Nine-year-old Malual Deng Duot was playing with friends near his home in Wangulei, Sudan, when he heard the first gunshots and screams. He and the other boys saw only one choice: Run.
With no time to get food and water or to check on loved ones at home, Malual and his friends ran out of town away from the gunmen raiding their neighborhood.
Chat Live With a Lost Boy of Sudan
Please join CRS for a live online chat with Malual on Wednesday, March 2 at noon eastern. Learn more about Malual's experience as a Lost Boy of Sudan and his hopes for the future of his homeland. CRS staff will also be able to answer questions about the transition to a new nation for the people of southern Sudan.
The boys left with the clothes they were wearing, no food, no water and no direction. As they headed farther from their families, they joined other boys who had fled the violence spreading across southern Sudan.
"The walking was endless," Malual says. "We didn't know where we were going."
This was the scene across much of southern Sudan in 1991, as a relentless civil war continued to tear the country apart.
After months of walking and a brief stay at an Ethiopian refugee camp, the Lost Boys crossed back into Sudan. With guidance from members of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the boys who survived the journey made it to Kenya.
"I think God helped me out," Malual says. "I just kept going. I didn't want to give up. God was with us and with me. I think I survived for a reason."
Nearly a year after he had fled his home, Malual arrived at a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. He would spend the rest of his childhood there.
Children in the camp faced no pressure to attend school, yet Malual's desire to be the best among his peers kept him in the classroom. He learned to write by drawing in the dirt with his fingers and learned addition by adding sticks together on the ground. After finishing eighth grade, he was awarded a scholarship to attend high school.
While in high school, Malual began the application process to be sent with other Lost Boys to the United States, a country completely unfamiliar to him. He wrote an essay about his experiences, passed a health test and interviewed with immigration officials. Then, he received a letter that, very simply, read:
Welcome to the United States of America.
Malual landed in New York on December 21, 2000, and, in his short-sleeved shirt, stepped out to a snowy day. Freezing, he didn't know what to make of the snow other than fearing the foreign substance might get in his eyes. Volunteer Louise Shoemaker, a retired dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work, took Malual and his friend John to her home near Philadelphia.
Given enough warm clothes to brave a Pennsylvania winter, Malual began to adjust to his new home and thrived in school. He completed high school and received a scholarship to attend Wagner College in New York.
A bachelor's degree in international affairs in hand, Malual returned to the homeland he had fled as a Lost Boy 16 years before. He arrived to find that his mother had died 2 years earlier in a car accident.
Malual went back to the United States. Sudan, though, has never left his heart or mind, a point made clear on January 9, 2011, when—for the first time in his life—he cast a vote. On a bus with about 30 other southern Sudanese people from the Philadelphia area, Malual traveled to Alexandria, Virginia, one of the international polling locations for the referendum on independence for southern Sudan.
"We are lucky to have this opportunity," says Malual. "It's the making of history, and people are feeling proud. We are happy to be a part of history."
In quiet defiance of a half century of violence, the referendum process was organized and peaceful. Nearly 99 percent of votes cast in southern Sudan and across the globe called for the South to secede from the North to form Africa's newest nation.
On July 9, 2011, southern Sudan will become a new country with new opportunities. Malual knows struggles still lie ahead, yet he sees hope for the future of his homeland.
Catholic Relief Services continues to work throughout Sudan to promote a peaceful transition and to help the most vulnerable people in the region.
"Religious groups like CRS were there during wartime and they are there now," says Malual. "On the ground, they are offering a lot of help when people are not ready to help themselves. During the war, people were really suffering. The church groups were the ones taking care of people nobody was taking care of."
As a husband and father of two young girls, Malual speaks with enthusiasm about the opportunities now possible for this generation of children. He sees a future in which children can grow up in peace.
Malual hopes to return to Sudan after graduating with a master's degree in political science from Villanova University. He knows that, for many children in Sudan, a chance to study in the United States is a great experience, and he is excited that the next generation will have this opportunity in a time of peace rather than as a last resort in the face of terror.
"They will not be coming here as Lost Boys anymore."
Patrick Carney is an associate web producer, writer and editor for Catholic Relief Services. He is based at CRS headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.