My Plane Conversation with a South Sudanese

It was March 15th, 2012. William was my seatmate for the flights from Chicago to Amsterdam to Nairobi. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. I was initially a bit puzzled by William. The plane ride to Nairobi was about 22 hours long, but he was decked out in an expensive tailored suit. The outfit, especially the pointy Italian dress shoes, looked uncomfortable. The seriousness of the suit also juxtaposed William’s bright personality and bursting excitement. He is about six feet three, well-built with a shaved head. He had on a cheeky grin and was literally bouncing off his seat. I remarked to him, “wow you are so excited!”

His eyes sparkled, “Of course I am. I’m going home for the first time in 21 years!” I asked him where home is. He replied, “South Sudan. I am the proud citizen of the newest country on Earth.” His chin was held high as he said it. We spent the rest of the journey talking about his life journey, and it has been a journey indeed.

From the South Sudanese city of Juba, William was placed in a refugee camp in northern Kenya by his parents when he was seven so that he could be shielded from the growing violence and escalating war. That was the last time he saw his parents. He stayed in the refugee camp for the next four years, learning how to read and write from aid workers and nuns. In October right after he turned 11, he was herded into a truck without being told the destination. When dawn came, he peeked out and realized that he was in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. The aid workers were trying to smuggle some of the children and the sickly out of the country. He spent one day in Nairobi before being put on a plane.

He arrived in Grand Rapid, Michigan, where he was put in an orphanage and subsequent foster homes. He learned English and worked his way to college, graduating from Michigan State University Medical School two years ago. He is now a specialist doctor and about to go to MBA school part time. I asked him why he wanted to become a doctor. He said, “being a doctor is the best method to save lives. And that’s what I want to do. To save lives.”

I asked him if he was nervous. He replied, “no I am not. I just hope I can recognize my parents and that they can recognize me… I’ve grown quite a lot since the last time we saw each other.” No kidding.

We parted ways in Nairobi- he went to catch another flight to Juba while I exited out of the airport. I wish I had gotten his contact information- I would liked to know how the reunion was. Not a day has gone by that I have not thought about William. For some reason, his story, his excitement, and the sparkles in his eyes are engraved in my mind. They give me hope and inspire me to work twice as hard to make a difference. His story also lifts me up when I get pessimistic after visits to slums, refugee camps, and impoverished areas. Out of the many who unfortunately will be stuck in the poverty cycle, at least a few will make it out. And they will be successful- if not more successful- than William.


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