By James Okuk, PhD
A South Sudanese Lost Boy from Bor is now found as South Sudanese American diplomat in Washington D.C. The U.S. State Department inducted him as a Foreign Service Officer on Friday, October 16, 2015, realizing a dream in international relations that he had aspired to since he was a young boy.
Mr. Gai Nyok was born in 1986 in Bor during SPLM/A’s war with the government of the Sudan. The deplorable violence forced him and the family members to flee on foot to Ethiopia in 1987. Unfortunately again or perhaps fortunate for him, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s socialist regime got overthrown over there and the SPLM/A split bloodily where Gai Nyok had to run back to Southern Sudan and after in 1992 to Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya, as one of the nearly 20,000 Lost Boys of the Sudan known also as SPLM/A child soldiers (the Red Army).
Life in the Kakuma Refugee Camp was not that promising and many of the boys there were dreaming to get out, especially with the resettlement opportunity offered by the U.S government. Around 1998, Gai Nyok had his first brush with the U.S. State Department when they arrived at the refugee camp to implement the resettlement for the Lost Boys. He and some other Lost Boys jumped at the opportunity to interview with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and after a lengthy process Gai Nyok was granted asylum.
He was scheduled to fly out of the country on September 15, 2001 but with the shock of 9/11 the trip was delayed and he had to arrive in New York City on Sept 25, 2001. He was placed in a foster home in Beaverdam in December 2001 and began school at Patrick Henry High School (PHHS).
Although Gai Nyok had learned English while in Kenya, the American language barrier was harder with him, but with determination for adjustment he got out from his heavy accent and was able to communicate easily. Also he began taking French classes during his freshman year with then–PHHS teacher Angela Will, of Ashland. Over the next few years, the two formed a special bond and certain circumstances allowed Will and her husband Joe to become Gai Nyok’s new foster parents in October 2004. This became the lucky turning point for him.
The Wills provided him with a home, and even their two older children welcomed him in as a brother. He played soccer for his school and his new mother (Angela Will) would come to his games to watch and support as she regarded him as a wonderful, brilliant and a modest boy.
It took Gai Nyok three years to complete his junior and senior schooling simultaneously. He graduated with honors in 2005 and got a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) where he also got two degrees in four years; a B.A. in international relations and a B.S. in economics in 2010 with cum laude.
He got a temporary job at BrownGreer PLC, a law firm in Richmond. He continued to work as a supervisor at the VCU campus security office – a job he held while in school – until August 2011 when he accepted a position as a faculty assistant in the VCU School of Pharmacy.
Meanwhile, he applied for Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program, which provides graduate students with financial support and professional training to prepare them for a career in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service. Among his competitors were graduates from Fulbright Program, Harvard, Yale and many other impressive American students. On June 20, 2013 during the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on World Refugee Day, he was announced over TV as a candidate by Kerry: “I’m proud to say that today Gai Nyok is one of our Pickering Fellows here at the State Department on the path to becoming a diplomat in the Foreign Service.”
With the special scholarship, Mr. Gai Nyok began his graduate studies in economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2013, and graduated in May 2015. As part of his fellowship requirements, he interned at the State Department in Washington, D.C. in 2014, and spent the summer of 2015 as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Geneva, Switzerland.
In late October, Mr. Gai Nyok was officially sworn-in as a U.S. diplomat in Washington, D.C. and was assigned to aid the country of Venezuela. He is currently in political and economic training and will soon begin Spanish lessons to help prepare him for when he travels there in July 2016.
What an impressive news that confirms the biblical optimism that ‘out of the bitter comes something sweat.’ This rekindles our hope that despite the war we will not perish. We will always find a way out for something noble.
I wish Mr. Gai Nyok success and long life in his American diplomatic career. I hope South Sudanese diplomacy will also become competitive on merits so that the poor graduates whose parents are not VIPs in the country could also get chance to become diplomats by hard work.
Dr. James Okuk is a lecturer of politics reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org