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Alumnus Gai Nyok’s remarkable path has taken him from ‘Lost Boy of Sudan’ to U.S. diplomat

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Gai Nyok. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva.

At the age of 5, Gai Nyok fled his village in Sudan and trekked more than 300 treacherous miles to the relative safety of a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He was one of 20,000 Lost Boys of Sudan, those boys displaced by the second Sudanese civil war between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army that left roughly 2 million people dead between 1983 and 2005.

“We were being killed because we were seen as potential [soldiers for] the rebels from the south,” said Nyok, now 29. “So we were targeted and killed, sometimes taken to the north. At the time, there were a lot of child soldiers on both sides. There were a lot of us escaping our villages to go to refugee camps.

“I was one of the younger ones,” he said. “Some of the older boys were 10 years old. In my case, I was with my brother, some of my cousins and I think my uncle was there, too.”

Nyok, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010, has recently fulfilled his longtime dream of becoming a U.S. diplomat, marking yet another milestone in his incredible journey.

He is currently training in Washington, D.C., and learning Spanish in preparation for his upcoming work in Caracas, Venezuela, where he will serve as a U.S. economic officer.

“I’ll be working on economic issues, basically conducting economic analyses in the host country, and [studying] the economic environment to see whether it is conducive to U.S. business within the country, potential U.S. investment in the country,” he said.

I was exposed to international issues. I lived in a refugee camp with people of many, many different nationalities.

Nyok’s experience growing up in African refugee camps as a Lost Boy of Sudan inspired him to set a goal to one day work in international diplomacy.

“I grew up in a situation where there was war. I was exposed to international issues. I lived in a refugee camp with people of many, many different nationalities,” he said. “And I saw the impact that countries can have in resolving conflicts around the world.

“When I was coming [to the United States], I was interviewed by American diplomats,” he continued. “I was inspired by the work they were doing in a hostile environment in a refugee camp in Kenya. It was hostile. No services. Nothing. I am excited to be able to do something like that as a way to give back to all the people that have supported me from [my days in] the refugee camp.”

Growing up in a refugee camp

Following a period when he lived at the refugee camp in Ethiopia, Nyok moved to the massive Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 1993.

“We had nowhere else to go,” he said. “The United Nations basically set up a refugee camp, and afterwards more refugees started to come in from other countries — because basically all of East Africa was very unstable during the 1990s. There were refugees from Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia.”

As more refugees arrived, the small amount of resources dwindled even further.

“There was less food available to us, because the supplies were so limited,” he said. “Life became very difficult. The food that we ate was very small — about 3 kilograms, which is like 5 or 6 pounds every 15 days. We would always run out of food.

“We just tried to survive,” he said. “It was like that for eight years.”

The situation in the camp was hopeless and miserable, Nyok said.

“It was always our dream that one day we would go back to our home country,” he said. “But even better, it was hoped that we would one day be resettled in another country, the U.S., for example.”

In 2001, the U.S. government resettled 4,000 of the Lost Boys of Sudan. For Nyok, the resettlement process had started two years earlier in 1999.

“All of us jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “[We had] many, many interviews. And finally, in 2001, we had the final interview from INS and I was brought to Richmond, Virginia. I came with my brother, who is older than me. I was 15 at the time. I was a minor, so I couldn’t be alone. My brother could not take care of me. So I was placed with an American foster family.”

Resettlement in Virginia

Once in the U.S., Nyok began attending Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County.

“When I was in Kenya, I had only studied six years in school,” he said. “So when I came here, [because] I was 15, I did not have the luxury of doing all four years of high school. So I basically rushed through, took summer classes and graduated high school in three years.”

Not only was high school a challenge because he needed to graduate in three years, Nyok also had to learn in English.

“I could speak some English because that was the language of instruction in Kenya, but it was very minimal,” he said. “We wouldn’t use English when we would go back to the community. We’d use a Sudanese language, called Dinka. So [when I arrived in the U.S.] I could understand English, but I was not very good at it.”

Plus, the accents in Hanover County were different than those he heard among the English speakers in the refugee camp.

“It was not easy,” he said. “A lot of times my high school teachers couldn’t understand what I was saying, I couldn’t always understand what they were saying. My classmates had to repeat things all the time.”

But despite the challenges, Nyok excelled in high school, earning straight-A’s, and receiving a scholarship to VCU.

Studies at VCU

At VCU, Nyok was a double major in economics and international relations in the College of Humanities and Sciences, with a minor in French.

Angelina Overvold, Ph.D., associate director of the School of World Studies and associate professor of French and Francophone studies, taught Nyok while he was at VCU, and she suspected he had big things in his future.

“When I had Gai as a student, I had a feeling that he would find a way to live not only a successful but a meaningful life,” she said. “I am delighted that he is on his way!”

Having Nyok in class, Overvold recalled, was always a joy.

“I appreciated the seriousness with which he took his classes,” she said. “He came to class impeccably dressed, as if going to an interview or to work; he sat in the front row; he was always well-prepared for class; and was attentive and engaged in the class. There was a gentle eagerness to him and a determination that made it a pleasure to have him as a student. He was a quick learner, and I was delighted when he decided to go study in France for a semester.”

On top of his studies at VCU, Nyok worked as a security guard for three years at James Branch Cabell Library, starting during his sophomore year.

Much of his time outside the classroom and work, he said, was spent interacting with students from different walks of life.

VCU is really special in that you can learn in the classroom, but also from your classmates.

“We would just hang out and talk about our dreams, what we wanted to accomplish,” he said. “It helped to motivate me and keep me on track. I always kept my eye on the ball, doing things that would one day put me on the career path that I wanted. I think the experience [at VCU] really guided me and showed me the trajectory I wanted to take in life.”

VCU’s diversity, he said, was a great benefit, as it allowed him to meet and learn from students from the U.S. and other countries.

“I remember attending many times the VCU Intercultural Festival and just being able to talk to different people from different cultures,” he said. “Had I not gone to VCU that is an experience that I would not have had. VCU is really special in that you can learn in the classroom, but also from your classmates.”

Also during his time at VCU, Nyok’s goal of becoming a diplomat came into sharper focus.

“It’s something I felt I would be good at, given my experience of traveling and seeking refuge in all these countries,” he said. “Working internationally, I felt I would understand the issues really well, and I would be a good voice, well situated to do something good.”

Praise from the U.S. Secretary of State

Following graduation from VCU in 2010, Nyok received a prestigious Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which was funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to support and prepare students for careers in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service.

Nyok’s Pickering Fellowship allowed him to earn a master’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In a 2013 speech on World Refugee Day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the crowd about Nyok.

“Gai Nyok, who is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who escaped the war there, trekking … on foot to Ethiopia,” Kerry said. “He finally arrived at Kakuma, Kenya, a sprawling refugee camp that housed 100,000 refugees, but food and rations there were very meager, and conditions were inadequate. So when the United Nations came, Gai immediately — when the United States came, he immediately signed up.

“You fast-forward just a few years. Gai finished high school early, with a 4.0 GPA; he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in economics and international relations,” he continued. “And I’m proud to say that today, Gai is one of our Pickering Fellows here at the State Department, on the path to becoming a diplomat in the Foreign Service.”

Nyok, Kerry said, is “a prime example, like so many millions of others, of exactly why it is worth all of us standing up for the world’s most vulnerable, fighting on behalf of refugees, people who are determined to work hard, to give back, to rebuild their lives and to become part of the fabric of this country or whatever country they can find asylum in, people who have started businesses and gone on to win prizes, recognition for literature, for science, for technology and other great endeavors.”

A positive force for change

As a U.S. diplomat, Nyok wants to continue to grow and learn and become a positive force for change in the world.

“I hope, down the road five or 10 years, to be someone who has a deep knowledge about the problems that not just the U.S. government faces, but that the global community faces,” he said. “I hope that I am someone that has the knowledge and the voice to be able to contribute to development and solving these issues.”

Nyok recently took a break from preparing for his move to Venezuela and visited VCU’s campus.

“My freshman year was in 2006. A lot has changed at VCU in those 10 years. I went back and stopped by the Cabell Library. It was very different, but it was amazing,” he said. “I miss being on the VCU campus. It’s a great atmosphere. VCU was my home. I spent more time at Cabell Library than I did at my apartment when I was a student.

“When I go abroad to Latin America,” he said, “I’m going to miss VCU and Richmond.” 

I miss being on the VCU campus. It’s a great atmosphere. VCU was my home. 

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