Holding on to Rwanda

While the entire trip was structured around open dialogue, Jok wasn’t in a talking mood one particular day, as everyone hiked seven miles from the youth village to a lake. Quietly, the Penn sophomore looked around—at the houses, the crops, the kids playing soccer—and, just as quietly, was transported back to his homeland. “It was if I was physically in Sudan,” Jok says. “That’s how I felt.”

For Jok, who grew up nearby in South Sudan, being in Rwanda brought back a flood of memories. And the Rwandan orphans could look to Jok’s story as a guiding force in their own lives: a story that begins with a six-year-old African boy picking up an AK-47 and vowing revenge on the Arab men loyal to the government in North Sudan who killed his father, a general in the rebel movement and political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army … and ends with a Division I college basketball player harboring only feelings of love for his native country. “When I was young, I was angry,” admits Jok, who in 2003 immigrated to Des Moines, Iowa, with his mother and three siblings. “Every day, it was like, How do I get back at the Arabs? Then I realized that me being angry doesn’t affect the Arabs. It affects me. If you forgive someone, your heart is open and you live your life.”

Sports proved to be the ultimate healing potion for Jok. In Sudan, he used to make soccer balls out of balloons and bandages, if only so he could escape the civil war for a few hours at a time. “When you’re playing soccer, you’re not hungry anymore,” Jok says. “You’re not thinking about the war. You’re at peace.” Staying busy with sports was just as important when he came to Iowa—and not just because he developed into a star high school basketball player and a high-profile Penn recruit. “If I didn’t do basketball, cross country, and soccer, I would have gone into a gang,” he says. “That’s the reality of it. All the Sudanese kids I knew when I first came, they were all in gangs. When I got to my senior year [of high school], 75 percent of them were locked up.”

With that in mind, Jok is striving to help today’s children of Sudan by creating a sports-centric afterschool program through the Dut Jok Youth Foundation, which he began and named in honor of his late father. The foundation recently got a $10,000 jumpstart when Jok was named a winner of the Davis Projects for Peace award, money he’s already using to send soccer balls, basketballs, nets, and whistles to South Sudan (which in July became a sovereign nation, though one that is still overrun by poverty and violence).

After leaving Rwanda, Jok was supposed to go to Sudan to help get the afterschool program off the ground. But, after careful review, his Penn advisors nixed that plan because of security concerns. At first, that was a tough pill to swallow for Jok, who was anxious to return to his homeland for the first time since leaving. He realizes now, however, that the setback won’t be a detriment to his long-term plans, which include building a secondary school in South Sudan. Besides, staying in Agahozo was still eye-opening as he saw firsthand all that goes into giving young Africans an outlet for success. “The youth village served as an example for me,” Jok says. “It says it can be done.”

During the trip, Jok also got the opportunity to have many conversations with Bhojani, a Pakistan native whose childhood was similarly marred by tragedy. In 1995, while waiting outside his apartment for the company car to take him to his job at Indus Motor Company in the city of Karachi, Bhojani’s father was gunned down. To this day, Bhojani does not know who killed him or why he was murdered, although she suspects either the Pakistani government or a rival religious sect did it. While that kind of uncertainty only compounded her sadness and confusion, she says that she “felt no hate toward those who killed him.”

Bhojani does, however, have sympathy for many of the other children in Pakistan who have lost parents. Not everyone, she knows, can get a ticket out of the country by being accepted to an Ivy League school. So she wants to try to help those who can’t—although she’s not yet sure what that entails or where the money will come from. “There’s a big orphan problem in Pakistan,” Bhojani says. “A lot of times orphans end up being sexually abused—it’s really a major problem. I’ve wanted to do something about it for a long time but the youth village made it more tangible for me.”

While Agahozo-Shalom certainly shaped Jok’s and Bhojani’s aspirations more than anyone else on the trip, other Penn students plan to bring a little piece of the youth village home with them, too. For Kapito, that means trying to get a bunch of Penn students to wake up at 6 a.m. and run, clap, sing, and chant around campus; the youth villagers call that “Muchaka Muchaka” and it’s one of the highlights of their week. For Nandhakumar, who still has many confused feelings about the Sri Lankan civil war that ended in 2009 after 26 years of fighting, it means thinking not just about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide but ways to prevent mass violence in other countries like Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, even if the lack of systemic solutions can often be frustrating. And for Rosen, it means trying to be a better basketball captain by, for the first time, fully understanding the meaning of perseverance.

“Despite everything they could use as an excuse, they’ve decided to believe,” Rosen says. “And so if we haven’t experienced tragedy like that and we have a lack of faith, then what the hell is wrong with us? They wake up every day believing the world is great. They are an example of doing more.”

As of now, the 14 Penn students—Bhojani, Jok, Kapito, Nandhakumar, Powers, Rosen, Max Cohen, Lisa Doi, Elisheva Goldberg, Benjamin Notkin, John Plaisted, Erica Sachse, Claire Shimberg, and Gurnimrat Sidhu—plan to meet throughout the school year; that was Uram’s plan when he decided not to include any seniors on the trip. Many of them also hope to go back to the youth village, or buy airplane tickets so some of the kids can come to them.

But even if they never return, even if some of them believe their two-week stay was inconsequential, or that they couldn’t adequately give enough support to teenagers who had been through such immense hardship, they only need to think about the 16-year-old who stopped Uram right before he left to tell him, “Mike, now you are going to be with me like my family. And I will need your wisdom to help me live my life.”

And then one orphan, in one village, in one country, in one continent across the Atlantic Ocean, smiled and waved goodbye.

Dave Zeitlin C’03 is a frequent Gazette contributor.


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COVER STORY: Horror and Hope By Dave Zeitlin
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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Penn students with workers at ASYV: (students in back row, from left) Max Cohen, Dau Jok, Brian Powers, Erica Sachse, Zack Rosen, Ben Notkin, Humna Bhojani, Rachel Olstein (Director of Volunteer Services, ASYV); (front row) Rabbi Mike Uram, Gurnimrat Sidhu, Kayla Kapito, Sindhuri Nandhakumar, Claire Shimberg, Elisheva Goldberg, John Plaisted, Lisa Doi, Ariella Alpert (ASYV staff).



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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 8/26/11