My squad is my family, my gun is my provider, and protector, and my rule is to kill or be killed.
So begins Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, the book that sparked a three-year relationship between an unlikely pairing: a Haddonfield Memorial High School sophomore English class and Garang Buk Buk, a former South Sudanese child soldier turned aid worker.
Now the students are crowdfunding to meet their friend face-to-face and help him attend Emory University to work on a master’s degree.
When the high school assigned its sophomores to read Beah’s heart-wrenching memoir over the summer of 2015, 10th-grade English teacher Kimberly Dickstein pondered how to best bring such a harrowing tale home to her students. Then she ran into an old friend who works in Malawi. He connected her with Buk.
Two weeks later, right after lunch, the former child soldier’s image flickered onto the wall of a packed classroom. He smiled and waved.
“I did not come from a traditional background,” Buk said as he introduced himself through the crackle of a turbulent Skype connection. “I was formerly a child soldier.” One could hear a pin drop, those in attendance said, and in the three years since, Buk and the students have stayed in touch.
In February, Emory University offered Buk, now long-rehabilitated from his chilling childhood, according to former colleagues, a spot in its master’s program in international development. Scholarships cover most of his tuition, but to get a U.S. visa, he will have to prove he has the resources to financially support himself in Atlanta. He doesn’t.
So his Haddonfield friends are crowdfunding to support Buk’s endeavors to learn and eventually develop his community. They’ve raised more than $9,000 on GoFundMe so far, but they’re aiming for $45,000 more by July 1 so Buk can enroll this fall.
Buk was born in Aweil, now in South Sudan, sometime in 1979 or 1980, but he’s not sure when; he was born to an illiterate family. Around 1983, Sudan’s second civil war broke out.
Buk recounts uniformed men entering his town, separating men from women and children.
“They forced some of the men into a well. They poured gasoline into the well, and it was set on fire,” he said. “Others were forced into a large grass house where animals usually slept. They set them on fire, too.”
His sister was born the same year. His parents named her Nyanchol, meaning “a girl of ashes.”
Militia members of an Arab tribe called Muralini kidnapped Buk, he said, but he escaped and fled toward Ethiopia in search of a gun.
“I was full of anger every day. The gun was the key to do what I wanted. I did not want anyone to come burn my village again,” he said. “But later on, it had consequences. There was nothing pleasing after I got the gun.”
The last time Buk touched a gun was 1996, he said. “I do not support any party to conflict anymore.”
In 2001, Buk enrolled at St. Bakita Secondary School, supported by the Catholic Diocese of Torit, where he struggled to adapt to writing on a table because he had only ever written on his lap. His education was interrupted by a five-year stint as a program officer at the Carter Center, where he pulled often meter-long parasites called guinea worms out of his patients’ limbs.
“I decided I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “I want a better tomorrow, and I must work for that. We can build this country.”
In 2015, as Buk, who now has a wife and two children, studied sustainable human development at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, Haddonfield’s Dickstein reached out.
She explained that her students had read A Long Way Gone and that she wanted to put a human face on what they’d learned.
Haddonfield “is a rather homogeneous community,” she said. “I was a little nervous my students would not understand what it really means to be a child soldier.”
Two weeks later, there Buk was, his face projected onto the wall of a classroom, sharing his life story publicly for the first time. “I came to realize shedding a light on child soldiers and painful moments in one’s life is important in putting it to an end,” Buk said.
Buk and the students can rarely connect through video because of the scant internet infrastructure in South Sudan, but they sometimes exchange social media messages, as they did at this year’s junior prom.
“I was sitting with some students at prom, and they asked me how Garang was, so we sent him a Facebook message,” Dickstein said. That’s when Garang explained that he might not make it to Emory because he can’t afford the visa. Dickstein and her students decided to act.
“It’s the right thing to do, and very little things are done just because it’s the right thing,” said incoming senior Natalie Naticchia, 17. “We see it as an opportunity to shape a community, because with this education, [Buk] is going to make a conscious effort to reshape South Sudan. The more educated minds they have, the better.”
Even though school is out, the students continue to advocate for Buk. Last week, they went out to canvass on his behalf on a scorching day.
“A lot of times in school, it’s like, when am I ever going to use this geometry algorithm?” asked another incoming senior, Wayden Ay, 16. “But here I feel like I’m part of something and that it has a bit more meaning. This is what everyone should be doing.”
Beah, who wrote the book that inspired the students, said what they learned from it makes him glad he endured the pain of remembering and writing about his experience. “These students are showing the need for empathy in the world right now especially, but also becoming active citizens of the world by getting involved in the world and using their own privileges to help someone else gain access to opportunity,” he said in an email.
“I am glad to see that by reading my book it gives students a desire to become useful in the world, to use their lives for the benefit of others. That that is what saved my life and gave me a second chance at living.”
Beah added that he believes the U.S. student visa system is antiquated and needs to be addressed.
“They are asking for sums that a good number of American students don’t have in their bank accounts,” he said. “Money cannot be the only determining factor of one’s human worth or future.”