A decade ago, central New York welcomed a group of refugees from Sudan known as The Lost Boys. Their story is famous for the long journey they made to flee decades of civil war.
Now they’re watching a new wave of violence in their homeland from afar.
When I knocked on the door of John Dau’s office in Syracuse, he was just finishing up a video chat with the staff at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic in South Sudan. Dau started a foundation and the medical clinic seven years ago after coming to Syracuse in 2001.
Dau has been making nearly hourly calls and emails to his clinic the past few weeks, as the situation there has grown grave.
"Because of the senseless fighting, senseless war, that has been going on in our country, [it] has crippled everything, including the clinic," he during during a long conversation. "We can’t get supplies to the clinic; we can’t get medicine to the clinic."
"We have many who are now admitted with gunshot wounds. Not diseases though, gunshot wounds."
Dau says the medical team is not well equipped to treat that kind of injury.
Fighting broke out in South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, in December over a political tiff between the president and his former vice president. It’s since dissolved into ethnic fighting. Many have been killed and tens of thousands of people have been displaced.
"On December 15, 2013, this is when I heard – around 5 p.m. here – that there is fighting in Juba," Dau recalled. "I called my brothers and my mother and my dad. Everyone was in Juba and people could not believe what’s going on, that there’s fighting."
An eye on peace
Dau is a very tall man with a friendly smile. His office is sparse, except for a movie poster on the wall of the documentary about him and thousands of other Lost Boys, God Grew Tired Us. He sits leaning back in his chair during our talk.
His clinic has a special focus on repairing eyesight of patients, with the help of doctors from the Moran Eye Center in Utah.
"Your eyes, they do very important function in your body. So eyes are very important and I’m tying their eye surgeries to peace," he explained.
"And the way to bring peace to the people, to the different tribes is to restore eyesight. And then you tell them I don’t need money, I don’t need your praises to thank me. All I need is for you to stop killing each other."
Dau says the last six weeks have been very tough on him and the other Lost Boys now living in the U.S. He stays up until middle of the night most days when the sun is rising in South Sudan to check in on the clinic and family.
"And I praise God that every day since December 15 until today, I have not yet heard such a really bad news," Dau said. "Of course, I’ve been hearing really bad news every day, but not bad news of destroying the clinic or destroying the whole village."
"So I hope God will continue to hear our prayers," he added. "I’m very sure that hospital is going to stay."
When Dau talks to workers at the clinic and his family, he says he can hear fear in their voices.
"And I just feel so bad," he said. "I wish I am with them so we are in solidarity. I just feel very bad when I hear them, in their voices there is agony."
"But you know what, they say, ‘this is it. We can do what we can do. We’re not going to leave this clinic here. If we leave here and the locals are still here, it will be a betrayal.'"