• Story courtesy Seward County Community College
Midterms are over, and it’s time for Seward County Community College business major Peter Alaak to start studying for final exams. He’ll prepare during his off hours from a full-time job at the local packing plant, pouring over the principles and terms of U.S. government and business advertising in a language that isn’t his first.
Don’t expect Alaak to bemoan the challenges of finding a work-life-school balance. Earning a college degree is not the hardest task he has tackled.
That might be walking from his home village in South Sudan, to Ethiopia, when he was 11 years old. Or it might be walking from Ethiopia to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya two years later. Or, to put it more bluntly, it might be the task of staying alive despite civil war, famine, and international politics.
Yet if you ask Alaak what his greatest achievement is, he doesn’t stop to ponder the question:
“I am a U.S. citizen,” he says. “That is what my parents worked for, that is what my people are trying to figure out — how to get democracy. I’m really very happy, because God has blessed me to be in this country, and to belong in this country.”
In Chris Perkins’ U.S. Government class, Alaak brings a unique voice to class discussions.
“If you ask a question, he knows it. He’s read ahead, has an opinion that is not just out of left field, and I would guess that’s because he has seen some things during his life that give him perspective,” Perkins said. “His opinions are well thought-out. I just like the guy.”
When Alaak considers the American system, it stands in contrast to his experiences in a country without a stable government. A member of the Dinka tribe in South Sudan, Alaak grew up in the village of Kongor with two parents and three younger brothers. This region is part of the “green belt” of Central Africa, where the White Nile snakes through swamplands, tropical rain forest, and cropland. Cattle-herding is typical, English is spoken in addition to various tribal languages, and various flavors of Christianity mix with indigenous religion.
In 1983, civil war broke out between several factions that had struggled to gain control of the region since 1972. Then-president Gaafar Nimeiry attempted to place the entire country under Sharia law, even though many Sudanese people, especially in the southern areas, were not Muslim. A militia, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement formed, with various groups splitting off, and the country dissolved into war. Famine followed. In all, the civil war continued for 22 years, finally ending in 2005. Then, in 2011, South Sudan declared itself an independent nation.
For Alaak, the events summary does not come close to describing the impact on his life. By 1989, he recalls, “the adults in my village knew we might be killed or abducted to fight as soldiers.” Several teachers lobbied to help move their students — Alaak estimates there were between 600 and 1,000 children in the village —to a safer location.
“My mom was not willing to do this, but my father was older, 60 or 70 years old,” Alaak says. “He knew what was coming.”
Thus it was decided that Alaak and his 9-year-old brother would leave. Their destination was uncertain, but escape was better than conscription as a child soldier, the worst-case scenario for boys, or capture, rape, and death, the worst-case scenario for girls. The boys who left on the long trek eventually became known as “The Lost Boys.”
The journey of 1,000 miles led the group northeast to Ethiopia. Along the way, they asked for food from villagers, gathered fruit and maize, and sometimes hunted. Just as pressing as the hunger was the sense of danger. The countryside is home to wild animals — lions, leopards, cheetahs, snakes, elephants, warthogs, buffalo. Military groups roamed freely. More than half the 20,000 boys who fled died along the way, according to United Nations estimates.
Alaak’s group included his little brother Joseph, cousins Deng, Garan and Yuotu, and a nephew, also named Deng. Miraculously, all of them survived the first leg of the journey and found refuge in Ethiopia for two years. Then, the strain on the government became too heavy, and the Lost Boys left once more, this time to walk to Kenya. When they arrived at the “new refugee camp” they’d been told waited for them, “there was no building. There was no food,” Alaak says. “We stayed. There was no other place for us to go.”
In time, Kakuma Camp gained buildings to house nearly 200,000 people. Twenty-six years after its establishment in 1991, it continues to operate with support from the government of Kenya, the UN’s High Commission for Refugees, and nonprofit groups such as the Lutheran World Federation, the Jesuit Refugees Services, and the International Rescue Committee.
In the camp, schooling and medical care were available, but that did not make life easy. According to the online newspaper “The Kakuma Reflector,” which is written and operated by refugees, the small city of thatched roof huts, tents, and mud abodes is “equally prison and exile. Once admitted, refugees do not have freedom to move about the country but are required to obtain Movement Passes from the UNHCR and Kenyan Government. The refugees are confined to the Kakuma camp area: they may not seek education or employment outside of it.”
Even so, refugees have organized schools, arts groups, the online newspaper, and various groups to assist residents with help from private aid organizations.
Alaak’s ticket out was a long time coming, nearly 10 years. Through a special arrangement with the United States Government, nearly 4,000 of the 17,000 Lost Boys who could not be reunited with their families were granted entrance to the U.S. in 2001. Alaak’s father had been killed; his mother was now in the refugee camp. With his nephew, Deng, he came to the U.S. where he was placed in Houston.
His first task? Paperwork.
“They asked my birthday, and I didn’t know,” he said. “I just guessed, ‘I am 24,’ and we put down the date, January 1, 1978.”
Alaak went to work immediately, motivated by the need to help support his three younger brothers, and his mother, pay for his own expenses in the U.S., and begin a new life. He worked as a linen launderer at at hospital in the city. He sorted electronic parts as a quality controller for a computer manufacturer. He attended classes at a community college, polished his English, and studied for the citizenship test. And he made a new plan for his life.
“In America, people always are thinking about the long-term consequences, the long-term plan. They build the future for themselves,” he said. “So, I am doing that too.” Alaak’s plan included building a family. He wanted a Sudanese wife and children, and he wanted to remain a strong provider for his family of birth. To do all that, he would need to be a U.S. citizen who could work, earn a college degree, and travel back to Africa freely.
“There are difficulties,” he said, “but I tried to find ways to get past them.” Alaak learned he could earn more money in the packing house jobs that dot communities in Southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, so he moved and took a job at Seaboard Foods in Guymon.
“The work is not easy, though some people are lucky to get a spot that is not so hard. I go, and I sweat on the line. It’s for the time being,” he said. “I am thinking about the future.”
In time, Alaak earned enough to finance a trip back to central Africa. He visited his mother, and moved her out of Kakuma, to a better situation; she died in 2014. On that first visit in 2009, Alaak also met and married a wife, Rachel, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He returned to the U.S., and continued working, earning, saving. He went back to visit his wife in 2011, and repeated the cycle in 2013 and 2015. The couple now have three daughters, 7 year-old Monica, 3 year-old Adau, and 8 month-old Adhieu.
Along the way, Alaak changed employment to National Beef Packing in Liberal, in order to more easily enroll at SCCC. In May, he will earn an Associate of Science degree in Marketing and Management. Next, he plans to complete a bachelor’s degree, perhaps at nearby Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell.
“I have to get the education, and after that, I will bring my family here,” Alaak said. “The responsibility of supporting my family means I cannot be as flexible for now. It will be different when I get another kind of job.
“God has already blessed me to get this education. That is how things will change,” he said, nodding to the glimpse he already has of this brighter future in the life of his oldest daughter.
“She went to kindergarten in Kenya last year, and she was the top one in her class. She’s smart. She is now in grade two, and she tells me, ‘I want to be a president, and if a lady cannot be a president, I will be a journalist.’” In America, Alaak said, either outcome is possible.
SCCC instructor Perkins suggested the daughter is like her dad.
“Peter bears out what I always say about older students, international students who come to the classroom and they’re serious about the process,” he said. “He’s a sponge. He kind of vacuums information from you. His questions are always on point, bring things up that I hadn’t thought about. He’s got a unique perspective.”
In view of his life right now, where he studies, works his shift at National, and keeps his family halfway around the world always in mind, Alaak said, “the time it takes to accomplish the goal does not matter. Distance is the only problem.”
For a man who has already walked a thousand miles, odds are he will vanquish that barrier as well.