When John Dau stood at the podium in Hendricks Chapel to speak to his fellow graduates at the 2011 University College Commencement Ceremony, his message was one of hope and gratitude. The Sudanese native reflected on an educational journey that didn’t even begin until he was 17, when he first learned to read and write by scrawling letters in the dirt with his finger. In the rural village where he grew up in South Sudan, he had never even heard of something called “school.” There was only suffering and violence as a civil war raged throughout his childhood. Forced from his home and family at the age of 12, John joined a group of 30,000 homeless refugees who came to be known as the Lost Boys. They wandered, barefoot and hungry, through more than 1,000 miles of desert, until they found refuge in a camp in Ethiopia.
Years later, they were driven off again, and this time ended up at a camp in Kenya, where John first learned his alphabet and emerged as a leader. In 2001, John was settled in Syracuse, along with 150 other Lost Boys. He worked hard and studied hard, continuing his education first at Onondaga Community College and then at Syracuse University as a UC student in the College of Arts and Sciences. His passion to help those left behind inspired Dau to create the John Dau Foundation, raising more than $1 million to build a health clinic in his native Duk County, Sudan. “According to a recent assessment, the mortality rate in Duk has dropped over the past five years,” John says. “This is due in large part to the services now offered by the clinic.” He recently founded the South Sudan Institute with the goal of creating self-sufficiency in communities throughout his homeland. “This is to help our people to become self-sufficient, and discourage handout-seeking strategies.”
John has become something of an international celebrity due to his work and a documentary about his odyssey called “God Grew Tired of Us.” The Sundance Award-winning film, produced by Brad Pitt, directed by Christopher Quinn, and narrated by Nicole Kidman, follows John from the Kenyan refugee camp to his new life in America. As UC’s 2011 UC Student Speaker, John marveled at the educational opportunities available at SU and the help he received as a UC student. “You have achieved the unthinkable,” he said to the graduates. “A degree from a major university in a great country. You should loudly and proudly congratulate yourself!”