At first glance, seeing him sip a Stella Artois at a bar in the Loop, one would have no clue about the harrowing journey of the well-dressed man sporting a gray textured button-down, black dress pants, a shiny watch on his left hand and an earring in his left ear. Based on his appearance, it would be easy to assume Mabouc Mabouc was a trader at the nearby Chicago Board of Trade or a banker or even a salesman working in high-end retail.
No one would assume that Mabouc was separated from his family when he was five years old in Sudan as people were dying all around him, or that he spent three years walking from war-torn Ethiopia to Kenya or that he was educated in a refugee camp, but that is how this well-dressed man spent his formative years.
Quiet, calm and slightly reserved, the handsome, dark-skinned Mabouc was very composed as he talked about the long journey that led him to Chicago.
Running for their lives
He was playing in a field with other kids from the Sudanese village of Kongor when his life was forever changed. Sudan has been ravaged by civil war more than once, and as Mabouc played with other village children, the war exploded into his life and separated his family. Tanks rolled into the area as shots were fired randomly and homes were set on fire.
“People were running in different directions,” Mabouc said. “Some of the children like myself were out playing in the field. We ran away from the fights in another direction.”
That group of people would keep running — running for safety, running for their lives. “We walked for several months,” Mabouc said, before the group ended up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
“In the camps, a lot of people had no parents,” including Mabouc. “We were put in groups,” he said. “Kids whose parents were unaccounted for were taken care of by the U.N. We were in camp for three years until war broke out in Ethiopia. We [then] walked for three years to Kenya.”
Mabouc said the group walked mostly at night, often setting up day camps in the forest, hiding for their own safety, as the various military groups who destroyed their village and many others would look for people in the daylight. Not everyone survived the long and treacherous journeys to Ethiopia and Kenya.
“Food was whatever we could find… leaves, anything,” said Mabouc. When asked about the availability of water, he said there was “not very much. If there were no rivers around, people would go without or drink whatever we could find… ponds, rain.”
Mabouc and the survivors among his group eventually arrived in northern Kenya, at a United Nations refugee camp in Kakuma. Mabouc said supplies were nearly always low, as the camp was built for a limited number of people, but continually received an influx of refugees, from Rwanda, the Congo and Somalia, as well as other refugees who had been forced to flee from Sudan.
Mabouc spent more than a decade in the camp. He said the camps had schooling set up for kids in kindergarten through high school. While Mabouc was educated in the camp, he got the chance to participate in drama.
“We did a bunch of plays,” he said. “We had professional writers who would write stuff, and we would perform them. We participated in national competitions in Kenyan schools.”
In the camp Mabouc learned English, which is taught in Kenyan schools. His native language is Dinka.
Throughout the long journeys to Ethiopia and then Kenya, and for much of his childhood, Mabouc did not know what happened to his family or even if they were alive. He left his parents and two older siblings behind when his village was raided.
Finally, in 1996, still not yet a teenager, Mabouc learned of their whereabouts. His family ended up in a camp in northern Uganda. The Red Cross had a system in which representatives went from camp to camp in an attempt to document the location of refugees in order to reunite families. Though he was not able to rejoin his family, Mabouc was able to see pictures of them.
Mabouc had some contacts with uncles and cousins who had been together since their arrival in Ethiopia, but through the efforts of the Red Cross, he learned that he now had four younger siblings. For the most part, the refugees in the camps and the people who had made the journey from Sudan to Kenya had become Mabouc’s family.
“I was able to connect with some family members… uncles and cousins. But mostly [it was] the guys. We were together since Ethiopian camp… we were together; we got to know each other. We were the family,” Mabouc said.
Brought to America, receiving little government help
In 2001 as part of a special program set up by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Mabouc was brought to America. He was 17 years old when he arrived in Syracuse, N.Y., that August. The group of refugees was settled in various locations in the U.S. and Canada and became known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” The group has since been documented in books and films.
Through the program that brought Mabouc to the U.S., he was set up in an apartment in Syracuse for three months. After that, it was up to him to pay rent and support himself.
The refugees received very little government support. They were assisted by some case workers, volunteers and community organizations. Syracuse doesn’t have a strong public transit system, so refugees like Mabouc were very dependent on the community organizations for rides to stores for groceries and basic supplies.
“Especially in the winter, it was very hard to get around,” Mabouc said. “I worked very hard to get my license,” which he received in 2002.
Mabouc’s struggles and the minimal amount of government support he received upon arriving in America are typical of what all refugees must deal with, though Mabouc at least knew English, something many refugees do not, according to Vanessa Parra, a spokeswoman for Refugees International.
“[Refugees] don’t have a lot of resources,” Parra said. “Each situation is very unique. It is very hard for people when they come here. It’s every kind of culture shock you can imagine.”
Mabouc was eventually able to speak with his mother on the telephone. At first, she didn’t believe it was really her son. He was also able to speak with his younger siblings for the first time.
“It’s very hard to establish that relationship on the phone with someone you’ve never met,” said Mabouc. “It’s hard to put your mind around a sibling you’ve never physically met.”
Moving to Chicago, making a difference
Mabouc moved to Bourbonnais, Ill., to study sociology at Olivet Nazarene University. Mabouc and other refugees face the same difficulties in paying for college as American citizens, including having to fill out the dreaded FAFSA financial aid application forms and relying upon student loans.
Mabouc later moved to Chicago, where he worked at the Pan-African Association. His job there was to help refugees and other immigrants from all parts of Africa.
Organizations such as this are essential to refugees, as government help is very limited in its scope. Assistance often comes from faith-based organizations, such as Catholic Charities, whose spokeswoman Kristin Ortman said creating self-sufficiency among refugees is their most important goal.
“I think the number-one issue is employment,” Ortman said. “Many times our staff and our many volunteers are able to offer job training and assistance in finding a job. So often [refugees] have many talents and job skills that they learned in their country. Our goal is to help them achieve self-sufficiency as soon as possible.”
Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program helps refugees with basic life skills, such as learning how to navigate the public transportation system and how to operate basic equipment in their apartments. Their organization receives some government funding, but relies heavily on donations and the work of volunteers.
“I worked as a tutor for a family from Sudan, and they were very grateful to receive assistance from a local parish who found them and had taken them under their wing,” said Ortman.
Mabouc is still adjusting and settling into American life, living in Albany Park with two roommates who are also from Africa. His time at the Pan-African Association helped him meet people from all parts of the African continent.
Mabouc enjoys basketball and football, having attended a Notre Dame football game last fall and Chicago Bulls games in the past. He likes to play dominoes at home and listen to reggae music in Chicago bars and music venues. He recently started a new job for an organization that provides assistance to people in need in Chicago, though he asked that his new employer not be named, as he was unsure of their media policy.
Sowing the seeds of hope
Mabouc has had the opportunity to speak to various groups about his life’s journey. It was through a speaking engagement to a continuing education class of teachers studying genocide that he first met Oak Park teacher Karen Tokarz.
Moved by what she’d heard, Tokarz invited Mabouc to speak to students at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, where he made quite an impression on students and teachers alike.
“We were all in tears,” Tokarz said of hearing Mabouc’s stories. “Watching friends get eaten by crocodiles or having worms in your feet because you have no shoes… it’s heart-wrenching… it’s an unbelievable story of inspiration, an unbelievable story of survival.”
Tokarz said part of what amazes her about Mabouc is how he has coped with “not having the nurturing of [his] parents.” She noted that as the Lost Boys were re-settled in different cities all over America and Canada, “it was sort of an abandonment all over again.”
Though Mabouc said he “likes Chicago as a city,” he is no fan of winter weather. And despite his success at becoming self-sufficient in this country, Mabouc still thinks about going home and helping the people of his village.
He is volunteering his time with the Oak Park school district and working with Tokarz on her school’s “Exchange of Hope” program, in which students from Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School participate in a cultural exchange with sometimes impoverished or underprivileged students in other countries. They recently started a program in which the students will connect and share ideas with new friends in Southern Sudan.
Tokarz also said each of the ten schools in the Oak Park school district will be raising money to help Mabouc fly to meet his family in Uganda and then check out the conditions in his homeland in Southern Sudan. (Donations can be made to the Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School Service Learning Club.)
Mabouc hopes to raise awareness of the situation in Southern Sudan. The people in his home village have farmlands to return to, as property rights are ancestral-based and very important to the people of his region, but right now they lack the equipment and tools to work the land, leaving them financially unable to leave refugee camps and move back home.
“What I can really emphasize is to support the programs and to get to know the situation,” said Mabouc. “Any sort of small help can make a big difference. Getting a hoe or a rake to clear your land is a big deal and can save lives. People don’t have money to buy these things.”
In addition to the Exchange of Hope program, Mabouc is helping to develop a non-profit group called “Tools of Hope” to help families such as his be able to return to their homes and farm their land. He said he hopes Tools of Hope’s website will be live soon.
“He’s such a peaceful person,” Tokarz said of Mabouc. “He’s always just happy that he has another day. He’s not living with any kind of wealth. He’s dying to get back there and see his family and help Southern Sudan.”
For now Mabouc works hard at his new job, while dedicating what time he has to helping his native village. For the most part, he is too busy to dwell on the journey that brought him to Chicago, but he does recognize the struggles he has endured and survived.
“It’s tough, but I’m still alive. That’s the most important part.”