Photo Credits: Mark Kirchhoff
By James’s eighth birthday, his country was plunged into a 20-year civil war in 1983 as South Sudan and the Sudanese government struggled over power and independence.
In 1987, when South Sudan became too dangerous, he walked three months to Ethiopia with 18 other young boys. “I became the father of the group, wondering everyday who among us is going to find us firewood? Take care of us? Cook? Go to school? Take someone to the clinic?”
“I remember when we finally reached the refugee camp, we barely had any clothes and what we had was falling apart. Every once in a while we would receive clothing donations and draw straws for who would receive that piece of clothing.”
From Ethiopia, James eventually returned to South Sudan, but had to run again from the government, this time to Kenya. He later got married in Kenya, and his wife and first child relocated to Nairobi.
They received resettlement assistance to move to Nebraska, United States, in 2008. Nebraska was completely different from East Africa, but he worked and went to school, eventually moving to Iowa to attend university.
The struggle over finding clothes to wear as a young refugee stuck with James throughout his life. By the time he reached the U.S., he chose not abandon his people. He started a charity called “Clothing World Needy People,” collecting clothes and fundraising to donate them to new refugees arriving in the U.S. and eventually to deliver to the families in South Sudan. His goal is to reach 200,000 people a year.
James is also working with South Sudanese diaspora to open a clinic in his home state of Jonglei.
“So many South Sudanese grew up in war, didn’t go to school and all they know was fighting. But, we need to teach people that peace is the key to economic development. There is no country for one tribe. A country is for everybody.”