By Dave DeLuca and Patrick Koster
Bengal News West Reporters
The first time Kang Kerubino Guot shot an AK-47, the recoil was so powerful that it knocked him on his butt.
He had no choice but to use the weapon when war broke out in his hometown in South Sudan. It was either hide and get killed, or run and fight back.
It’s 1995 and Guot, a skinny, wide-smiling boy with hopes of someday studying mathematics, has an 11-pound, military-style weapon draped over his shoulder. Gunshots ring through his ears. Women are raped. Some children are abducted. When the mayhem finally ends, dozens of boys like him lie dead in the street.
Guot, just 6 years old, is trying to survive what would become one of the worst humanitarian disasters in world history.
“I was a lucky one,” Guot said. “I made it out alive to tell the story.”
Twenty-one years later, the now 28-year-old Guot is a college graduate with a degree in economics from SUNY Buffalo State.
He lives on the West Side and works at Rich Marine Sales, but his life began in Sudan, the same year a civil war broke out between Arab Muslims in the north, and black Christians in the south. More than 2 million people died, a half a million fled to other countries. Peace was finally restored in 2011.
Guot was one of an estimated 20,000 boys, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were separated from their families and fled to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
By the time the Lost Boys arrived at the camp, their numbers were cut in half. Some died of starvation along the walk, others died of dehydration. Lions and crocodiles killed others. If Guot saw a lion, he said, he avoided eye contact at all costs.
The boys’ survival tactics are unnerving to hear.
To avoid dehydration, Guot drank his own urine. He and the other boys ate leaves, berries and dead animals to avoid starvation.
“I had a lot of friends die along the walk,” Guot said. “Others died when we got to the camp from sickness.”
For those that made it to the camp, a better life was just beginning. The camp was funded by international aid organizations as well as the United Nations. It provided food and clothes were donated by American churches.
In 1999, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, working together with the State Department, recommended roughly 3,600 of the Lost Boys for resettlement in the U.S. Nearly 500 of the Lost Boys who were still under the age of 18, including Guot, were supposed to emigrate to the U.S. by the end of 2001. But tragedy struck America on Sept. 11, 2001.
“All of the flights to the U.S. were blocked,” Guot said. “It took me three years longer to wait for a flight to come. I was so excited to come, but it was taken away.”
Guot finally got on a flight to America in 2004, and was ecstatic.
“I knew that I had to make most of the opportunity,” Guot said. “I never thought I’d have the chance.”
Guot was sent to Syracuse and met Ann Mayes, a volunteer advisor at Onondaga County Catholic Charities. Mayes helped Guot apply to Onondaga Community College and prepared him to take the college placement test.
It took Guot eight years just to earn his associate's degree from Onondaga Community College. He jumped around from full-time job to full-time job in between taking classes.
“Even considering how tough it’s been here, I’ve been given an opportunity here that many of friends and family members could only dream of,” Guot said.
Like many other Lost Boys, Guot faced an uphill battle to get immersed in American education.
“In Kenya, his education was a small group learning under a tree,” Mayes said. “No paper, no pencils. He never used a computer before coming to America.”
It took Guot more than a year to figure out how a computer worked.
Unlike other refugees, Lost Boys came by themselves. Guot’s father, an army officer, died in the war. His mother and six siblings are all in Sudan.
“They have to provide for themselves,” Mayes said. “They don’t have parents, they didn’t have wives. Kang and many others struggled to balance working full-time and going to school full-time. It was a big, big cultural change.”
Guot sometimes worked third shift before going to morning classes.
“The Lost Boys required a lot more maintenance than the normal refugee family that would come,” said Stephen Redding, former director of the International Rescue Committee who helped send the Lost Boys to the U.S. “Some of them had a very hard transition to America. Just doing the basic things like finding a job, going to the supermarket and laundromat were so foreign to them.”
Guot dropped four of his classes halfway through his first semester because the workload was far too tough. The only class he kept was math, because it required just paper and pencil.
After graduating from community college in 2012, he moved on to SUNY Buffalo State, where he earned his four-year degree in economics. Now, he’s working on obtaining a second bachelor’s degree in international relations.
“It’s been a long journey,” Guot said. “I’m just so happy to be here and have to chance to get an education and better myself. Back home, others weren’t that lucky.”