From ‘Lost Boy’ to the Legislature: A Sudanese Refugee’s Road to Capitol Hill

David Acuoth escaped civil war as a child and is now working to rebuild the new country of South Sudan.
(Photo: YouTube)
Nov 23, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Sarah Elbert has written for various national magazines and newspapers and is the executive editor of Delta's Sky magazine. She is based in Minneapolis.

In 1988, when David Acuoth was four years old, he was forced to flee his Sudanese village, leaving behind his father, mother, sisters, and brothers, to walk hundreds of miles to Ethiopia. He was one of more than 20,000 Sudanese children dubbed the “Lost Boys”—unaccompanied minors who fled without their families during Sudan’s ongoing civil war to avoid death or recruitment as child soldiers. The journey was long and arduous, but unlike many children who succumbed to starvation, dehydration, disease, and wild animals, Acuoth made it to relative safety. Today, at 31, he is a legislative fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives.

About 3,600 Sudanese Lost Boys came to the United States by themselves in 2001, and while some have struggled financially and culturally, many have achieved educational and career success: Majur Juac is a nationally ranked chess player and instructor in New York City; Salva Dut founded and leads the New York–based nonprofit Water for South Sudan; Abraham Awolich created the Sudan Development Foundation; and Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of David Eggers’ book What Is the What, has used the proceeds from the book to open a school in South Sudan. All are now in their mid-30s to early 40s. As for Acuoth, he’s working on legislation to enable U.S.-educated Sudanese refugees to return to their homeland to help rebuild the new country of South Sudan, where a very tenuous peace now holds.

“I have always, always worked in a way that supports South Sudanese,” he tells TakePart. “But also working for community advocacy, to get people to raise awareness and support other people.... The most dangerous thing in any society is people who don’t realize their potential in a positive way.”

After fleeing Sudan, many of the Lost Boys were haunted by violence that seemed to follow them wherever they went. Acuoth and many others ended up in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, but an internal coup and civil war drove the refugees out of the country and back to Sudan, where the war between the Sudanese government and the People’s Liberation Army continued. “That area became unsafe because the refugees were within the reach of the government of Sudan,” Acuoth says, “and the government ended up attacking the camp and cutting off all the food supplies from humanitarians.”

So they left, again.

(Photo: YouTube)

About 10,000 Lost Boys then ended up in Kenya, where the Kakuma Refugee Camp was created in 1992. Today, because of the renewed violence in South Sudan, the sprawling, arid camp of mud huts serves 185,000 refugees—with an expansion planned to accommodate another 80,000 people. Acuoth says he took a circuitous route through southern Sudan and ended up in the camp in 1995, when he was 11 or 12 years old. Over the years, Sudanese refugees at Kakuma were joined by thousands of others from around the war-torn region. According to Acuoth, there were Congolese and people from Rwanda because of the ’94 genocide; people from Uganda because of the guerilla warlord Joseph Kony; and there were the Somalians, who were the majority in Kakuma at that time.

The Lost Boys stayed in Kakuma until 2001, when the United Nations refugee agency determined that sending them back to their families in Sudan was no longer an option. The United States agreed to take in 3,600 refugees, and various aid agencies around the country mobilized to help these now young adults assimilate into a culture that was completely foreign to them.

Acuoth landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he stayed for several years before moving to the Twin Cities to attend college at the University of St. Thomas. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international development in 2009, then went home to Sudan to see his family. It would be the last time he would see his parents; his father died shortly afterward from a prolonged illness.

It has been a difficult journey for all of the Lost Boys, but Acuoth says he has found ways to compartmentalize the pain so he can go on with his life.

“A long time ago, I decided to find a way to not to have it bother me too much. It becomes, like, try to make it a memory rather than a sad episode of my life, which it is, but I just try not to think about it that way,” he says. “Because the more you think about it every day, the sadder you become. Before, when I was in Kakuma, one of the questions I used to ask myself was, ‘Why me?’ We’d go to Kenyan towns and see Kenyan children running around in circles with their parents, and here we didn’t remember if we had ever held a hand with our dad or our mom. I didn’t have any idea of the physical attributes of my dad’s face. I’d look in the mirror and think, ‘Maybe he looks like me.’ When I got separated from them, I was only four, and I didn’t see them until 2009—I was already an adult by then, I was in my twenties.”

“I’m a lost man,” Acuoth says, “not a lost boy.”

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Angela Eifert works for the American Refugee Committee in Minneapolis and met Acuoth when he was in graduate school. At first, he struck her as a “lighthearted, good-natured person with a healthy sense of humor,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until much later after I got to know David that I realized his big, genuine smile carried a lifetime of unthinkable loss.” His experience, she says, has strengthened her commitment to working with refugees.

Acuoth worked for a while at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he experienced the greatest hope he had for his country. After the 12-year civil war ended in 2005—bringing a close to the conflict that had claimed the lives of 2 million people and drove 6 million people from their homes—the people of southern Sudan were given the chance to vote for independence in January 2011. Even members of the diaspora were allowed to vote, in eight countries around the world. In the U.S. Midwest, that included Chicago and Omaha, Nebraska.

“People in Minnesota were told to go vote in Nebraska,” Acuoth says. “And I remember I was at church one morning and there was a meeting after church, and an old lady got up and she asked, ‘How far is it to Nebraska?’ And she was told it was six hours’ drive. And she said, ‘I don’t have a car, I don’t know where to take the bus, but I will die on the way trying to go.’ So immediately that gave me an idea. I said, ‘Why don’t I raise money to rent some buses and bus everybody to Nebraska?’ Because not everybody had cars—only a few South Sudanese had cars, so the most vulnerable or the least fortunate would not go.”

And that’s what he did, raising about $15,000—including pitching in $1,500 of his own money, effectively closing his checking account—to rent four buses to take 157 singing members of the Sudanese diaspora from Rochester to Nebraska. The referendum passed easily, and South Sudan became Africa’s 54th country. It remains the youngest country in the world.

The euphoria of independence did not last long, however. In December 2013, a fresh round of bloody civil war broke out in the new country, fueled by simmering tension between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, distrust between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, and the financial stakes created by the country’s oil reserves. A tentative peace agreement was signed in August, but the latest conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced 2 million, and left the country financially broken, with severe food shortages.

One of those killed in the early days of violence was Acuoth’s mother, whose body was never found. Acuoth says he was unwilling to believe that she had died, paying people to search for her, combing through camps of displaced persons in the hope that she might have ended up there. “I have three brothers and two sisters and some of my uncle’s family, and they within 30 days started saying, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s dead, she’s not going to be found,’ ” he says. “But it took me a year to come to terms with it. For more than a year, I kept thinking that I’m going to get the call.... After 13 months, I realized there was no way, so I just ended up doing a prayer. I called all of my friends over and we did a prayer service for her soul. I don’t have a grave to show my kids in the future.”

Acuoth, who was thrilled by South Sudan’s independence, says he knew the country’s path wouldn’t be easy—but the sheer scale of the violence was horrifying. To Americans, it was almost unimaginable.

“What I didn’t expect at the time was the level of destruction to property and people’s lives,” he says. “What shocked me was the brutal killing of children and women and elders, the unforgiving killing of people—human beings from both sides. That caught me off guard, because I was under the impression that nationalism would kick in, that South Sudan has a flag, and it is an independent country. That people would think twice before they committed atrocities, and that they knew this was what we’ve been suffering for all these years, from my father’s generation to my generation. But that was on the first day, and then on the third day, I began to realize that this country is going to descend into chaos.”

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Today, Acuoth lives in Washington, D.C., having earned his master’s degree in international business administration from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He is a legislative intern for Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who sits on the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. He says he wanted to stay in Minnesota, but the job offers just didn’t materialize. In D.C., he is helping to shape legislation, in particular a bill that would allow members of the South Sudanese diaspora to return to South Sudan as aid workers—using their U.S.-gained education to help a government that is in dire need of experienced professionals—in exchange for student loan forgiveness and stipends.

The legislation hasn’t been introduced and is still in the discussion stages, says Dan Roth, a spokesman for Bass. But Acuoth says he is guardedly optimistic that it will come to the floor of the House. He is hoping that various aid agencies will write letters in support and that he can help convince lawmakers that South Sudan, as the world’s newest country and particularly lacking in institutional infrastructure, is worthy of special treatment.

“The U.S. government is giving a lot of money to South Sudan, but the money goes directly to corrupt leaders. So we should use that money for community development and capacity development at a tribe level, at the small community level,” he says. “It’s not easy to get legislation passed, but a lot of members are very passionate about doing something for South Sudan.”

As part of his job, Acuoth says he attended a diplomatic meeting this past fall between lawmakers and former South Sudan Vice President Machar, who, under the new peace agreement, will once again share power with President Kiir. It was an emotional experience, Acuoth says, as he blames Machar for leading the rebel fighters who caused so much of the violence that claimed his mother’s life.

When asked if he was having a tough time, though, he demurs.

“This is a job, I am a professional person,” he says. “I’m a better man than he is. Our reaction is a display of our character, and I know that the best way to honor my mom is to help save somebody else’s mom. Then I think I have honored her, and I think she would be proud of me.”

This article was created in partnership with TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Beasts of No Nation, produced in part by Participant Media and distributed by Netflix.