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Lost and Found
by Charlotte Hsu
Sudanese 'Lost Boy' and East Side Priest Forge Unlikely Friendship
On the road to Koiyom in Southern Sudan, they must have seemed an unlikely pair—this gray-haired Catholic priest from Western New York and the 31-year-old Sudanese man he calls his son. But there they were, traveling together—Father Ronald Sajdak, the gregarious pastor of an East Side church, a man whose eyes seem to brim with laughter, and Fidele Diing Dhan, six-foot-six, amiable but reserved, a war survivor who grew up in refugee camps before moving to America in 2001.
This spring, the companions journeyed from Buffalo to Sudan for the groundbreaking of a medical clinic they are working to build in Koiyom, an isolated village. For Sajdak, the visit to Africa was an adventure that reaffirmed deep-rooted convictions. For Dhan, the voyage was a homecoming, a return to the place and people he had left as a boy fleeing violence.
For both, the trip strengthened a special bond they had shared since meeting years before. In photographs of the ceremony at Koiyom, they stand side by side, encircled by a crowd of villagers under a sky brushed with clouds. It is a moment to remember. They are two men sharing in a common dream.
If you are a person of religion, the story of their friendship is perhaps a story about faith, even miracles. If not, theirs is a tale about serendipity, about the ways in which chance and fortune conspire, reaching across time and distance to draw people together.
They became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan—thousands of youths made homeless by a two-decade civil war that began in 1983 and pitted the country’s largely Muslim north against its predominantly animist and Christian south. Fleeing the conflict, these children and teenagers walked from southern Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, a thousand-mile odyssey.
Dhan was among them. He says he was nine when his villaged was attacked.
“I was just playing outside the compound,” says Dhan, a member of the Dinka tribe. “I heard the sound of the guns and smelled the smoke from the burning huts…Leaving Sudan was not something that was planned, like I’m going to move tomorrow to New York City. You have to run.
“From where I am, it’s four months’ walk—four months’ walk from my village to Ethiopia.”
Today, Dhan is in good health, with a full but slender build—a man who looks years younger than he is. While not outwardly emotional, he has dark, expressive eyes that on occasion betray his feelings even when his other features stay flat. His accented English is a clue he is from Africa. But neither his demeanor nor form suggest a history of trauma.
But it was 1987, by Dhan’s account, when he made the journey with other Lost Boys. They drank rainwater from puddles, ate leaves and wild fruit. Sometimes, older youth or sympathetic soldiers from the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army would hunt and share antelope meat with the boys. Other times, the children went days without food. Many died of hunger or drowned along the way.
Dhan would be among the fortunate, if you can call them that—those who reached their destination. He would spend the remainder of his childhood in refugee camps. He was baptized at Pinyudo, a camp in Ethiopia where he took up residence in a compound run by Catholic nuns. In Kenya’s Kakuma camp, where he lived from 1992 until he came to America, he went to school and practiced English. He built himself a house with brick walls and a roof of plastic sheeting and palm tree leaves. Through the Red Cross, he sent a letter to family in Sudan and learned his parents and siblings were alive—that he was not an orphan.
His life changed in 2001, when he became one of thousands of Lost Boys to gain asylum in the United States. America was foreign, Dhan says, but “Sudan was a country in war, and going back there, there was no hope. We never think of going back while the war was going on. If there was some place safe, that’s what we were looking for—to have a safe place for the time being.”
He settled in Syracuse in a three-story house with more than a dozen other Sudanese youth. He passed General Education Development tests, worked blue-collar jobs and became a certified nurse aide. Hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree, he applied to the University at Buffalo and learned in 2003 that the school had accepted him.
Sajdak, 54, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, grew up in Sloan. A man with a silver mustache who speaks often and excitedly of God, he was ordained in Buffalo as a priest in 1996, three years after returning to the region from Washington DC, where he had lived since 1979. He smiles so often the expression seems ingrained in the lines of his face, in the deep, cheerful wrinkles that explode, like fireworks, from the corners of his eyes each time he grins.
The first time he heard of Sudan was in 1995. While visiting his aunt at a Western New York nursing home, he met a Sudanese refugee interviewing for work at the facility. The priest invited this new acquaintance to share his story with Catholic youth taking part in a fasting program so they could, in Sajdak’s words, “put themselves in the position of other people throughout the world.”
The pastor and refugee became friends, and churchgoers who knew Sajdak began donating household items to the Sudanese man’s family. Soon after, Sajdak established Reaching Out 2 Africa, a ministry focused on assisting African clergy and providing humanitarian help to Africa and African refugees.
In summer 2003, an old college classmate who knew of Sajdak’s work called to say a young Sudanese man from Syracuse was moving to Buffalo for school and needed somewhere to stay. Sajdak offered the student a spare room in the two-story rectory house on Wyoming Avenue where the pastor lived.
The neighborhood was rough. The home would be burglarized a few times in the next few years. But Dhan showed up at the door in September 2003. As he explains, cracking a smile, “It was the only offer that I have. I was not going to turn it down.”
The day Dhan arrived, Sajdak invited him to watch a recording of a Dateline NBC program on the Lost Boys of Sudan. After seeing the episode in 2001, the year it aired, Sajdak began showing it to community groups to raise awareness about conflicts in Sudan.
In a shot near the start of the video, a boy sitting amid other youngsters in what appears to be a refugee camp gazes at the camera with a sleepy expression.
“He had a very curious look on his face, and I started laughing,” Sajdak remembers. “But then he moved my heart, too, and that’s when I prayed. I was thinking, ‘Child, you are so far away, but if you were in this country, if this were happening here somewhere, there would be a way we could meet, and you’d be in [our] house.’”
Watching the program in 2003, Dhan, who had not seen it before, became excited as the camera lingered on the boy who had moved Sajdak. Dhan pointed to the TV, shouting for the pastor to stop the recording. Sajdak rewound the tape. They watched the scene again. “That’s me,” Dhan proclaimed. God, Sajdak says, had answered his prayer.
Rebecca Haggerty, producer of the Dateline episode, said via email that because the image featuring the youngster was stock footage, she did not know when or where it was shot. But Dhan is certain the boy is him. The child has his hairline, his flat nose, his high cheekbones.
For the next three years, Dhan and Sajdak lived together along with several other refugees. They came and left the house at different times, dined at separate hours.
Nevertheless, Sajdak says, “Throughout the years that we were on Wyoming, there was always a special relationship between Fidele and I, only by nature of the fact of how we met, because we knew it was graced encounter. We knew it was no accident. We didn’t know what the future would bring.”
In 2005, Sudan’s north-south civil war ended. More than two million people had died, according to United Nations figures. But Dhan’s family had survived.
In 2006, after finishing his studies at the University at Buffalo, Dhan sold his car so he could afford to visit Sudan. He met one of his younger brothers in Khartoum, the country’s northern capital, and the two journeyed south together. The bus they were riding collided with a cargo truck. Dhan was injured, his brother killed.
Friends including Sajdak urged Dhan to return to safety in America. Dhan refused. Nearly two decades had passed since he fled his village. In Koiyom, his mother and six other siblings waited. The family reunion, though tinged with sadness, would be an occasion for joy. The visit would also change Dhan’s life in unforeseeable ways, inspiring him to take on an important project that would require Sajdak’s help.
Back in Buffalo in early 2007, Dhan shared a story with Sajdak. In Koiyom, Dhan said, villagers with medical problems sought him out. One morning, a mother woke him to ask if he could help her son, who had caught his mouth with a fish hook. While Dhan works as a home health aide, his bachelor’s degree is in psychology. He could not provide the care his people needed.
Dhan knew Reaching Out 2 Africa had completed humanitarian projects abroad, including raising money to build a dormitory for a Uganda school. He wanted to know: Could Sajdak’s ministry construct a clinic in Koiyom?
“I told him,” Sajdak says, “that if we accept this clinic operation, he would have to really commit to be the poster person for it…That meant a lot of work together, and he understood that and off we went.”
The project got a push in April 2007, just one week after Dhan had approached Sajdak. As part of a Holy Week service and education program hosted by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, the pair spoke to a few dozen students about the Lost Boys. In an unrelated exercise, the youth calculated their spending on luxury items such as Starbucks coffee or extra cell phone minutes. The group’s annual total came to about $35,000, says Marcy Perez, one participant.
“We figured there’s got to be a way to put this to use,” remembers Perez, who graduated this spring from the Nichols School. She and a handful of peers organized a fundraising drive for a charity project in Sudan, setting $35,000 as their target—money they later earmarked for Dhan’s clinic. By collecting spare change in jars they kept at home and holding events such as walkathons, the teenagers reached their goal early this year.
“When you see those ads on TV for kids in Africa…it’s really easy to just tune that out, because it’s a TV screen. You can just turn it off. But Fidele was right there,” Perez says, explaining why Dhan’s talk affected her deeply.
Recognizing that power, Dhan and Sajdak have spent two years meeting with civic groups and high school classes—anyone who will listen—to share Dhan’s story. Including funds from Perez’s group, Reaching Out 2 Africa had raised over $65,000 for the clinic as of mid-August. A September 24 benefit dinner Dhan and Sajdak are planning with Joan Ersing, the ministry’s executive director, should bring in more money.
Sajdak says the clinic will cost about $208,000 given its size, an estimate an engineer in Sudan provided. The facility would provide basic care and focus on prevention of diseases such as malaria, cholera, and HIV. A Sudanese bishop has agreed to accept a suitable candidate from Koiyom to a Catholic-run health training institute if Reaching Out 2 Africa sponsors the student, Sajdak says.
He says he and Dhan visited Sudan this April “to keep the hope of the people alive.”
“The people in Koiyom are desperate for help, and they have people who constantly come and promise things and never deliver,” Sajdak says. “And I thought it very important to make sure they know that Fidele is not alone, that he has a group of people with him to support him in this project.”
From Buffalo, they flew first to Sudan’s southern capital of Juba and then to the city of Wau to the northwest. From there, they went by car to Aweil, a community more than two hours from Koiyom on dusty, arid roads.
Along with Reaching Out 2 Africa, Sajdak helped cover Dhan’s travel expenses. But during their trip, it was Dhan who served as Sajdak’s protector, making sure the pastor was as comfortable as possible. One night, upon discovering that a guest room where they planned to stay contained one fan, intermittent electricity and no mosquito net, Dhan addressed Sajdak using the Arabic term for “father.” “Abuna,” Dhan said, “I’ll sleep here; I’ll find somewhere else for you.”
For the pair, the visit to Sudan was one step in a journey that continually brings them closer together.
“He calls me ‘my son,’ so I can put it that way, you know?” Dhan says of Sajdak. “Like a father, son…With the clinic, he’s helping a lot. And I can say that he understands the Sudanese more than other Americans, and he opens himself for them. Every time someone comes to him and asks for something, he’s there.”
Of Dhan, Sajdak says, “I’ve always been incredibly proud of what Fidele went through in this life. Incredibly proud that he never gave up…He does what he needs to do to advance himself and not only to take care of himself but to care for his family, and his whole village back home. And I’ve seen miracles happen because of him. And I’m so proud to have known him and I joke around and I call him my son, but I really feel that.
“I am always surprised, over and over and over again, by the unexpected miracles that happen in regard to this clinic,” Sajdak adds. “We had a woman at the door today. I was just talking to Joan about the cost of doing the [fundraising] dinner…Where’s this money going to come from? And a woman comes to the door [with a] check, and she wasn’t a person from our parish. We never saw her before, and she comes to the door and says, ‘I’ve read about what incredible things you were doing.’”
“The same thing happened when I was moving,” Dhan says, excitedly.
“He calls me in the morning,” Sajdak says.
“I said, ‘I need a stove and refrigerator,’” Dhan says.
Then Sajdak: “I tell him, ‘Fidele, I’m going to pray about this.’ I walk into the church building, and I meet a man that I haven’t seen in years and he comes up to me and says, ‘Father Ron, I’ve been holding this check for you for a number of weeks. I want to give this check to you for your ministry.’ And it’s a check for five hundred dollars.
“Ever since we came together to do this clinic,” Sajdak continues, “these things have been happening again and again. Fidele and I lived every one of these experiences. Again and again. So what does it mean to me? It means always being surprised by the generosity of people.
“Always being surprised,” the pastor says, eyes closed briefly, “by the way things work out.”
Charlotte Hsu is a freelance contributor to Artvoice. A former reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, she now works in the University at Buffalo’s communications office.
How to Help
Reaching Out 2 Africa is holding a fundraising dinner for the clinic in Koiyom.
When: September 24
Where: Classics V Banquet and Conference Center in Amherstblog comments powered by Disqus
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