofits, one of which merged with his present venture, the John Dau Foundation. Through these ventures he raised tens of thousands of dollars to aid Sudanese refugees with education and healthcare expenses, and through the John Dau Foundation raised more than $3 million to build and maintain the Duk Lost Boys Clinic in Dau’s home village which treats 75 to 150 people a day.

The clinic has hosted 18 international doctors, the foundation’s web site states. Last month Dau brought four doctors to the clinic where they performed cataract surgeries on 300 patients restoring their sight. Dau is currently establishing the South Sudan Institute which aims to provide education in South Sudan through teacher training and the country’s first library for housing 26,000 donated books; to engage in peace reconciliation activities; and to start a 22-acre, grant-funded commercial farm that will bring money to the Duk clinic and the community.

Dau’s country separated into two nations last July. The Republic of South Sudan is seven months old. Previously the predominantly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south frequently warred over religion, culture and other issues, Dau said.

Dau has been the recipient of numerous humanitarian awards including National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers Award and inclusion as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for 2008. Dau is in frequent demand as a speaker at universities, corporations and other organizations. He is married and the father of three children, and a proud homeowner. “Fifty percent of the success you have here is because in America the other 50 percent is up to you,” Dau said.

Dau’s story of desperate plight and survival in Sudan brought home the civil conflict and its impacts in a very real way for fourth-year biology major Carlos Casiano. “It wasn’t any longer something on the other side of the world,” said Casiano. He is also a member of the committee that selected Dau as the inaugural speaker of the Distinguished Lecture series. “His talk provided a real look into important events in the world that we otherwise wouldn’t get. It’s an eye-opening story.”

“I was really excited that it was John Bul Dau coming to speak to us,” said former La Sierra student Justin Waring-Crane who attended the lecture and a luncheon afterward. “I’ve seen the documentary and I loved it.”

“It was a powerful testimony,” said sophomore Andrew Pedersen, a religious studies major. “To see how he was able to go through all that and is still striving makes the struggles we might be going through seem like nothing.”


PR Contact: Larry Becker

Executive Director of University Relations

La Sierra University

Riverside, California

951.785.2460 (voice)

  • Last update on  March 19, 2012