NDSU senior Onam Liduba is an education, community health advocate
NDSU senior Onam Liduba spent most of his childhood trying to survive – war, separation from his family, homelessness, hunger and walks across the African desert with no food or water.
He survived. And no matter how bad conditions were, he pushed himself to learn, knowing his father wanted him to have an education. “His father sent him to take care of cattle instead of going to school, and that’s the reason he wasn’t educated,” Liduba said. “But he learned to write and read the Bible in our language. He did not want to see what happened to him happen to his children.”
In May, Liduba, one of the lost boys of Sudan, will complete a step in what he calls his “journey to education” when he graduates from NDSU with a bachelor’s degree in community health education. “I started writing in dust and never gave up and now use a computer,” Liduba said. “I don’t think anything will stop me from going to graduate school and beyond to make my papa happier.”
Journey to safety
Liduba describes most of his childhood as a journey to find safety. He was 9 years old the night he woke up to smoke, gunfire and chaos as the Sudanese Islamic Government burned his village, Lafon. Everyone scattered, and he and other children followed a group of adults to the next village. The group walked through the desert from village to village, gaining more people at every stop, for months. They had no food or water, he said.
For several years, Liduba lived in an Ethiopian refugee camp with other children, including two cousins, who were separated from their families. He didn’t know what his future held or whether he’d see his parents and siblings again. “I cried sometimes because I didn’t know what to do; I was confused,” he said. “I wanted to see my family.”
The United Nations assigned adult volunteers in the camp to take care of the children and to serve as teachers. School was held under a tree. Lessons were taught by scratching in the dust. Even though his father wasn’t there to make him go to school, Liduba remembered his words about education and took advantage of every opportunity to learn.
In 1991, the Ethiopian government was overthrown, and people in the refugee camp had a terrible choice: face the rebels or jump in a swollen, crocodile-infested river. Most chose the river. Thousands of children, including one of Liduba’s cousins, died. Liduba, who had learned to swim during his years living by the river, survived by letting the strong current take him downstream. In a poem, he wrote, “I don’t see any river as a source of life/And I don’t have any fun in a river anymore/But I see river as a killer.”
After surviving the river, Liduba once again found himself walking through the desert with no food or water with thousands of other people. At one point, they were near Lafon but were forced to head to Kenya because of fighting in the area. Many children died of dehydration or starvation before the group arrived at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
Liduba completed high school at the Kakuma Refugee Camp secondary school. “I didn’t know what to do next because at that time, there was no chance for education after secondary school in the camp,” he said. He did, however, take a week-long course to become a teacher. He taught seventh grade science, fourth grade agriculture, eighth grade social studies and sixth grade English at the Awiel primary school at the refugee camp. “This job kept me busy and changed my life with a paid incentive of $50 a month,” he said.
He also volunteered for the Youth and Culture Program as a drama director. In this role, he wrote a play called “Voices” about his experiences as a lost boy of Sudan. The play was performed at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi.
While he was at Kakuma, Liduba earned four certificates in peer counseling on HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention, peace education and conflict resolution, adult education and leather turning.
In 2000, Liduba was granted asylum to come to the U.S., and in 2001, he was sent to Chicago. His oldest daughter was born the day he left.
Journey to education
Once Liduba arrived in Chicago, he secured a job in shipping at a company that produced maps and globes, so he could support himself and his wife and daughter who were still in Africa.
He also continued his journey to education. He was one of three out of 80 lost boys to pass the English, math and science tests to get into St. Augustine College in Chicago, where he earned an associate’s degree. He then started classes at Chicago State University. In 2009, he transferred to NDSU.
During fall 2011, he completed classes for his bachelor’s degree and now has an internship at Fargo Cass Public Health. He works with health protection and promotion, which provides community-based public health intervention on topics such as tobacco cessation, nutrition, safety and physical activity.
He also works as a nursing assistant in the Sanford Health Rehabilitation Unit. “A bright smile and good attitude is what I always give to my patients and try to put a smile on their face despite their pain,” he said. Helping people make healthy changes is “something I really love to do.”
In 2007, Liduba founded a non-profit organization called the Pari People Project to build a clinic and to provide school supplies for students in the Lafon area. That year, he returned to Sudan to work on the project and to visit his family for the first time since they were separated. His brother, who was 3 years old the last time they saw each other, picked him up at the airport. They used their cell phones to locate each other because they didn’t know how the other looked.
Seeing his mother for the first time was the most emotional, Liduba said. She had believed he was dead and blamed herself for his disappearance. What made the meeting even more intense was that Liduba looked like her brother who died in the war. “She was happy I came to prove I was still alive,” he said.
The Pari People Project is now part of the Life Program, which Liduba and other lost boys from Lafon collaborate on. The Life Program provides scholarships, school supplies, school construction, health care services and clean water for the people of Lafon.
Liduba plans to continue his education. He is applying for graduate school to study public health administration or international infectious disease control management and biosecurity.
“My desire to help people in the Republic of South Sudan is still alive, and I will respond to that call one day when time is right for it,” Liduba said. “I will not forget home. That’s where I am from, and I have to contribute and give back.”
Liduba writes about his experience as a lost boy of Sudan. Some of his poetry is available at www.universeofpoetry.org/sudan.shtml.