The bus trip from Philadelphia to Alexandria, Va., took only three hours, but the journey for these Sudanese “Lost Boys” was much, much longer.
On Sunday, Jan. 9, a group of 30 South Sudanese living locally in Philadelphia boarded a coach bus in Northeast Philly for a trip they will never forget. The destination in Alexandria, one of only eight official U.S. polling locations, was their opportunity to cast a historic vote in Sudan’s referendum election. The referendum’s outcome will ultimately decide whether South Sudan will remain part of Sudan or secede to form its own country.
Among the South Sudanese nationals making the trip was Malual DengDuot, a transplanted “Lost Boy” of Sudan who is now earning his master’s degree in political science at Villanova University.
DengDuot escaped his war-torn home country in 2000 during the Second Sudanese Civil War and is one of approximately 30,000 displaced “Lost Boys” of Sudan. Now more than a decade later, he is just months away from completing his graduate studies at Villanova.
It was during his time at Villanova that DengDuot met Dr. Timothy Horner, a professor in the Villanova Center for Liberal Education, with whom he shares a common interest – Africa. Horner is the faculty advisor for Villanova’s chapter of STAND, a student-led division of the anti-genocide coalition, and has visited Africa on numerous occasions.
After first hearing DengDuot discuss his experiences as a Sudanese “Lost Boy,” Horner invited him to speak to the students in his “Dilemma of Genocide” class about the past, present and future of Sudan. DengDuot and Horner continued to speak extensively about Sudan and the importance of the 2011 Referendum Election.
It was during their conversations that Horner saw an opportunity to help. Knowing that the trip to Alexandria wasn’t necessarily an easy one and that some local South Sudanese might not be able to make the arrangements necessary to go, Horner decided to organize and sponsor two Villanova bus trips for Malual and others: one to register for the referendum in late November, and the other for the actual January referendum election.
“I was just in a place and a position to offer something like that and make it happen,” Horner said. “I am also fortunate to be part of a university that is invested in such things. I knew there were some people that would be unable to go down for the referendum. But because we offered access and made the trip easier, they had that opportunity.
“This experience helped a number of people feel connected to this vote, to their community and to Sudan in a way they haven’t in a long time,” Horner added.
It took just one step off the bus in Alexandria to sense the joy and pride of the Sudanese community, as well as the magnitude of the referendum vote.
“It was amazing experience,” Horner said. “To stand and walk with Malual and others into the center and touch hands with them after the vote – it is rare to be part of someone’s story like that. When you back away from the event, you realize that you were a part of something so much bigger.”
What lies ahead for Sudan, as well as for DengDuot, remains to be seen. However, Horner believes DengDuot will play a role in the future of his home country.
“Only time will reveal the magnitude and importance of the referendum, but I have little doubt that we witnessed the beginning of what will be a new country,” Horner said.
“What’s so great about Malual is that he is not only focused on educating himself, but has the desire to return to Sudan to give back,” added Horner. “It is this type of difference-maker and selfless leader that Sudan will need moving forward. That’s a hopeful sign for the country – that people like him want to go back and help build a new nation.”
“I was in a refugee camp for years,” DengDuot said. “When I came to the U.S., I got a lot of help. I want to pay that back to my own people.”
The bus trip was just one of a number of Villanova University efforts in support of Sudan. On Dec. 7, the University held a “Vigil for Peace in Sudan” that included a candle lighting and prayer for peace. During the vigil, participants made cell phone calls to the White House comment line to leave messages encouraging President Obama to continue to press for peace and stability in Sudan before, during and after the referendum. In addition, STAND, as well as other campus organizations and members of the Villanova community are advocating, educating and raising consciousness for peace and stability in Sudan.