FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 20, 2007
EDITORIAL CONTACT: Gina Logue, 615-898-5081, or Karen Case, 615-898-5087
MTSU ALUM SURVIVES REFUGEE HELL, ACHIEVES AMERICAN DREAM
Naturalized Sudanese Minister Spreads Message of Freedom, Peace, and Hope
(MURFREESBORO) – John Awan is not trying to climb the corporate ladder to capitalistic glory. That is never how he envisioned his life after his December 2006 graduation from MTSU.
Awan, a native of war-torn Sudan, has five relatives in Kapanguria Refugee Camp and four in Kakuma Refugee Camp, both in Kenya. Due to a refugee census for which they had to travel, John’s loved ones in Kapanguria had to spend the money he sent them for survival in the summer of 2006 on bus passes. On September 23, 2006, John e-mailed the following heart-rending words to his friends:
“My sister Elizabeth (nine years old) told me last night that they are told that the police will force them out on the 30th. I told her not to fear the police, and she said, ‘Police will beat us …’ ‘I know very well what Kenya police mean. I lived in Kenya for years!,’ I said. ‘But the Kenyans and police were good when you lived here,’ she said. It was kind of interesting when she tries to teach me about Kenyan police that tried to detain me several times when I was in Kenya.”
John was born in 1979 in the Sudanese village of Nany. Like many Sudanese, he has no way of knowing his real birthday because record-keeping tends to be a low priority among people preoccupied with survival. For the sake of paperwork, like many of his fellow countrymen, he uses January 1 as his “official” birthday.
The family moved to the southern capital of Juba, among other places, in the 1980s until the war started. He fled the country at age 10 with two other children, embarking on a journey during which he would walk approximately 1,000 miles. After four years in an Ethiopian refugee camp, he went back to Sudan because Ethiopia itself had fallen into armed conflict.
From Sudan, whose janjaweed militia under the control of the racist Bashir regime had raped, pillaged, and murdered its way across the south, John made his way to Kenya, which was in the midst of a devastating drought. There was some water, though.
“Of course, a lot of rivers,” John remembers. “If you don’t swim, you die, and, if you swim, then you cross it, and then you come with an infection from the water.”
John spent nine years in Kakuma camp, where he and thousands of other “Lost Boys of Sudan” say they “raised themselves.” Even in the refugee community, John insisted on serving others. As a member of the United Nations’ Child to Child program, he helped distribute food to children, taught them how to cross the camp road safely, and worked to make sure children attended the camp school.
In 2001, with the help of the U.N., John resettled in the United States, specifically Nashville, with official refugee status. He made friends through Nashville churches.
John obtained his high school equivalency in October 2001 and was accepted into English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes at Nashville Tech. He transferred to MTSU, where he co-founded the South Sudanese Student Organization and joined GLOBAL and the African Student Association. His major was political science.
“I think the reason I like it (political science) is some time it will give you the opportunity to help people,” John says. “You end up being in public service; then you have the ability to correct where you believe people need correction.”
If any nation in the world needs “correction,” it is Sudan, the largest country on the African continent. A peace deal was signed in January 2005, and the nation’s Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs and a militia commander were charged in February with war crimes by the International Criminal Court. However, the government continues to obstruct the distribution of aid from overseas.
What aid has reached the south Sudanese failed to help John’s parents. His father died in an attack on a village in 2000. His mother died of illness in 2002. Money to pay for her health care did not arrive in time to save her life.
Despite his tortured past, John remains a hopeful soul. An Episcopal priest for Sudanese ministry and a naturalized American citizen, he drives sick people to doctor’s appointments, serves as a translator when necessary, and helps refugees adapt to the American way of life. For his altruistic spirit, John won MTSU’s 2006 Community Service Award.
As John wrote in his nomination presentation, “The decent treatment of people is my passion. … The more I serve others, the less I worry about my own situation. I am not so alone in my life now, having so many people to help. Serving others has brought much responsibility to me, with others depending on me, but it has also brought me satisfaction and joy.”
ATTENTION, MEDIA: For a photo of John Awan at his naturalization ceremony, or to request an interview with John, contact Gina Logue at the Office of News and Public Affairs at 615-898-5081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.