Tallmadge -- Fifth-graders at Munroe Elementary School learned what is was like for 20,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War in what is now Africa's South Sudan.
Aleu Akot, a member of the Dinka tribe from Warrap state in the southern part of Sudan, who now lives in Cleveland Heights, was one of those "Lost Boys of Sudan." He gave a presentation to Krista McCourtie's students Jan. 31.
According to the humanitarian organization the International Rescue Committee, about 2.5 million people were killed and millions were displaced during the war between northern and southern Sudan [1983-2005]. Aid workers in refugee camps where the children of the Dinka and Nuer tribes lived informally gave them the nickname.
After McCourtie heard a similar presentation from other refugees last year, she thought a story from one of them would complement a book her class was reading: "A Long Walk to Water," a true story of "Lost Boy" Salva Dut, who now lives in Rochester, N.Y.
Akot and Broadview Heights resident Jackie Tuckerman travel throughout the state doing presentations for schools, youth groups and community organizations. They made the presentation to the students at Munroe for free.
Tuckerman and her husband became involved with some "Lost Boys" when they resettled in the U.S. in 2001. They were living in Nashville at the time and invited eight of them to live at their home.
"When they first came, they had no experience with modern life in the U.S. Living with us was the easiest way to teach them about electricity, plumbing and just general life in a modern world," she said.
fighting for his life
During his presentation, Akot showed photo slides from his home village and discussed his experiences. Tuckerman said the boys "encountered horrific situations as they trekked from their villages in Sudan, from one of the worst civil wars in the history of the planet, to a refugee camp, Pinyandu, in Ethiopia."
After he arrived at the refugee camp, Akot became a soldier for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, southern Sudan's rebel army. He was 12 years old.
"The SPLA came into the camp and recruited -- with force -- anyone tall enough to carry a gun," Tuckerman said. "They were told that if they joined they could go back to their village. The promise never came to fruition, and Aleu fought in the army for nearly eight years."
She said after the Ethiopian government collapsed, the boys were "chased out of the country at gunfire," during which thousands more of them were killed.
"It took months and many more attacks, but finally the group made its way to another U.N. [United Nations] refugee camp in Northern Kenya called Kakuma. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 fled, and the U.N. registered 10,500 when the boys arrived in Kakuma," she said.
During his time as a soldier and while living in the refugee camps, Akot said he was shot seven times, nearly drowned when he was attacked by an anaconda and almost starved to death many times. Thousands of the boys were attacked by lions and crocodiles and died of thirst and disease, Tuckerman said.
But Akot never gave up hope.
"I always believed there was a plan and that God had me survive for a reason. Many of my family and friends did not survive. I saw many people die," he said.
He wanted the students to know that Sudan "has suffered under a tyrant of a leader for many decades; he is still wanted for war crimes by the U.N. and ICC. [International Criminal Court]," referring to Omar al-Bashir, the current president of Sudan.
"The war did terrible things to every aspect of our country -- people, crops, cattle, family life, traditions, etc. I am a Dinka, and we are strong and we survived the war through horrific events. And now we want to rebuild our country," he said.
Akot, who came to the U.S. in 2005, doesn't have a birth certificate but believes he's about 35 years old. He is now a U.S. citizen, full-time student at Tri-C and works full time at Whole Foods in University Heights. He lives with three other "Lost Boys."
He said it's important the next generation knows about what happened during the war so that it's not repeated.
"It is my prayer that the kids learned that there is always hope, and we can never give up on our life," he said.
According to Tuckerman, there are 3,800 "Lost Boys" in the U.S.
A moving experience
McCourtie said after she saw her first "Lost Boys" presentation last year at a church, she couldn't stop thinking about it.
"As a teacher, you always want your students to feel empowered and willing to help make this world a better place," she said.
McCourtie said hearing about Akot's experience helped them put their lives in perspective.
"Some people may think fifth-graders are too young to hear about the horrendous story of what these boys went through," she said. "However, I believe that we don't give our students enough credit. They were very mature in this subject matter and were shocked that these things are happening around the world.
"They realize that what they have here in the United States is a true gift and that education is a remarkable thing that some kids would die for," she continued.
McCourtie said her students were captivated by Akot and his story.
"After they left, my class and I had a discussion about what they thought about the presentation. I was pleasantly surprised by their reactions. They loved it," she said.
McCourtie said she wants her students to be able to look outside of Tallmadge, be aware of the entire world and see that some people have persevered after living through trying circumstances.
McCourtie said as her students finish reading the book, they don't want it to end.
"They are inspired by Salva's story, and they were inspired hearing Aleu's story," she said. "Doing this book in class has shown me that kids are never too young to be exposed to the world and the good that people are doing, despite all the bad things going on. I hope they hold on to that 'good' for the rest of their lives."