He Fled Sudan And Made A New Life In The U.S. So Why Go Back? : Goats and Soda Daniel Majok Gai became a "Lost Boy" at age 6 and eventually made it to Denver, where he managed a hubcap business and earned a college degree. Now he's determined to help heal his troubled homeland.
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He Fled Sudan And Made A New Life In The U.S. So Why Go Back?

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He Fled Sudan And Made A New Life In The U.S. So Why Go Back?

He Fled Sudan And Made A New Life In The U.S. So Why Go Back?

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Sometimes one life can tell a larger story. And we're spending time this morning with a young man who has suffered through years of violence and pain, and yet he has this unbelievable optimism. His name's Daniel Majok Gai. He's from South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world. Today, they're marking four years of independence. But there's not much celebration because the country's being ripped apart by civil war yet again. The fact that Daniel holds out hope is extraordinary given what he's been through. And we should say this story does contain descriptions of some graphic violence. We first met Daniel last year when he told us about his childhood memories. He was 6 years old and a militia came and attacked his village.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DANIEL MAJOK GAI: My father, who was out there in the field, tried to look for our cattle. They came and attacked the home. I ran in a different direction that I was not even know. So from then, I never return home.

GREENE: He just kept running for miles and days. He became one of Sudan's famous Lost Boys - children of war who fled alone. Daniel spent 14 years on his own, mostly in refugee camps. And then finally, when he was 20 years old, news arrived at his camp in Kenya.

GAI: There was a bulletin board that take only 90 names. And when you see your name, you're knowing that you are applying to Nairobi and Nairobi to wherever you are taken. A friend of mine came and said, hey, Daniel, you are leaving on the 2 of September. I say, you're kidding? He say, for sure. I came, and it was Daniel Majok Gai there on the board. I look at it closely, and it says, you are going to Denver, Colo.

GREENE: Last week, we met Daniel in Denver, and he took us to the apartment where he arrived in 2001.

GAI: And so we were all living here - eight of us here - living here.

GREENE: We were in a small courtyard. His first-floor apartment was next to the laundry room. He remembers how a refugee agency had suggested that four men could probably fit.

GAI: I say no. I don't like that.

GREENE: That's because he really wanted to be with the other Lost Boys he had grown up with in the camps.

GAI: We were living in one bedroom, eight of us, no matter what. We don't need your mattresses. We don't need your beds. We can sleep on the floor.

GREENE: Adjusting to life in Denver was tough. For Daniel, things seemingly as simple as grocery shopping were bewildering.

GAI: Going to the store, you see these good meats around, a good one, but there's no cow, a single cow. Where does it come? Is it actually really a beef? Like, yeah. From where? From cow. Really? Yeah. And where is that cow? We've been here in town for almost a month, and we don't see cows.

GREENE: Daniel has a round face, dark skin, so when he laughs - and it is often - his white teeth beam. And he's a really driven guy.

GAI: My first job in America was with a company called Hub Cap Annie.

GREENE: Hub Cap Annie.

GAI: Annie - Hub Cap Annie sell hubcaps on the car.

GREENE: Daniel took selling hubcaps very seriously. He asked Annie, the owner, for homework. He wanted to study the catalog.

This is the catalog of different hubcaps.

GAI: Catalog, yeah, with hubcaps. I took it home here to this room, and I believe I stayed for almost seven hours cramming that book one night. I have to cram every picture that I see in that catalog.

GREENE: You wanted to learn about every type of hubcap that you could...

GAI: I want to learn every type of hubcap. After a week, I completed 80,000 caps. Eighty-thousand hubcaps in the store that was in that catalog, I went through their pages, no matter what, and I cram it all.

GREENE: And Daniel went on to manage Hub Cap Annie. He also went to college, and he became a U.S. citizen. And then an aid group was able to track down his family. He hadn't seen them since he was 6 years old. His mom, brothers and sister joined him in Denver. But his father, who Daniel had last seen years ago trying to save the family's cattle as the village was being attacked, would not come to the United States. Daniel desperately wanted to see his dad. And in 2010, nine years after arriving in Denver, Daniel worked with an NGO to get back to South Sudan.

GAI: The team told me, Daniel, your father might not know you. I say indeed. I might not even know my father.

GREENE: He will never forget landing at that dirt airstrip, walking down the steps of the plane and seeing a man off to the side, alone, in a cowboy hat.

GAI: Something in me is like, that old man there, it's your father for sure. He was so serious. He was just looking at who was getting out. And the moment I get out, the tears dropped down in my eyes. I just cried. And he just came down there, you know, like, coming so hard to me. And I ran to him. We grab each other.

GREENE: Sorry.

GAI: The first thing he said was, like, you look like my son. And I said, you look like my father. I'm back home to my town, my father is there. I felt like I'm born again.

GREENE: And his father's determination to stay in South Sudan brought out that same resolve in his son. Daniel moved back to the country in 2011 and worked for a Denver-based aid agency that builds schools. He got married and had a son. And he was there four years ago when South Sudan declared independence, that new flag being raised.

But soon, history repeated itself - for Daniel and his country. Civil war erupted again. Daniel was in his village with his wife and newborn and his elderly father when rebels attacked. Just like when he was 6 years old, he started running. He hid in the swamp for more than a week.

GAI: Living in water. And my son got sick - terribly ill - dysentery, diarrhea, you know, vomiting and all of that.

GREENE: Fortunately, Daniel was able to get his family out to Kenya. His baby son survived. For a year or so now, the family's been in Nairobi, and Daniel has a newborn daughter. But he is determined to move all of them back to South Sudan. Daniel's now running the aid agency he was working for - Project Education South Sudan - and that's how we caught up with him in Denver, working with the group to prepare for his return to South Sudan.

Can I just - I just want to read you something and get your response to it. This was Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF, which is an agency working there. He said the worsening violence against children is unspeakable. Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death. Girls as young as 8 have been gang-raped and murdered. Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats.

GAI: To me, when I read that - and I have read it over and over again - it's not new to me. It is something that I have witnessed. When I left home at gunpoint, this is what was going on.

GREENE: Aren't you worried about you and your family to go back to a - to a situation like this?

GAI: Where would I go? If I choose to stay here in America, it will be me and my family. I want to help the country.

GREENE: Daniel feels the place where he can do the most good is in South Sudan. That drive he has that helped him run a small business and get a college degree in the U.S., he feels like he could use it to save lives and help communities like his own around the city of Bor.

GAI: That's why I choose to go. I know where I live in Bor, my family will be safe.

GREENE: How do you know that?

GAI: I know that because I just came last month from there. And I sleep there. I eat there. I work there during the daytime, so I'm safe. I'm not 100 percent, but I say yes, I'm safe. To me, I think democracy doesn't come without violence. It doesn't come without discussion. It doesn't come without experience and a story that guide people.

GREENE: But if Daniel is saying that it takes struggle and sacrifice to really build and appreciate democracy, how much can a country take? South Sudan is embroiled in a war pitting two ethnic groups against each other - the Dinka and the Nuer. Both are represented in the South Sudanese diaspora, including in Denver. We stopped with Daniel at a coffee shop in city's bohemian neighborhood of Five Points.

GAI: I know this guy. Gatwek.

GREENE: We were meeting up with a guy Daniel knows, Gatwek Deng. He's a fellow South Sudanese refugee who arrived in Colorado the same year Daniel did.

GATWEK DENG: I don't mean to interrupt you...

GAI: Yes, yes, I...

DENG: ...But you know what happened in 2006? You know what happened?

GAI: Exactly.

GREENE: As the two men chatted, you could feel the ethnic tensions reach even here, to a coffee shop a world away. Daniel is from the same ethnic group as the country's president. Gatwek is from the other ethnic group, and he says his people don't trust the government or its military.

DENG: If government's troops come because we see them not as government troops, but people that are just bringing destruction. And then those people over there will differ themselves. And let's be frank about that, it's not encouraging, the problem. But it's about...

GAI: That's different.

DENG: ...Defending yourself.

GAI: That's different.

GREENE: All this definitely brought out a different side of Daniel.

GAI: If I find people in Colorado here that are talking the same way you are, I would one day say, you are the one killing large amount of people because you are telling them something that is not true.

GREENE: Their back and forth, about who's to blame in South Sudan, went on for more than an hour. And it made us wonder if these tensions extend here to a coffeehouse, to two men who want to get along and want peace in their country, how hard is it to ease those tensions in an impoverished place with a long history of atrocities and a place where weapons are easy to find? The back and forth with Gatwek did seem to shake up Daniel a bit. He sounded more desperate than ever to get to South Sudan and help.

GAI: I think - it is this time now for us - to me, this is the time. There's no other time. I don't believe a second - minute out and say somebody will come and do it. What have we not seen, beginning with somebody like me? What hell have we not seen?

GREENE: What hell have we not seen? That question from Daniel Majok Gai is the one hanging over South Sudan today as it marks four years of independence in the middle of a bloody civil war.

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