A 'Lost Boy of Sudan' Dreams of Medical School

PHOTO John Kuai recounts his childhood and explains how he pays for his education.ABC News
John Kuai recounts his childhood and explains how he pays for his education.

John Kuai works hard to come up with the money for school tuition. He works the overnight shift at a local cigar factory in Jacksonville, Fla. After sleeping for a few hours, he heads to his biology, chemistry and physics classes at the University of North Florida, where he is a junior.

Kuai has a calm presence and a quiet voice with a heavy accent. He's bald with a thin mustache, and he leans forward when he talks. Photographs and certificates boasting of his educational achievements line the walls of the bedroom in his apartment. Kuai smiles in his Florida Community College graduation pictures as he receives his associate's degree.

And he isn't done yet. He is now studying to get into medical school so he can give back to the land he was forced to leave behind: southern Sudan.

VIDEO: John Kuai recounts his childhood, explains how he pays for his education. Play

In 1987, when he was just 8 years old, Sudanese militants from northern Sudan attacked his village, destroying his family. His father, a farmer, was killed in front of him. Other friends and relatives were also murdered. He fled, and Kuai said God gave him the hope to keep walking.

"I was so devastated," Kuai said. "It was the first experience of loss in my life."

Kuai is one of the 3,800 so-called Lost Boys of Sudan who came to America as survivors of Africa's longest civil war, which began in 1955 and ended with an uneasy peace pact between north and south in 2005. Economic, political and religious divisions still plague the country. A recent election was riddled with fraud, increasing tension within the country's borders, reported The New York Times.

Will Latest Efforts End Suffering in Sudan?Play

The civil war killed more than 2 million people and displaced another 4 million, according to the U.S. State Department.

Kuai Flees With Other 'Lost Boys'

The Lost Boys of Sudan, a name given by aid workers after the characters in "Peter Pan," lost their families and escaped their attacked villages. Some were only 5 years old. Kuai and the other Lost Boys who banded together were from different villages and did not even speak the same language. They traveled for months together, staving off starvation, wild animals and disease as they tried to find safety.

If boys fell ill, they relied on others to take care of them.

VIDEO: Sudans President charged with crimes against humanityPlay

"If you didn't have a close friend to carry you, they just left you by the side of the road," Kuai said. "They ended up dying. That was really a big tragedy."

He and the boys he traveled with were among 30,000 children escaping their villages in southern Sudan. Kuai arrived in Ethiopia and stayed there with the boys he traveled with for four years, where many died from cholera, malaria and diarrhea -- all curable diseases.

Each night in the refugee camp, young volunteers would lay the bodies of children who died on the side of the road. Kuai was one of these volunteers.

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"When we went to Ethiopia, we didn't have any elders, so it was our responsibility to bury our own friends and brothers that had lost their lives," he said.

Then civil war broke out in Ethiopia, and Kuai was forced out of the country. It was 1991, and in order to escape Ethiopian rebels and get back to Sudan, he had to swim the Gilo River.

It had been four years since he fled his home, and crossing the river would turn out to be one of the more harrowing experiences of his life.

As the boys swam, Kuai said gunfire rained down upon them. Hippos and crocodiles swarmed the water as boys fell into the strong current, trying to escape the bullets.

"When I looked back, I saw so many children that were crying and waving for help," Kuai said, "so I had the courage to come back and do anything necessary."

Kuai said he grabbed a tree log and told others to hold on in the water. He saved five boys. Thousands of others drowned as the river ran red.

"Even up to now, I sometimes ask myself, 'Why did I live?'" Kuai said. "And the answer that usually comes to my mind is that maybe I lived to tell this story to the world."

After surviving the Gilo River, he eventually found his way to Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp.

"I hoped that there would be a better day," Kuai said, "and that was God that gave me the inner hope that I found."

In 2001, about 3,800 Lost Boys, including Kuai, were granted refugee status in the U.S. and about 135 settled down in Jacksonville.

Joan Hecht Becomes Mentor to 'Lost Boys'

Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida picked his name from a list of Lost Boys compiled by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Kuai didn't know he was heading to Florida until two weeks before he left Kenya. Many of his friends traveled to different states.

He flew from Kenya to Amsterdam to New York to Jacksonville, and it was his first time flying. Lutheran Social Services helped Kuai apply for government assistance and find a job.

Jacksonville resident Joan Hecht got the chance to meet these young men through local church services, and once she heard their stories, she knew this was her calling.

"It was probably the most incredible story I've ever heard in my life, and something just really touched me in my heart," Hecht said.

Hecht became a mentor to some of Jacksonville's Lost Boys, and she is affectionately known as Mama Joan. She helped them make the cultural transition to the States and taught them basic tasks, such as relying on walk signals to cross the street, using a can opener and eating with a fork and knife.

"And driving, oh my gosh, we have so many stories about driving," Hecht said. "They hit cars, drove in ditches. And this is something that I knew was not my gift early on. I'm not a driver's ed teacher."

Other little things, like receiving ice in a drink, were surprising.

"So many things that we take for granted are just astounding to them," she said.

Hecht Establishes Nonprofit

They had an incredible desire to learn, Hecht said, and that's why in 2004 she established the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan, a nonprofit that assists the Lost Boys in the U.S. and Sudan with their medical and educational needs.

The organization has helped clinics in southern Sudan as well as helped build a house and an orphanage. Money is also being raised to build water wells, which cost about $14,000 each.

"Each year that passes, we kind of grow with the need, and right now we're concentrating heavily in southern Sudan," Hecht said.

Another big focus of the Alliance has been education. It has assisted more than 55 Lost Boys and Sudanese refugees with college tuition and books, and those efforts have certainly paid off: some of the men are now graduating on dean's lists, president's lists and in national honor societies.

Hecht has watched her Lost Boys grow.

"They, when first arriving to our city, were more like young boys in young men's bodies," Hecht said. "Now they're actually becoming young men. They're raising families of their own, graduating."

Kuai is no exception. In Sudan, where people vastly outnumber the amount of available physicians and where people die of curable, preventable diseases, Kuai wants to do his part in keeping his people well.

"He wants to help his people, and the best way to do that is by becoming a doctor," Hecht said.

He is expected to finish his bachelor's degree in December at the University of North Florida. He is planning to take the MCAT and get into medical school.

Kuai is now 29 years old, or at least that's the age assigned to him by the UNHCR. Many of the Lost Boys are New Year's babies: Kuai and many of the others were assigned a Jan. 1 birthday.

About half of the Lost Boys who settled in the U.S. have returned to Sudan, Hecht said. But of those who stayed in the U.S., she said three Lost Boys in Jacksonville have wanted to become doctors, and at least two more wanted to become nurses. On a national level, Hecht said she has met a handful who want to work in the medical field.

'He Will Have a Better Life'

Deng Chol, founder and vice president of the national Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, which is based in Mississippi, is also a Lost Boy. He said he hasn't seen that many Lost Boys going into the medical field due to the amount of time one has to dedicate to schooling.

He said he commends Kuai for wanting to become a doctor.

"He will have a better life as an individual, and the people of southern Sudan will benefit from his career as well," Chol said.

Kuai recently won a University of North Florida Foundation award, the Albert D. Ernest Jr. Caring Award, for his compassion in Sudan and his work in the classroom.

"This was like a calling," Kuai said. "It got me more energy to help other people."

Maris Brien, assistant director of University of North Florida Foundation Scholarships, said a donor wanted to honor volunteerism and caring behavior that is shown by a UNF student, and Kuai fit the bill.

"Even though he's working full-time and goes to school, he finds the time to help other people out and he's always there when you call him and need him," Brien said. "When people ask help from him, he won't say no."

As part of his volunteerism, Kuai also travels to different schools to talk to students about the situation in Sudan.

"I tell them that when I was a kid, I didn't have many choices," Kuai said. "The only choice I had was live or die."

And as for Hecht, who thinks of Kuai as a son, she said nothing he could do would surprise her. She expects him to be the head of a large hospital in Sudan one day after he finishes medical school.

"I'm just like a messenger," Kuai said, "so if I go back to my country, I can tell them this is what I have got in America. I can do my part to make southern Sudan a better place."

To learn more about the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan, visit the group's Web site.

ABCNews.com contributor April Dudash is a member of the University of Florida ABC News on Campus bureau.