A Legend Among Us

In 1983, the second Sudanese Civil War took place; many villages in the southern part of the country were attacked, houses were burned, people were killed, women were raped, and children were lost. More than 500,000 people died, and at least twenty thousand children between 7 and 17 (mostly boys) were separated from their families in order to run away through sub-Saharan Africa on foot. They are known as The Lost Boys of Sudan, and John Dau, who is working in Collegiate starting this semester as a Global Scholar in Residence, was one of them.

John Bul Dau currently lives in Richmond with his wife and five kids. He started working for Collegiate this semester, in addition to running the John Dau Foundation, which looks forward to creating medical services in South Sudan, where healthcare services are scarce. Dau participated in the documentary God Grew Tired of Us, published his first book of the same title in 2007 , and in 2010 wrote the book Lost Boy, Lost Girl with his wife Martha. He also spends lots of his time speaking with schools about his life and his work and gives plenty of interviews (according to him, he loves telling stories and enjoy answering questions). He has a profile in National Geographic and has done a TEDTalk. But his life used to be very different.


Photo credit: Mariana Cavalcanti de Castro.

Dau was born in 1974 in a small village in what is today the new nation of South Sudan but was, at the time, Sudan. According to him, his life was very good, despite having no access to roads, hospitals, or schools. He used to hang out with his friends in the afternoon while leading his father’s cows through the land; they would walk about 12 miles every day, returning in the evening after eating and playing together. They didn’t know much about Sudan’s civil war. Even though they heard the adults talking about it, they’ve never paid much attention to it. And that’s why Dau was so surprised and confused the night his village got attacked. He got separated from his family when he saw a man who he thought to be his father, but it turned out to be his neighbor.  They both ran away together, and that’s when Dau’s life as a Lost Boy began.

During his journey east, Dau found other boys along the way, and together they faced many challenges. “The number of us increased, later decreased. We were attacked along the way by wild animals, and some were killed. Others died because of starvation, thirst or diseases…” he told me. In 1987, they got to a refugee camp in Ethiopia but soon had to leave because the government was overthrown. For Dau, the most challenging thing that he had to face was being responsible for the other kids because he was older and bigger. “I was 12 years old, I needed help also, you know?” he said. “What should I do? Can I eat first? No, because of my leadership position I had to serve others before myself.” Because he was a leader of his group, he would have to come back all the way back to help the other kids in the middle of the journey through the desert: “I double my walk to make sure that nobody was being left.”

Finally, Dau found a refugee camp in Kenya in 1992, where he spent 10 years and began studying. Dau tells that he had no notebooks or pencils, so he learned the alphabet using his fingers to write in the dirt. “We were living day by day. But we were living with a hope that everything has an end, it would come to an end.” And it did. Some years later, Dau found out he was being called to live in the United States.

Once he was established in Syracuse, New York, Dau began studying and working, and later joined the Sudanese Lost Boys of New York Foundation. “When I finished my degree in the community college competing with the Americans who were born here, and I said ‘I can do it, but better, I did better than others’…  I saw the opportunity that was given to me. How am I going to give it back? I wanted to help people.” One year later, he started the American Care for Sudan Foundation and raised about 180,000 dollars. When he was not working, Dau used to go out to raise money, by talking to churches and corporations.

This year, Dau moved to Richmond because of Collegiate School. “I speak with many universities and high schools, but I don’t know why I fell in love with this school. If I could bring my kids here it would be great.”  Two of his children now attend Collegiate, as he had thought to himself, “It is no longer about me, it is about my children. I must move so my children can come to this school.” When Dau was given an opportunity to work with our Responsible Citizenship initiative, he accepted.

While working in Collegiate, Dau still has a role in running his foundation, and he is trying right now to bring his foundation to Richmond and find people who are willing to help him. According to Director of Responsible Citizenship Initiative and Director of Strategic Planning Clare Sisisky, Dau is also helping the school to bring global and different perspectives into the classrooms. Dau is going to be working with the school’s International Emerging Leaders Program, helping in some of the global events, and he is going to be connecting with the teachers to help with projects. He has already been in some Lower, Middle and Upper School classes, he is speaking at a Lower School meeting, working with the fifth grade by reading a book about Sudan, and helping AP Biology on a project about the relationship between animals and people from the perspective of a South Sudanese village.  

John Dau talking in Assembly. Photo credit: Mariana Cavalcanti de Castro

John Dau talking in Upper School Assembly on Monday, October 3. Photo credit: Mariana Cavalcanti de Castro.

On Monday, October 3, Dau gave the Upper School the pleasure of speaking in the assembly. He told a little bit of his story and challenges, about his accomplishments in life so far, and about his work in Collegiate. The response was the best it could be; Dau left the assembly to cheerful applause with his mission complete: the students were emotional and thoughtful. To Ashley Eastep (‘18), his story was amazing, “I don’t know what I would’ve done in this situation” she said. According to Madeline Smith (‘18), his speech was “very interesting and all of it was inspiring.” No doubt everyone is really excited to have Dau in Collegiate this year and is looking forward to working and learning with him.

“If you are stressful, for whatever reason, the treatment for that is: do good things. Get involved with doing good things, so that you actually feel that you are important to other people… Get involved in your neighborhood, get involved with your class, with something that is helpful to others. And this will actually help you because it will give you hope, it will give you a purpose.”

– John Dau

You can also read Weldon Bradshaw’s profile of Dau on Collegiate’s website here.

About the author

I'm an exchange student from Brazil, looking forward to learning and growing during my six months of experience in Collegiate.