Published September 13, 2019
Of all the long and arduous roads students have followed to become part of the UB community, none has been more challenging than the path of Graduate School of Education student Kang Kerubino Guot.
Guot owns that dubious distinction by being one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. He is one of an estimated 20,000 boys from the African nation who were separated from their families in the late 1980s during the Sudanese Civil War, when the ruling Muslim government targeted Christians living in the south of the country.
More than 2 million people died in that civil war, and a half-million fled to other countries.
The Lost Boys, a term first used by aid workers in refugee camps, endured adversity and fear beyond others displaced by war because, unlike other refugees, they made the journey to Ethiopia by themselves. Some experts have described the Lost Boys as the most war-traumatized children ever examined.
Guot walked for months to escape the ethnic murdering and child kidnapping — not once, but twice. The first time he walked with his uncle and brother from his native Sudan to Ethiopia when he was a pre-teenager, walking by night, hiding from the Sudanese Army Forces by day. His father had been forced into the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. His mother and six of his siblings were somewhere back in the Sudan.
He made another perilous journey five or six years later, this time from Ethiopia through the Sudan to Kenya when he was around 16 (Guot says he doesn’t really know what year he was born).
The Ethiopian government collapsed, and Guot and thousands of other Lost Boys his age, fearing for their lives, tried to reach the safety of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. No one told him how long he walked on these journeys. He knows each took several months to complete.
His memories were typical of the well-documented experiences of other Lost Boys: While on his first journey from the Sudan to Ethiopia, he often passed victims lying along the road dead from gunshots, dehydration or starvation. Guot remembers drinking water where animals and humans urinated. He and the others ate leaves, berries and dead animals to survive.
If they were found by the Sudanese Army Forces soldiers, they would either be killed or kidnapped to work in forced labor farms.
“The Sudanese Air Force was bombing all around us,” Guot says, sitting in a conference room in Baldy Hall, talking with what is still a heavy accent.
“So we hid and stayed hidden until five or six at night. Then we would continue walking all night until seven or eight in the morning. So it was hard to know where you were coming from or where you were going. People were going from here to there all around us. They didn’t tell us where we were.”
His second journey from Ethiopia to the refugee camp in Kenya was equally perilous. Many of his friends died along the way, Guot says. Many more died when they arrived at their camp.
“The simple life we were living in, we didn’t have hope,” he says. “We didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow. Each day we’d say, ‘Thank God we made it out,’ and then the next day, we’d say the same thing.”
In the early 1990s, he became a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in what he described as “mandatory recruitment in army services for all men and women.”
“There was no way to stop that,” Guot says. “They would brainwash us. We were told we would like it. They told us we are being armed so we can protect ourselves. They told us if you don’t protect yourselves, you will be abducted and taken into slavery. And you know it happened back in time in Africa.
“If you don’t protect yourselves, we were told, you are going to become one of them.”
After three years of being a soldier and several ambushes later, he was studying for his high school diploma with the Dominican Sisters in Nairobi in 2001 when he was accepted for resettlement to the U.S. But he didn’t make it in time before the Sept. 11 attacks, and his resettlement was suspended.
It took him almost four years to resume the process, and in July 2005, he found himself in a small city in upstate New York he was told was named Syracuse.
Guot earned his associate’s degree from Onondaga College in eight years, and then a bachelor’s degree in international relations and economics, with a minor in biochemistry, from SUNY Buffalo State— both degrees statements of determination and resourcefulness in themselves.
This September, Guot enters his second year in the Education Studies program in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Department at UB. After earning a 3.3 GPA his first two semesters — while working full time off-campus — Guot is in great position to continue the next chapter of a remarkably renewed life. He wants to be a teacher for students learning English, or what is now called ENL, English as a New Language.
“When I came here to this country, I just thanked God that God has a plan for me,” says Guot. “And that is why I made it out of that mess. So what I would like to do is to make sure I pass on that message to others, and also make myself a role model to others.
“If you have the hope and trust that ‘I need to do this,’ then God will help you through it, and then you can get through.”
Now more than 25 years since becoming a soldier, Guot takes what those who know him describe as his “beautiful smile,” his passion for helping others and an almost unworldly determination to overcome adversity to UB. Along the way he has won over numerous admirers and benefactors – past and present -- who have helped him and stand by to continue their support.
“The first impression I had was he is very selfless,” says Ann Mayes, a volunteer with Catholic Charities of Onondaga County who met Guot 14 years ago when he first arrived in Syracuse.
“He took care of other people before he took care of himself. He volunteered as a translator with Catholic Charities. It was not just about his needs. He always has been looking out for other people.”
Mayes says Guot’s decision to pursue graduate studies that train him to teach English as a New Language is a perfect fit.
“He has a beautiful smile, and that alone will make people attracted to him,” Mayes says. “He comes across as being happy, even when he is not.
“He will be more than a teacher,” says Mayes. “He will take a personal interest in his students and their families.”
Namsook Kim, clinical assistant professor in GSE’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy and Guot’s adviser, was moved by his resilience when first meeting him in 2018 for a program admission interview.
“I was impressed with that resilience that was evidently represented in the journey that began early in Sudan and still continues in his new country of America,” says Kim.
“Kang finds graduate education (balancing with his full-time work) to be one of the hardest jobs, but pursues it with determination, as he believes that graduate education is a bridge to help accomplish his goal to ‘liberate people from illiteracy’ and to be a role model for his immediate family and others.”
“Kang Guot is one of GSE’s proud students who contribute to our diversity and inclusive excellence,” Kim adds.
Guot’s presence and spirit sends a strong message about the importance UB’s Graduate School of Education puts on diversity, according to Raechele L. Pope, associate professor and associate dean of faculty and student affairs and chief diversity officer.
“For classes in the Graduate School of Education to truly have meaningful impact, it is essential that the make-up of our student body reflect the diversity of our community, our nation and the world,” says Pope.
“Diverse classroom spaces can instill awareness, empathy and cultural humility, and hopefully encourage students to contribute positively to their communities. Having students like Kang Guot as a member of the GSE community helps to make the world a little smaller, personalizes the stories we read about in the news, and reminds all of us of our responsibility to make a difference.”
For Guot, his continuing studies have offered him wisdom and guidance in what still is a struggle.
The concept of “cost of opportunity” in his economics class at Buffalo State stuck in his mind. Cost of opportunity or “opportunity cost” is the idea that choosing one alternative means the loss of potential gain from choosing another alternative.
“If for example you spend time and money going to a movie, instead of spending that time at home to read a book, then spend the money on something else, because going to movie and spending money on the movie is not very important,” Guot says.
“After I read that example in the class, I found that I was doing the same thing. I have given up some of the things that are not necessarily important to plan and prioritize doing what is important to keep myself in good health and support myself to continue with my studies.”
What a remarkable story. I am sorry Kang had such a hard life and so many struggles. He certainly is a role model for us all. I wish him all the best in his studies and his career.