The long odds against a South Sudanese refugee

"The truth of the human condition is that we are born into different circumstances," said Paul Lorem, Yale sophomore, who spent 10 of his 21 years in a Kenyan refugee camp. The School welcomed Mr. Lorem as Hall speaker as part of its commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. When asked what it was like to be at Yale and in such comparative wealth after his years in the camp, he said, "I don't begrudge you who are born into comfortable and rich circumstances. The best thing is to appreciate what you have. We don't choose where we are born."

Paul was born to a family of cattle herders in a remote South Sudanese village of thatch-roof huts and no functioning health clinics or schools, no paved roads for miles. The region was embroiled in civil war and when Paul was critically ill with tuberculosis at age five, his parents brought him to Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya in hope of medical care. Leaving him there in the care of boys only slightly older than himself, they returned to their village, and later died. Paul spent the next ten years living with other unaccompanied minors in a special zone, sharing a shelter with a dozen boys and a few men.

Refugee life for boys without families was as hard as one dare imagine, and worse. "We ate one meal a day which consisted of yellow corn grains and a few white beans. His hunger memories are necessarily visceral. "My hunger would ebb and flow and when it came to me, I felt it everywhere. I felt it in my stomach, chest, arms, and thighs. I blacked out a dozen times a day. Sometimes when I stood up quickly the corners of my vision would darken and I would wake up on the ground." In retrospect, he believes this experience taught him to be strong in mind, body, and character.

Clean running water was scarce. Water they excavated from dry riverbeds, rife with bacteria and other pathogens, resulted in the death of many of his young peers through dysentery, diarrhea, malaria, typhoid, and unnamed afflictions. "Of the twelve people in my group, we lost three boys and a man who was a former SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] soldier."

Thanks to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the boys not only were able to improve their shelters with tarpaulins and poles, but were educated in basic literacy skills in makeshift schools, where often classes of 300 students crowded together under trees. The frequent illness and deaths made studying difficult for the children, recalls Paul. "Frustrated with it all, many boys would simply not go to school. For my group, the two older men encouraged us to fight on, and so all of us continued with school. It was safer than being in Sudan and, moreover, we had nothing else to do."

Even without the advantage of a notebook or pencil early on, Paul's academic efforts and skill were noticed by his teachers who eventually recommended him to Kenya's Alliance High School, and from there, to South Africa's African Leadership Academy. For Paul each transition presented new challenges and opportunities, noting that "life became easier, and school became harder." But it was from the Academy that he applied to and was accepted at Yale.

Paul's story is infused with gratitude, a transformative lens through which he looks back. Gratitude is an attitude one can choose, unlike the arbitrariness of birthplace. Paul said, "Many of my dear and former friends in the camp, and thousands of my fellow country men and women, did not make it. May God be with them all, for I owe my success so far to the invaluable support, guidance, love, and encouragement they accorded me during the ten years I spent in Kakuma. Many believed that I had something within me to offer the world even when my own parents doubted. They encouraged and guided me to endure, to be strong, to be hopeful, to be disciplined, to be respectful, to be grateful, and more important—to struggle. Even though we were nowhere and everything was dust, they made me believe that we would get somewhere in due course."

“How I got to Yale was pure luck, combined with lots of people helping me," Paul told journalist Nicholas D. Kristof in an interview that appeared in the New York Times last March. "I had a lot of friends who maybe had almost the same ability as me, but, due to reasons I don’t really understand, they just couldn’t make it through. If there’s one thing I wish, it’s that they had more opportunity to get education.”

According to Kristof, Paul loves Yale, but, academically, it has been a tough transition, partly because English is Lorem’s not second, nor third, but fifth language (he also speaks Didinga, Toposa, Arabic, and Swahili). Jeffrey Brenzel, the Yale admissions director, put it this way: “On the one hand, these adjustments are greater for him than for many, but, on the other hand, he has already overcome far greater challenges than other students have just to get here.”

Paul's testimony gives credence to Martin Luther King's words, "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice," as quoted by Kerry Brennan in his opening remarks. Paul's story is one that needs to be heard everywhere, as much here where we are awash in wealth and opportunity as in the teeming refugee camps that dot the globe. Paul closed his address with this hope:

Finally, as you commemorate the universally esteemed legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the enviable progress that your country has made in social justice and civil rights, I hope, in addition to thinking about ways to serve others on this day, you’ll spare some time to remember that social justice and civil rights are still wildest dreams for so many people in several regions across the world (and indeed spectacularly so in my country of birth), as epitomized by the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the crisis in the Middle East, and particularly the increasingly dire situation in Syria.

From King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, read by Aman Stuppard I in Hall, this line remains as true today as it ever was: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

(See photos from Hall.)

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