When the men with guns come, go east where the sun rises. That's what James Nguen remembers being told as a little boy. So the morning after armed militia attacked his village in southern Sudan, slaughtering every living thing they found, he did. East towards Ethiopia on a dusty, deadly path walked by thousands of suddenly orphaned children that the world would come to know as Sudan's Lost Boys.
On that fateful, awful night in 1988, seven-year-old Nguen ran and hid in a bush outside the village until the violence subsided. When he crept back home, he found no one alive. So he started walking, meeting up with other little boys from different villages and tribes who were also on their own. He scanned each group of survivors for members of his family, but found none. By the time they reached Ethiopia, there was an estimated 26,000 children—mainly little boys—living and dying by themselves. Those who didn't die were left with horrific memories. There's no time for childhood when you have to bury your best friend before the wild animals get his body.
For years, the children were constantly on the move and struggling to stay alive as they were flushed out of refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan and finally into Kenya. They were a tragic symbol of the vicious 20-year civil war that had torn Sudan apart and killed millions. It was not until nearly two decades later and long after he'd emigrated to Canada that Nguen learned his mother and two sisters had actually survived that night raid and were still alive back in Sudan. His father, three siblings and eight half-brothers and sisters weren't so fortunate.
Flash forward 22 years and a world away, Nguen is a Canadian citizen living in Calgary with his wife and two young children. He's also a newly minted university graduate after earning his Bachelor of Arts degree last November from the University of Calgary's development studies program. Hard to imagine when you consider he'd arrived alone in this country as a Canadian government sponsor, just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He had limited English and only a Grade 7 education because he was short-sighted and had never owned a pair of glasses. "When I was younger, I was not even thinking that I'd be able to graduate from primary school, let alone university," says Nguen. "As a child, I was being groomed to be a good herder—of cattle and goats and so on—that was what my family thought I'd be good at."
As it turns out, maybe herding isn't his future. But he's certainly a leader. While enrolled in senior-level university courses, he founded the not-for-profit Biluany Literacy and Water project which has already raised about $60,000 to drill water wells and eliminate the water-borne illnesses that plague villages in south Sudan. In person, the soft-spoken, six-foot-tall Nguen quickly conveys an easy-going confidence and positive attitude.
He helped start the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan Association of Calgary. The new alumnus is also a burgeoning public speaker with more than 200 conferences, events and school visits already under his belt. "What has kept me moving is my hope for a better tomorrow. I knew that the path I decided to take was the right one and the only way to transcend my past."
Dr. Derrick Nault, who teaches in both the communication and culture and history departments of the Faculty of Arts, says Nguen is a diligent and hard-working student who relates well with others. In one 400-level course looking into African history, Nault had Nguen speak to his classmates about his experiences.
"It was really an amazing talk that just stuck in my mind," says Nault. "I could see that his story really shocked the other students. The Sudanese civil war was no longer just a historical event in a remote place where they were not affected. They could see someone right in front of them—who's actually Canadian now—who had gone through those terrible things."
As one can imagine, the connections between Lost Boys and Girls are strong. They tend to stick together. There are about 80 of them in Calgary alone and it's one of the main reasons why Nguen ended up here in the first place. When he first arrived in Canada he was alone in Kitchener, Ont. He talked to a Lost Boy in Calgary who told him to come out West because the opportunities were better. So he did.