Gai Nyok’s life story is nothing short of remarkable. He spent most of his childhood in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya fleeing the conflict that engulfed his native South Sudan. Yet, he could’ve never imagined that years later that he would still be on the move, but for different reasons. Here’s the story of how a former refugee kid became a U.S. diplomat.
Tell us about your background. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in what is now South Sudan during the 1980s. Sudan was in the middle of a big civil war at that time and a lot of people were being displaced. A lot of towns were being destroyed because of the war. I left my mom and sister in Sudan, and my brother and some other relatives in the village escaped to look for refuge elsewhere. We found refuge in Ethiopia.
But in 1992, Ethiopia had its own problems, and that was during the Soviet Union collapse. The Ethiopian government was connected to the Soviet Union and they couldn’t hang on anymore. The [Ethiopian] government was toppled by rebels. We were sort of caught in the middle as Sudanese refugees so we were forced to return to Sudan. Since it still wasn’t safe, we made our way to Kenya. From 1992 until about 2001, I stayed in a refugee camp there. I was about the age of 8 when I arrived and stayed until I came to the US at age 15.
Where were you in Kenya?
I was in the northern part of Kenya. Basically, the border of Kenya and Sudan. It was a refugee camp for many nationalities. There were Ethiopians, Somalis, Congolese, Rwandans, Burundians, Eritreans… Roughly about nine nationalities were there. It was a refugee camp so it was not an ideal situation. We all wanted to leave and go abroad. Go to America, to Europe. Go to Australia. That possibility was not available to many of us. So when the U.S. government decided to resettle some of the Sudanese refugees, we jumped on the opportunity.
Can you walk through that process for someone who has no idea of what it means to be in a refugee camp trying to get abroad?
When we were walking to Ethiopia and eventually Kenya, we were just looking for refuge. We were just looking to escape… and run away from the violence. Run away from the war that was going on. We didn’t really care where we were going. You just hear “Go to Ethiopia. There are camps and that it would be a safer place. Hopefully, somewhere that’s safer and calmer.”
However, as more refugees came, there was not enough food. The United Nations was the one supporting the refugees and providing the food that came. There wasn’t enough. They didn’t anticipate how many people would be there. We stayed for six, seven years… in Kenya with just basic services.
There was water. There was limited food. Maybe you could eat one meal one day. Food came every two weeks, and sometimes by the 10th or 11th day, the food would run out. You had to survive. Sometimes, we would just share food with others refugees. Some were relatives. We depended on the people we knew in our community for much of the time. We just supported each other.
Was there schooling? What were the services?
The United Nations had set up education facilities in the refugee camps, including primary and secondary school. There were so many people. A lot of us went to school. It was the foundation of the my education, so while it wasn’t the best, it was the best for [the situation]. Many of us took advantage and went to school the whole time. People learned a lot and were able to establish their educational foundation from those UN schools. In Kenya, the language of instruction was in English, but we also learned Swahili in school.
What family was with you?
My brother and some of my other relatives. A lot of the Sudanese refugees that initially came were young men because they were the ones being targeted in the [Sudanese] war. They were the ones the family wanted to get out. So initially the camp had more young people. But as the wars progressed, and more Sudanese were displaced, you had more families that came after. You bonded with them and the people you meet at the camp.
How do you get from Kenya to the U.S.?
During that time, the issue of the war in Sudan got media attention. People in the United States started to hear about the Lost Boys of Sudan. Life was difficult for us. The food was not enough. The clothing we received was dependent on what the UN provided us. We wanted to get out of there. Most of us dreamed of going abroad. When the U.S. decided to accept some of the refugees, we all jumped on that opportunity and applied for the resettlement program. The program started in 1998 with the initial registration. By the time they got to the initial interviews, it was 2000. And there were different levels of interviews, so it took about 2 years for me to get here.
So you’re 15 years old and come to the U.S. – who are you connected with?
My brother was 20-something. I was a minor. Obviously my brother couldn’t take care of me. He went to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. I was put with an American foster family in Richmond (Virginia). I stayed with them and went to high school. Catholic Charities basically took care of me and found this family. I also had a social worker from Catholic Charities. I started 9th grade in the U.S.
What’s was the experience of having been in a refugee camp and then now you’re in an American high school?
It was weird. When we came, one thing I noticed that a lot of kids didn’t have a lot of discipline. A teacher would tell kids to stop doing [something] and the kids would just keep on doing what they were doing. It didn’t matter that the teacher was in front of you talking. Whereas in Africa, when a teacher comes into the classroom, you stand up.It’s not the same level of respect that kids in Africa have for the teacher. I mean, they do, but it’s not the same one.
I joined the soccer team, which was a way for me to make friends. We would play games on the weekends. It was also a way to immerse myself in the American culture and to learn American English. I had friends in the classroom but being on a sports team goes a long way.
What were some of your challenges?
Some of the cultural nuances. For example, in Sudan, there’s a saying that “You don’t thank someone when they are alive.” What that means – when someone does something for you, you obviously appreciate it, but how much you express your appreciation is different. In the U.S, you say thank you for everything – and please for everything. In Sudan, when someone does something nice for you, you of course thank them, but the more important thing is that you remember the good deed was done and you do the same in the future for another person. It’s an acknowledgment of appreciation. When I came here, I didn’t really [verbally] express my appreciation for things a lot. It took time. And sometimes people may take you as rude and unappreciative.
How were you plugged into your original home culture while in Richmond?
When I was in high school, there were other Sudanese kids that come at the same time I did. And we went to the same high school. So on the weekends, we would hang out. One of them was on my soccer team. We had an ESL class that we attended so I was always plugged into the Sudanese culture.
When I came to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the first two years I stayed in an apartment with two other Sudanese guys. Even at VCU, I was involved in the African Student Association/Union. I was always in the two worlds.
What did you study at VCU? As an undergraduate student, what did you think you’d be doing professionally?
I studied economics and international relations. And I had a minor in French.
Given my upbringing, moving from country to country, being supported by the UN and all these international agencies, I always wanted to do something along those lines and contribute to solutions.
I appreciated the roles countries and international institutions play in bringing about peace and development. It was always in my mindset to work abroad in this arena. I figured international relations and economics would go hand-in-hand. And while at VCU, I became an American citizen in 2008.
After graduating, I worked around for three years in different jobs. Then I decided to go to grad school. I wanted to get an advanced degree to make myself more competitive in terms of job searching and broadening my intellectual capacity. So as I studied for the GRE, I was looked for scholarships that might be out there. I came across the State Department Pickering Fellowship. It is a scholarship that is partially funded by the State Department and the Woodrow Wilson Center through Princeton University. I applied and luckily I got it and then I started my graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
You do your Masters. You finish up. What happens next?
The fellowship trains people to become foreign service officers (diplomats). The fellowship paid for most of my two years of school. During that time, I was also training. So I did one internship in Washington, D.C. at the State Department and then I did another internship at the U.S. Mission in Geneva (Switzerland). They train you so that when you graduate, you are ready to start work. After I came back from my internship in Geneva, I immediately started work at the Department of State and have been studying Spanish ever since, for my first posting in South America.
You are now heading to your first posting. What is like when you look full circle – given all the different places you’ve lived for all the different reasons you have lived there – and now you have an opportunity to be a diplomat and work in international relations?
I’m not sure it has sunk in yet. It speaks to the idea of the American Dream. Someone can come to the U.S. and make something good out of the opportunity to be here. Sometimes, I think about when I was in the refugee camp – I did not know where I would end up. I couldn’t envision that I would be where I am today. But things changed; I came to the U.S. and I was given this opportunity and I’m just happy that I made the best out of it. I hope to be someone who can inspire,not just immigrants, but Americans kids, to pursue their dreams, whether or not you can see your career path. When I was in the refugee camp, there was no career path. We went to school under trees for the first three years of school. Hopefully, this story of mine will inspire people. Sometimes you can’t see a career path, you just need to do what you can so that in the future you are prepared.