The two men stood in front of sixth and seventh-graders, tall and smartly dressed, wearing brightly colored blazers. It was hard to imagine them as skinny 10-year-old refugees escaping war-torn Sudan.
Yet here they were, two of the Lost Boys of Sudan, nearly 40 years after their lives were turned upside down by war, speaking to students at Carl Sandburg Middle School on Tuesday morning. Their positive message was accented by their smiles.
“It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you end that matters,” said Gabriel Dut Atem, who spoke alongside Peter Magai Bul. “Any of you can be whatever you want to be. If you go through hardship, don’t let that stop you from achieving your goals.”
They were invited to the school by seventh-grade teacher Tracy Fuentes. Many of the students had read the book, “A Long Walk to Water,” a fact-based novel about the 17,000 African boys who were forced to leave their families and their homes in the 1980s and ‘90s and walk for months to seek refuge. Nearly half didn’t survive. The 10,000 who did survive ended up in refugee camps. More than 3,000 were eventually sent to live in the United States - Gabriel and Peter were two of the lucky ones.
They talked not only about the hardships they endured, but how they were able to get through their ordeal.
“It was never easy for us,” Peter said. “Although we didn’t have much food, one of the things we took seriously was education.”
He recounted their fears when they first flew to America. They didn’t know the most basic things about living in western society and they were afraid people would not understand their broken English. They were frightened, but were excited to learn.
“I knew there was nothing I couldn’t do, it was just a matter of time to catch up with everyone,” Peter said.
Gabriel said one of his first American experiences - Thanksgiving - happened in Mundelein more than 20 years ago. The two are now raising families of their own in Chicago (although their children spend part of their time in Africa, getting an education in their father’s native language).
The men told the students they are blessed to have what they have in Mundelein. And they reminded them that they will all face their own hardships.
“Twenty years from now, some of you will become teachers, doctors, public servants, whatever you want to be. But for you to succeed, you have to overcome some things. If you use those hardships to fuel yourself, to make yourself stronger, you can achieve the things you want to achieve in life,” Peter told them.
“Nothing can fail you unless you fail yourself.”