Refugee travels from South Sudan to South Dakota

3/6/2013 10:45 AM
By Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Growing up in east-central Africa, David Jal tended cattle and herded sheep and goats - a life not so different to parts of the rural Midwest, where he lives now.

But unlike Midwestern families, Jal and his family lived in constant fear of the civil war that was killing people all across South Sudan.

Jal was born in 1976 in the village of Dunyal, part of a larger region called Khor Wakow in the new nation of South Sudan.

Jal recalls each day being filled with uncertainty as to whether he and his family would survive.

"When you woke up in the morning, you didn't know what was going to happen," he told the Capital Journal ( ). "If something happened, you knew you may not be reunited with (your family). This might be the day that God will call you home."


The Sudanese Civil War impacted many families including Jal's — he lost 12 siblings to the violence.

"If you heard a bomb falling, you would get away from where you were and go hide somewhere. That was our daily life," he said.

When he was 8 years old, Jal was taken from his home and brought to a military camp to be trained as a child soldier.

"When I reflect back on it, it wasn't a big deal," he said. "I think as a kid, you learn new things and adapt to them, but it was devastating for my family. There's nothing my mom could have done, because they come at night and take your kid, and if you try to stand up for your child, you can get killed."

At the age of 9, Jal was shot in his left leg. His father paid 20 cattle so Jal could return home to get treatment.

But while he was in Dunyal, the Sudanese government attacked the village. At that time Jal was further injured when a piece of hand grenade struck him in the chest.


In 1986, the 10-year-old and his parents fled Dunyal and headed to the Itang Refugee Camp in Ethiopia. They walked for six days and six nights to get there.

When they reached the border of Ethiopia, the United Nations took Jal to a medical center for treatment. His parents were forced to return to Dunyal. It was the last time he saw them.

"The United Nations put me with four boys; I had a new family and a new life," he said.

The five boys lived in a tent at the refugee camp, attended primary school and ate food supplied by the United Nations.

"We cooked for ourselves, collected firewood and got water," Jal said. "We had to become independent. We didn't have a choice."

In 1991, the boys were forced to leave Ethiopia as the camps were dismantled. They walked barefoot for two months to a refugee camp in Kenya. Jal lived in Kenyan refugee camps until 1995, when he was able to resettle in the United States.

Through the United Nations, Jal was sponsored by the Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota to come live in Sioux Falls.

The 19-year-old was nervous about leaving the camp, but eager to start a new life.

Upon arriving in South Dakota, Jal wanted to start school immediately. After receiving the equivalent of a high school diploma, he enrolled at the University of South Dakota and graduated in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in social work.

He returned to Sioux Falls and worked for Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota for seven years, where he had the opportunity to help people.

"When I was a kid, I always wanted to teach geography and history in high school; that was my dream," Jal said. "I (thought) my relationship to people would be in the classroom, but I thought that social work would give me a variety of opportunities to meet different people."

Jal decided to go to graduate school in Grand Forks, N.D., to get a master's degree in social work. After graduating in 2008, he took a job as a probation officer with the South Dakota Unified Judicial System in Sioux Falls.

He still works there today, relating to children who have been on their own or separated from their families in their own ways.


Since 2003, Jal has been traveling back to Dunyal in the hopes of helping his South Sudanese family. His fourth trip is slated for 2014, with the goal of building a schoolhouse. Currently, children in Dunyal walk six hours to the nearest school.

"The first time I went home, I thought it would be better than when I was a kid, but it got worse," Jal said. "Wherever you go you have to rely on someone. Sometimes we had to stay in one place for four days waiting for a boat or information."

With no roads and no bridges, Jal said that South Sudan's infrastructure is seriously lacking. In 2012, he returned to install a well for clean drinking water and to deliver corn grinders.

Jal is currently raising money to build a school through the Khor Wakow School Project and proceeds from a children's book he wrote — "David's Journey." Because of the region's lack of roads and transportation, it will cost about $250,000 to build an eight-classroom schoolhouse with an office.

Jal envisions a future lunch program at the school, as well as a Christian-based education.

"I think if I was not raised in a Christian home, my life would have been different," he said. "My core strength lies in my faith."

Jal said his most important message to children everywhere is the importance of an education.

"No matter what circumstance you're in, if you pursue an education, it will change for the better," he said. "I want kids to stay in school, stay the course, and better their lives. That's the hope I aim to share with them."


David Jal will give a public presentation at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Pierre's McGuire Hall. To learn more about the Khor Wakow School Project, go to


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal,

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