By Celine Klosterman
CLINTON — Facing the threat of genocide, 10-year-old Joseph Akol Makeer left his mother and Sudanese village in 1987 to begin a months-long journey in which he’d face starvation, dehydration and lion attacks.
He survived a brutal walk to Ethiopia and later Kenya, where some 20,000 other “Lost Boys of Sudan” grew up in refugee camps. Now resettled in the United States, Makeer hopes to help build an orphanage for those living in the struggling, post-war village of his childhood.
He shared his story with about 90 people April 7 at The Canticle, home of the Clinton Franciscans.
His visit was part of a nine-day speaking tour he made in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa while promoting the African Soul, American Heart Foundation, which is working to build the orphanage.
When Makeer was a child, he one day spied a strange object in the sky — a plane. Suddenly, that plane started dropping bombs, and he ran to his father.
Sudan’s northern, Arab government had started attacking Christian civilians in the south. Makeer’s father left to fight alongside the Christians. To escape genocide, the child started walking to neighboring Ethiopia with other boys as young as 5 years old. Barefoot, they bled while crossing rocky paths that made their feet swell — sometimes too much to go on. Lions pounced at night. Starving and thirsty, the children consumed insects and urine.
The travelers left behind dead bodies – including some of Makeer’s cousins – for birds to eat. After walking for months, survivors ran into a woman whose help led them to settle in Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia. “At that point, we were happy,” said Makeer.
But Ethiopian political conflict in 1991 forced the refugees to flee again. So Makeer and others started walking to Kenya, south of Ethiopia. Months later, United Nations representatives helped them enter a refugee camp in Kakuma, where Makeer stayed 12 years, usually eating one meal a day.
He eventually was offered the opportunity to move to the United States. At first, the now-married Makeer declined because he would have had to leave behind family including three younger siblings and a nephew. But after two years, he received permission to go to America with his wife and siblings. They settled in Fargo, N.D., in 2003.
“I love everything about America” — except winter in Fargo, he joked. “I can’t
When studying at North Dakota State University, he wrote an essay about his trials in Africa for a class. His professor at first greeted his dramatic story with skepticism. But after verifying it, she urged him to keep writing — and Makeer ended up penning the memoir “From Africa to America: The Journey of a Lost Boy of Sudan.” He also shares his story in the documentary “African Soul, American Heart,” produced with the help of Kevin Brooks, a North Dakota State University professor accompanying Makeer on tour. The DVD was shown at The Canticle presentation.
Makeer knows that in the United States his family is secure, he said in the short film. But having last seen his now-deceased parents when he was a child, Makeer can empathize with orphans in his home village of Duk Payuel. “We’re a bunch of kids who never had the chance to be around their father or mother,” he told audience members at The Canticle.
Thousands of Sudanese children and tribesmen remain in refugee camps today, four years after the end of a generation-long war that destroyed infrastructure in their homeland. Since coming to the United States he’s returned to the Kakuma camp, where a Lost Boy’s visit always inspires refugees to celebrate, he said in his film. “We are their hope for the future.”
“We need to know” about the plight of the Sudanese, said Sallyann McCarthy, communications director for the Clinton Franciscans. “We need to develop connections with the people of the world.”
Makeer’s talk personalized the story of the Lost Boys, Sister Mary Frances Burke, OSF, told him after his presentation. “We heard Tom Brokaw, but you really put it in our hearts.”
To learn more about or donate to the orphanage project, visit www.africansoulamericanheart.org.