TACOMA, WASH. (Dec. 22, 2016)- It’s been 25 years since David Akuien ’10 was separated from his mother at age 5, 16 years since he came to the United States as an orphan.
An estimated two million people died as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the Second Sudanese Civil War — including five of David’s siblings and his father. At one time, four million people were displaced. David, now 29, remains one of them.
That will change Dec. 30, at least temporarily, when he travels to South Sudan for a four-week reunion with his mother, sister and other loved ones. The trip follows what David describes as a lifetime of isolation.
“Most of what has happened to me is not good,” he says. “Pain is something that I don’t like to show, so I’ve learned to just internalize it. It’s how I’ve learned to keep living despite all that I’ve gone through.”
“This is not a vacation. This is a trip that will redefine who I am.”
I met David nine years ago, in an international conflict resolution class at Pacific Lutheran University. We quickly became friends and, eventually, roommates. The following summer he invited me to move into a house three blocks from campus, affectionately nicknamed “The Embassy.” It was home to students from four countries, so coming from Alaska I wasn’t sure I was an ideal fit. “Alaska might as well be another country,” David jokingly assured me at the time, “so you’ll fit right in.”
David was well known at PLU. His energy was boundless, and the warmth and kindness with which he spoke and listened was transcendent. It also was known to many that David was a member of the Sudanese refugee cohort known as the Lost Boys, who came to the U.S. to escape bloodshed that marred the largest country in Africa.
Although we were good friends, I always hesitated to ask David questions about his childhood. I worried that, if I knew details about what I suspected was a horrific past, I might somehow treat him differently. I didn’t think either of us wanted sympathy to unnecessarily alter our friendship, or the jocular culture of our college house.
Throughout two years living together, David and I spent countless hours discussing topics typical of college students: politics, religion, dating, etc. Our conversations were open, honest and even chippy at times. But it wasn’t until he was featured in the spring 2010 issue of PLU’s Scene magazine (now ResoLute) that I knew any details of his personal journey.
Upon arranging to discuss David’s return to South Sudan, I was excited but nervous to address what had gone unmentioned for years.
The moment David stepped into my house, the strength of character and zest for life that so many remember him for was immediately on display. When he saw my 16-month-old daughter, his face lit up. “Look at this sweet, beautiful little girl!” he exclaimed, his voice cracking with delight. He bonded with her throughout the afternoon, twice pausing our discussion to read her the children’s books she placed in his lap.
We discussed memories we shared at PLU. We reminisced about the party we hosted at The Embassy the night President Barack Obama was elected, as well as the many nights we spent playing basketball together in Names Fitness Center. But soon after, we talked of his life in the present. It quickly became clear that the weight David has shouldered throughout his life was becoming increasingly difficult to bear.
Living here I am relatively safe. I’ve gone to PLU and to graduate schools, I have clothes on my back and never go hungry anymore. Those things are nice, but the real problems have not gone away. I don’t sleep well at night. When I sit here in the United States and try to enjoy a nice meal, I just think about whichever relative it was that called me earlier in the week asking for money to buy food for their family. It makes it impossible to enjoy a nice meal, or to enjoy going to the movies. I just can’t. I don’t know how. I walk around now with an immense sense of burden.
David has earned two master’s degrees — both in business — since earning a bachelor’s in communication at PLU. He’s now a recruiting coordinator at Equity Residential, a publicly traded real estate investment trust with properties and offices nationwide.
David told me he “can’t even imagine” what his 10-year-old self, living in a Kenyan refugee camp, would have thought if he could have known the accomplishments he would achieve in the two decades to come.
That is what I try to think about. I literally came to the U.S. without shoes on my feet. We walked barefoot onto the plane. Now, every morning when I put on my watch I just think ‘what is this?’. I have a huge cubicle at work with my name on it. When I was boarding the plane to come here, I was so scared. I didn’t know what America looked like, had never been here. Fast forward to now and I can’t make sense of it.
David tries to maintain a positive outlook, and is quick to acknowledge and give thanks for what he has, where he is and what he has achieved. Even with his success, his longing for his family has only grown over time.
I’ve made it here, but that doesn’t solve the problems that brought me here in the first place or take away the thousands and thousands of days I have spent away from my mother… It has been 16 years since I last laid eyes on anyone I am related to. I’ve spent an entire lifetime away from the people I love the most. My life is a specific example of how war turns people’s lives upside down. My life is forever defined by the fact that I am a product of a country that has been, and continues to be, in turmoil.
For years, David planned to travel back to South Sudan once he’d earned enough money to bring substantial change to the lives of his family. Although his career in corporate human resources is off to a strong start, he won’t return with the means he suspects many expect from him. He says he simply can’t wait any longer to return, and he’s dreading the disappointment that his family may feel.
People are going to come to me for help and I will have very little to give. I already know that’s something I’m going to struggle with. People are going to come to me and say ‘I’m hungry.’ People are going to come to me and say ‘I’m ill and I need medicine.’ I know it will be a floodgate the minute I arrive, because conditions are dire and South Sudan is a failed state.
David also knows that after 16 years in the U.S., he will have changed in ways that will not please his friends and family. “America now defines me,” he explains. “I’ve been here longer than I lived in Sudan, Kenya and Uganda combined.”
David still speaks the language of his Dinka tribe, but has forgotten many words and “elements of conversation,” he says. He worries that America’s influence on him, and his struggles with his native language, will lead family members to question his identity.
My family members are going to be disappointed in me if they feel as though I’ve forgotten my values and what it means to be a Dinka and to be from our part of the world. That’s when I will be hurt. There are things I value from the culture of South Sudan and the culture of America, and I think that is going to be a tough conversation to have…I just hope they see I’m still the same human being. Still their same son.
That concern runs deeper for David. He has long worried that he may never feel fully at home here or in South Sudan. When he travels there later this month, he anticipates being treated as an American — an outsider. And in the states, he says, he is seen as African — as a black man.
I’m a second-class citizen here with the set of struggles that come with that. To this day I experience racism essentially wherever I go in America. People making assumptions about me before they even meet me. Having this color of skin is a death sentence here when it comes to leading a normal American life. I can’t even go down the street on a nice day a lot of times without someone thinking I am a dangerous person. This color of skin isn’t associated with good things in America.
Though David faces many worries and fears as he prepares to depart, they are easily outnumbered by thoughts of excitement and anticipation. He is eager to reconnect with his cousin and yearns to talk with his sister. “I can’t wait to see her, reminisce and ask her what she remembers of me.”
While reconnecting with his family is the rudder propelling his journey, it’s apparent that David is eager to learn about himself from others. He has many questions about who he was before coming to the states, and how he resembles the child his relatives once knew.
Above all, David looks forward to seeing, holding and being with his mother. The two have communicated for the past 11 years, since his first year at PLU. He tracked her down through tireless research during his teen years in a Tacoma foster home.
“As soon as I could I sent money to my mother so she could buy a phone,” he remembers. “That was the start of a fruitful relationship with her.”
David talks to his mother two or three times per month. It’s not uncommon for him to wake up before 5 a.m. local time to call her in Juba, South Sudan’s largest city, before she goes to sleep for the night. “Now, we have a life together,” David says.
Less than two weeks from departing and with travel logistics squared away, David can now reflect on the little things he will finally experience.
“I know I’m definitely going to get emotional about the cooking,” he says. “Sometimes I can’t help but be jealous of other immigrant communities like Ethiopians and Somalis who have restaurants with their native cooking in Seattle. I’ve waited so long to taste our food again.”
Taking a deep breath, David seemed to relax momentarily as he drifted into a distant memory. Cautious words followed: “I’m sure there are going to be times where I’m overwhelmed with joy, and I’m happy and smiling a lot, and I know there will be times where I’m being told things that make me cry.”
As our afternoon together wound to an end, David says he’s grateful for his life. Every day, he thanks God that he’s alive, vows to live for his siblings who are not and wonders how best to continue doing so. His words, much like his life story, were defined by loss and sorrow, but pointed hopefully toward the future.
For me to be alive is a miracle. There are so many moments leading up to our being together today that could have resulted in my not being alive. I don’t understand it. I have guilt that I am alive and five of my brothers and sisters are not. I feel like I have to live a life that they would have lived. If they were alive, I know they would probably be better human beings than I am. So I try to intentionally think about how my sisters and brothers would be. They would be good friends to others, and they would be hard workers. I think about that all the time. And I think about how God spared me and I pray about the purpose of my life.
“I’m really excited for you,” I tell David, as he puts on his jacket to leave.
“She makes me excited to go,” he replies, reaching down to shake my daughter’s tiny hand. “I have so many family members to meet for the first time; babies and children and teenagers. So no matter what happens, I will return with a better life, just from having seen and hugged them.”