If you have lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for any length of time, someone likely has asked you this question: “Do you know David Jal?”
When I ask this, I actually mean, have you had the pleasure of knowing this Godly man and hearing his story? Simply knowing of him means you know he is a gentle, kind and patient . He is a Court Services Officer for the South Dakota Unified Judicial System (more commonly known as a parole officer) with a steadfast Christian faith. Tall and dark-skinned, he is a first-generation South Sudanese-American, married with four beautiful children who all attend the Sioux Falls School District.
But this infectiously joyful man is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan– a group characterized as the most war-traumatized children ever examined. As a young boy, he survived two life-threatening injuries; first from a severe bullet wound and second from a grenade to the chest. He miraculously survived impossibly long journeys across deserts without food or adequate water. He lost 13 brothers and his father during to Sudanese conflict. And despite these experienced and witnessed horrors, his Christian faith is strong, his compassion great and his desire to improve his home Khor Wakow Village is genuine and gaining traction.
Sudan’s recent history begins with independence from Britain in 1956. But civil war immediately proceeded and continued for 50 years- making Sudan’s Civil War the longest in recorded history. Sudanese Civil War stemmed from divisions among several lines. The Islamic Northerners are Muslim, Arabic-speaking and urban. The Roman Catholic and indigenously religious Southerners are largely Christian, English-speaking and rural. Although the North had more of the urban centers of the nation, they depended heavily on the South for natural resources such as oil and minerals. In all, these competing identities and interests created an organized civil war between the central Sudanese government (North) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA (South).
As polygamy is commonly practiced in Sudan, David’s father had three wives, 15 sons and 10 daughters. Born in 1975, David and his family raised cattle, goats and sheep providing wealth and means for survival. Compared with others in the village, the Jal family was considered well-off. With large herds of cattle to be used as currency, David’s father could provide milk and meat for his family, the power to barter with others and to allow his sons to marry.
And although relative prosperity within his family existed, The Civil War was a source of strife and fear for David and his family. Over half of the young men who call themselves Lost Boys were child soldiers to some degree or another. At age eight, SPLA arrived at his village to collect child soldiers to fight for the “rights of the South”. He left his family and spent 8 months in a military training camp.
Now nine years-old and a graduate of SPLA military training, David carried an AK-47 to the front line of his first combat mission. Many of his friends perished during this initial combat, but David narrowly survived- sustaining a bullet wound to his lower extremity- entering the left buttock and exiting the left lower leg. Returning to military headquarters, his wound did not appear life-threatening and therefore volunteer physicians focused their attention on more critical cases. After 7 long months, with the bullet still in his foot, his left leg progressively swelled and his family became concerned for his life.
Jal’s father requested the military general to discharge David home. But the general denied his release, certain word would get around that injured boys could return home whenever a boy became injured and a family requested.
David’s father replied, “What if I paid you 20 cows?”
With no deliberation, the general replied “Your son can go home.”
In an effort to spare David’s life, his father and brother walked six hours a day to obtain penicillin in a neighboring country to treat the infection… without avail. David’s leg infection persisted. Desperate for any type of doctor, surgeon or practitioner, they turned to a “sorcerer” for help.
Physicians were in very short supply, but every tribe has a sorcerer trained to make distinct set of marks on the forehead as a rite of passage.
The man showed up with small bag full of knives and a stick. He asked David to extend his foot out to him, then to bite on the stick and “not let go”. He had nothing to numb the foot. His father and brother were there to hold him down as needed. The bullet was removed and within three weeks he was able to walk on his own. His family welcomed David but worried when the military might collect him again. Unfortunately, something even more dangerous and surprising happened next.
Central Sudanese forces attacked the Khor Wakow Village at 4am. Islamic military threw a hand grenade into the hut David was living. Due to massive bleeding from his chest, David passed out and appeared dead to his family. The family fled the scene but returned the next day, planning to bury his body.
“But this was not my day [to die]”
David suffered significant blood loss and soft-tissue damage but miraculously no broken bones nor internal injuries.
Forced to leave Khor Wakow Village to seek refuge from the conflict, the entire family trekked to Ethiopia. Along the way, David’s father boiled water to cleanse his wounds but didn’t dare remove the shrapnel. They walked six days and six nights with almost no rest.
Once he arrived at the border, David was airlifted with other injured villagers to an Ethiopian hospital. It was at this point David became separated from his family. Little did he know, by the time he would see them again, almost all his brothers would be killed in the Sudanese conflict and David would be 20 years older.
After two weeks of medical care, David moved to Pinyudo, an Ethiopian refuge camp. He anticipated his family would be waiting for him, but were not there. Remote and barren, the camp had no telephone and no means of communication with David’s family.
For the next five years, David shared a cramped tent with 4 boys- one as young as seven. Being the oldest, David became their designated leader. The United Nations provided every chid with a mat, blanket and distributed 4kg of maize every 15 days. This required strict rationing- often restricting meals to every other day.
The boys slept soundly, felt secure, ate some food and even attended school. However, hunger plagued the camp, and the greatest struggle remained not knowing where their families were or if they were alive.
After five years, camp suddenly dismantled during the rainy season of May. Headed for Kenya, David crossed the tumultuous Gilo River with two boys on his back. He continues to mourn one of his tent-mates who drowned during the crossing.
For two months, the boys migrated south to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. The Lost Boys on this migration were on average extremely malnourished as food was sourced through donations from villages encountered along the way, hunting, and theft. In order to survive, they drank filthy water they could find and ate mud to trick their stomachs into feeling full.
They were also vulnerable to heat exhaustion, pneumonia and malaria and other diseases for which they had little means of prevention or treatment. Additionally, attacks by lions, snakes and other wild animals were not uncommon. It is estimated that over half of the young migrants died along their journey due to starvation, dehydration, disease, attacks by wild animals and enemy soldiers. Conditions were made even more dangerous by the SPLA soldiers, who would attack the boys or forcibly recruit them.
The journey of the Lost Boys was filled with suffering and unknowns as the boys rarely knew the direction they were headed.
The arrival of the Lost Boys to Kenya’s Kakuma village were welcomed to various degrees. None of David’s group had paperwork to prove their identity and they decided to penetrate Kenya’s border via a side road. Caught by authorities, David and the boys spent seven days in jail. Everyday they cleaned the police station until one day a local Catholic priest visited. He inquired about their arrest, spoke with the police and returned stating the boys were released.
“I could understand English pretty well … and I told the boys that [the priest] didn’t know what he was talking about!”
-David Jal, upon hearing he and his friends would be released from jail
Not only did this man aid in their release, he rented them a place to sleep, purchased food for all of them and rented a lorry for transport to Kakuma Kenyan Refugee Camp.
David lived there for 4.5 years. But in a strange turn of events, David was selected among the very first Lost Boys to travel to the US. The State Department distributed refugee names to local offices, hoping families would recognize their relatives and connect. David’s cousin Elizabeth came to South Dakota in ’93 as a refugee. Now November 1995, David was invited to the United States of America!
The International Organization for Migration arranged flights and initial travel expenses. Wisely, the department recommended delay of travel to South Dakota until June when weather would be similar to East Africa.
David had one hope- to become educated for his parents sake. He knew nothing about his parents from last 10 years, but he knew the United States would provide an education and security of which his parents would be proud.
Because many boys were over the age of 18, they were unable to be placed into the foster care system. Thus, they were placed into apartment complexes with one another in hopes that they would sustain the kind of family atmosphere that was cultivated in Kakuma.
Also because boys were now considered legal adults, they could not attend public high school- a devastating reality for David. Lutheran Social Services tested David into the 9th grade and he fortunately could earn his GED through Volunteers of America/Turning Point.
Now enrolled at University of South Dakota, David fell in love twice. Most importantly, David met his future wife, Janine. But David also fell in love with social work and the vocation of paying forward the kindness shown him as a Sudanese refugee.
“If I can help anyone, this is where I belong.”
-David Jal, explaining his decision to chose social work as a major
It is worth pausing here to note the remarkable character of David. He thanks God for all he has and is grateful for every kind gift shown him- despite the circumstances which might have embittered others.
While at Lutheran Social Services, David’s British cousin traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and found his mother! After knowing nothing of his family for 18 years, his cousin gave him a photo of his mom (never having seen a photo of his mother ever before!) He couldn’t sleep with excitement. He and Janine made arrangements for David to fly to Gambella, Ethiopia and see her.
His first trip was a sad disappointment. His mother wasn’t able to leave her refugee camp until 5 weeks after his arrival, too long for David to risk being gone. Another year passed and David returned, this time seeing his mother for the first time in 19 years!
“We were 15 boys, 10 girls. My mother broke sad news. 12 brothers died since we separated. My father died one year after I went to The United States. As a result, she was caring for 38 grandchildren alone in a refugee camp. I was smiling- ‘Mom, I have a job and I can help you. Don’t worry. You won’t even go back to that refugee camp. I will support you!'”
-David Jal to his mother, their first conversation after being 19 years separated
David studied war and conflict with postgraduate studies at University of North Dakota. He asked himself what will our children’s lives be like who know only guns? Whose girls marry at 14 years old and don’t attend school? In answer to his own question, David started the Khor Wakow School Project. He started an under-tree school.
The village chief complained that girls gather firewood and grind corn to provide for village needs. If girls attended school, who would do this work?
David teamed up with Donn and Brenda Hill, friends from the Sioux Falls community, to problem-solve. They built easy-to-use grinders, efficient enough for the elders to use. Having returned to Khor Wakow with a tangible solution, girls now attend school with the tribe’s blessing. Girls bring corn and sorghum to school, two elders grind grain during the school day and girls claim full bags at the end.
David and Brenda and Donn Hill built 8 temporary school locations, serving over 6000 kids in the Khor Wakow Village. This is a priceless gift to David’s village, however, The United Nations report only 27% of 12 million South Sudanese have some sort of education. Continued conflict can be traced to this lack of formal education in the country. Strengthening programs like KWSP are critical to South Sudan’s endurance.
I know David Jal, and now you do too! His Khor Wakow School Project is a bridge between South Dakota and South Sudan. David’s life allows those with extras to provide for those with just enough. Millions of young boys and girls from the world’s youngest country are now connected to our Midwest state. Please consider the following ways to give, connect and learn more:
Consider donating here
Khor Wakow School Project
P.O. Box 295
Sioux Falls, SD 57101-0295