A Sudanese 'lost boy' brings his dreams home

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 16, 2011

IN JUBA, SUDAN Abraham Akoi strolled confidently through a door marked with a sticker that read: "Secession."

The tall, rail-thin D.C. resident walked up the stairs of the Ministry of Finance here in southern Sudan, entering a world he had never expected to enter.

As he walked into his office, another man smiled and declared: "Separation!" Hazy sunlight glinted on the man's purple-shaded thumb, a sign that he had just voted.

That morning, Akoi, too, had taken part in Sudan's historic week-long referendum, which ended Saturday. He had voted for the south to secede from the north, as most people in this region were expected to do.

For Akoi, it was the latest stop in an extraordinary journey. It began with a dangerous walk across mountains and deserts when as a child he fled a civil war. It stretched to refugee camps and prestigious American universities and now unfolds back here amid great hope and trepidation over what could soon become the world's newest country.

"I still can't believe that I am here," said Akoi, 31.

Ten years ago, Akoi stepped off a plane in Atlanta, one of several thousand "lost boys" whose hardship and escape from Sudan's brutal 22-year conflict captured the imagination of Americans. Thousands of southern Sudanese were resettled in the United States, and most struggled to blend into their adopted communities. But many, like Akoi, excelled.

Akoi earned a degree in history and economics from the University of the South in Tennessee, then a master's degree in government and an MBA from Johns Hopkins University. He had internships at the Carter Center in Atlanta and with Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), who has championed causes in Africa.

Today, Akoi's life has come full circle. Southern Sudanese living in the United States could have voted in several U.S. cities. But Akoi and many other "lost boys" chose to return to their homeland to vote and help propel it into its next era.

"It is a fulfillment of a mission we for so long have yearned to accomplish," said Valentino Achak Deng, whose own journey was portrayed in the novel "What Is the What." "It is a day when I feel like someone has finally given me my voice. It was important for us to be here, to be on this soil."

'Thinking about the past'

The day Akoi voted, the memories flooded back: fleeing his village at the age of 11. Walking, hungry and tired, to neighboring Ethiopia. Fleeing militias and bombers. Then returning to southern Sudan, only to flee again to a refugee camp in Kenya. Learning that his father and three brothers had died in the war.

As he stepped up to the cardboard booth to cast his vote, his hands shook.

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