When Benjamin Ajak was of high school age, he studied at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in the desolate reaches of northern Kenya. For nearly a decade, from 1992-2001, his daily meal was half a cup of corn meal.
He has come a long way: to Juneau-Douglas High School, where he and his cousin, Benson Deng, will speak to students this morning. The two are just a few of the thousands of "Lost Boys," children who fled the widespread genocide of the Sudanese civil war in the 1980s.
"(Juneau kids) are so lucky that they have an education that is waiting for them," Ajak said by phone from California. "They have schools that they can go to, and they have somebody looking after them. When I was their age, nobody was protecting me. Nobody was telling me what to do. It was all me."
Deng and Ajak also will speak at 6 p.m. tonight at the University of Alaska Southeast's Egan Library.
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The presentation will include a DVD screening to give background to the story of the "Lost Boys;" a short lecture by mentor Judy Bernstein about the social situation in Sudan; and a speech by Ajak about his experiences.
Ajak, Deng and Deng's brother, Alephonsion, were all relocated to San Diego in the fall of 2001. They wrote the 2005 bestseller "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan" with help from Bernstein.
A volunteer mentor for the San Diego International Rescue Committee, Bernstein encouraged them to write.
"They were learning English, they wanted to learn how to use a computer and they liked to write stories," Bernstein said. "They started writing about what happened. It came out slowly. They wanted to move forward, but the stories kind of haunt you.
"They see a great mission in telling their stories," she said. "I think they've slowly seen the value of doing it."
What: An appearance by Benson Deng and Benjamin Ajak, Darfur genocide survivors and co-authors of "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan."
When: 6 p.m. tonight.
Where: University of Alaska Southeast's Egan Library.
Admission: All ages, open to the public, $10 donation.
For more: Visit www.theypouredfire.com.
Ajak and the Dengs fled their villages in 2002 when they were attacked by marauding Islamic militiamen. They and the Lost Boys trekked at night for 1,000 miles, dodging lions and crocodiles on the way to Ethiopia.
When civil war broke out there too, they were forced back into Sudan. After years of hardship and captivity, they finally made it to Kakuma.
At the camp, friends and family were able to get together for relocation to the United States. They didn't know where they'd end up, but at least they'd be together.
Juneau residents Sharon and Sandro Lane helped organize the Alaska visit after reading "They Poured Fire on Us," and hearing Benson speak in Nov. 2006 at Seattle's Washington Athletic Club.
"(In Juneau) we have some major issues with dropout rates," Sharon said. "We want children to understand how important education is, and how some people will suffer and walk many miles to continue (their studies)."
Sharon hung out with Benson and Bernstein that day in Seattle. Sandro traveled with them that weekend to a friend's resort on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands.
"(Benson is) a very sharp young man, and very determined," Sharon said. "I was so impressed, and I knew I wanted him to come up to Alaska.
Sharon bought up copies of the book as Christmas presents for family and friends. Her sisters read it and later had the chance to meet Benson and Bernstein in Pittsburgh.
"I wanted everyone to hear the story," Sharon said.
"I felt guilty about not understanding and now knowing what was going on in (Darfur) and I wanted to know more," she said. "It's considered the largest and most complex humanitarian problem on the globe."
Benson, Benjamin and Alephonsion all live in San Diego.
Alephonsion didn't make the Alaska trip because of his job. He studies at San Diego City College and works in Kaiser Permanente Hospital's medical records department.
There are an estimated 3,800 "Lost Boys" living in the United States, most of them in California, Bernstein said.
Benjamin, Benson and Alephonsion hang out with the other San Diego Lost Boys on most Saturdays and Sundays.
Benjamin has a brother still at Kakuma. But the relocation process has stopped.
"The process of getting boys to America has degenerated," Benjamin said. "He would love to come here, but they're all locked down."
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com.
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