Out of darkness

Posted by cservaes on September 19, 2011 in "Academic Programs", "Current Students", "Kansas City", "Other News" Darkness can fall on a soul much the way it eclipses the brightest of days, creeping in shadows, nipping at the heels of retreating rays, faster and faster, until the light, in seeming defeat, flees before the pursuant darkness. Darkness came to Jakoma Machok in 1987 when Muslim militants of northern Sudan descended on his village in the south with the intent of wiping out all Christians. “If you were male, you were entitled to die,” says Machok. “If you were female, you were kidnapped, used as a slave or raped. And if you were a male child - you either fled or died.” So began his journey, at the age of five, as one of roughly 27,000 Lost Boys of Sudan who escaped the carnage and made their way to Ethiopia. It took three months traveling barefoot across a desolate wasteland to reach the border, where a refugee camp awaited them and served as home for four years - until darkness fell again. In 1991, Ethiopia became engulfed in its own civil war, and the boys were forced to flee back to Sudan – or be shot by armed soldiers. It was a more difficult choice than it appeared, as their point of entry into Sudan was across the Gilo River, which was wide, swift, and infested with crocodiles. Even for those who could swim, it was a 50/50 proposition; for those who couldn’t, the odds were much less. Machok was nine. “Thousands of us died,” he remembers. “I was lucky and managed to cross the river, but the condition of Sudan was even worse than it was before.” Under the protection of the United Nations and the World Red Cross, Machok received food and medicine rations, but there was never enough. “People died left and right,” he says. So the boys were moved across the border to Kenya in 1992 as the first people in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, which eventually swelled to more than 90,000 due to violence in the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, and Uganda. The horrifying events of Machok’s life encouraged the darkness he had fled to slowly wrap itself around the outer edges of his young heart and mind in a deceiving diaphanous film, furtively adding layer upon layer until opaqueness all but enshrouded any ray of hope he may have had. Hearing regular reports of continuing tragedy in his homeland, and surrounded by death, with no parents and no vision for the future, he decided in 1995 to sneak back across the border to join the Southern Sudan Army as a child soldier. He was 13. “Sitting there, you have options,” he remembers thinking. “You die trying or you die doing nothing – you die either way. I was fed up with life; I just wanted to do something.” As a child soldier, Machok led a group of boys even younger than himself and assigned them duties, whether cooking, cleaning guns, carrying water, or fighting. “Not a day went by that we didn’t bury somebody,” he recalls. “When you’re doing that, there is no such thing as hope. You can’t hope for anything besides saying ‘I hope the next minute isn’t my time.’ You try to survive today.” Miraculously, he did survive a day at a time for two terrible years. That’s when the UN swept up a number of child soldiers and returned them to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Though the camp promised better conditions, food and water, possible sponsorship, and security, Machok’s enshrouded heart remained in his homeland. All he knew was transience and war; he did not know how to function within this new environment. Then, at the age of 15, he enrolled in first grade, and a layer of the veil was loosened. He memorized the seven-subject first grade books word by word, line by line – in English. He skipped second grade, completed one semester of third grade, and through a bit of resourcefulness developed through his life of independence, gained access to a fourth grade exam. He finished third in the class and moved directly to fifth grade. He sat for his Kenyan Certificate Primary Examination (KCPE) after eighth grade, passing easily for entrance into high school. More layers unraveled; he even decided he wanted to become a teacher. But the remaining strips surrounding his heart Machok preserved as a protective barrier between himself and the constant unknown of his life, even when an incredible opportunity presented itself. A number of sponsoring agencies were working to bring Lost Boys to the United States and other countries for the opportunity of a better life. Many of the boys, including Machok, were interviewed, and if they passed the screening, their names were put on a list with four of their friends. Every day, the boys checked the list to see if they had been selected for life in another world. But Machok was skeptical. “I wasn’t willing to come to America because I didn’t think it would work,” he recalls. “I told the lady who interviewed me, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing this for. We’re too poor to go to America. How is this going to work? How will we pay it back?’ I also told her I was very happy where I was because my hope was that my country would win the war and I would go back home and see my parents. But she said, ‘It will happen – you will go to America.’” And so, in 2001, at the age of 19, Jakoma Machok flew on his first airplane to Kansas City, Missouri, a place he had never heard of, to start a brand new life. And almost immediately, he felt once again like a Lost Boy. While no longer dodging bullets, traversing rivers, or maneuvering life in a refugee camp, extreme culture shock became a new wasteland that he was forced to navigate with little guidance. “I was told I was too old to go to high school and that I did not have enough credit hours to go to college. I had no idea what credit hours were, and I did not understand why I was too old to go to high school. At 15, I was one of the youngest people in first grade in the refugee camp. Many were 30 or 35.” Later, Machok was told about earning a GED, so he signed up. But with no understanding of what the diploma would do for him or how it would replace the four years of high school that he thought he needed, he dropped out. “About 4,000 Lost Boys came to the U.S. before September 11,” says Machok. “After that, the transfer program was shut down. Many of the guys have wound up in jail, have committed suicide, killed each other, or gone crazy. Others are homeless. They just couldn’t figure out how to live here.” And had it not been for his resourcefulness, survival instinct and a latent faith, he very well could have met the same fate. Thankfully, hope, though covered, still burned faintly in his heart. Throughout 2002, Machok worked three jobs and took ESL classes, finally deciding he was ready to go to college. That’s when he understood why he needed his GED. That’s also when he saw a commercial for JobCorps, a vocational program for students who didn’t complete high school; he knew it was for him. “When I found out I could go anywhere in the country, I chose Texas,” he says. “President Bush was from there and I loved him, so I wanted to go to Texas.” Though JobCorps was not exactly what he had expected, as always, Machok made the most of the situation. “I decided to do something I had never done before,” he says. He chose a trade in Business Office Technology where he learned how to type for the first time, took computer courses and learned office skills. He completed the two-year program in nine months. As if his story did not already have enough twists and turns, the next chapter of Machok’s life falls into the “Only in America” category. While in the JobCorps training program, he religiously ran eight miles every day, developing a faithful following of JobCorps fans. Toward the end of his training, one of the fans contacted the University of Texas (U of T) in Austin and encouraged the crosscountry coach to take a look at him. He did, and Machok was offered a full-ride scholarship as the best runner they had ever enrolled. “Why didn’t anyone tell me you could get scholarships for running before now?” Machok asked incredulously. That was at the end of 2003. Before he could start classes, however, another twist altered his course yet again. Out of the blue, Machok received a phone call. It was from his half-brother, alive in Uganda. “Everything changed,” he says. Suddenly he had a purpose beyond himself and the last strips of the shroud were shed. He declined the scholarship opportunity at U of T and returned to Kansas City in 2004, where he again worked three jobs, this time to support his brother and help him return to their village to learn who else had survived the war. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 between northern and southern Sudan, his brother did return to their village of Mading Bor to discover that Machok’s mother and one sister were still living. His father, his father’s other two wives, and five of Machok’s sisters had all died. Now in regular contact with his mother and two siblings, he wanted more than ever to pursue his dream of education. As a child, his uncle has recognized how intelligent Machok was and predicted he would go to school one day, even though his tribe’s people, the Dinkas, are herders and farmers. In fulfillment of that prophecy, Machok enrolled in Johnson County Community College in 2005 and earned his associate’s degree in information technology in 2007. He then enrolled at the University of Missouri at Kansas City to complete his bachelor’s degree before transferring to Ottawa University. “At OU, everybody really cares,” says Machok. “They actually talk to you and help you, and I was able to finish in no time.” Machok completed his BA in Information Technology Systems in one year, participating in Ottawa University-Kansas City commencement ceremonies in May. He is now enrolled in the MBA program with plans to return to his newly independent country of Southern Sudan when he is finished. Free of the hopelessness that encased him for so long, Machok’s brightly burning light now dispells darkness everywhere he goes. “I could have been dead,” he says. “There’s no reason why I am alive. But there obviously is a reason why I’m still breathing, and that reason still is a mystery not yet defined by any man. I am blessed beyond anything. I feel so happy because God has given me the opportunity and potential to be alive. And while I am still living, I have a duty to serve the people of south Sudan and all citizens of the world. I believe in doing things. And one of those things is empowering myself by going to school because maybe that will give me an edge to do more than I could handle myself.” What he hopes to “handle” is a non-profit organization that provides education to the people in his village when he returns next year. To date, it has been 23 years since he has set foot in his village. But he is not waiting until he returns to “do things.” Even now he is spreading hope and light, both in his home country and his adopted U.S. Machok personally sponsors three boys from his village, providing them the opportunity to go to high school and hopefully to college. He regularly sends money to his family in Southern Sudan, and even helped provide a dowry for his brother to marry - he now has five children. In the U.S., Machok speaks at schools, churches and organizations, sharing his story and encouraging people to “do things” to bring hope to other people. “Being a Lost Boy is not a banner I have to carry around or tell people about,” he says. “But sometimes when people learn that I am a Lost Boy and hear about the hardships of my life and others, they become different. Some people decide to sponsor a child or do something good for someone that day. And that is rewarding to me when people are reciprocating hope in others’ lives. For me, my life motto is – What did I do today? “There are some moving images in my head that I will never get rid of,” he says. “But I have no control over what happened in the past. It’s a fact – it already happened and I can’t do anything about it. But maybe I can control what hasn’t happened yet. I can decide to do the right or do the wrong. And there’s no reason to do the wrong when I have the possibility to do the right.”