Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sudanese sharing the 'wealth'

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For most of us our names are what they are. They might honour a relative or maybe reflect the whim of our parents influenced by delusion, or something less ethereal and of the moment.Some cultures have a deeper investment in the ritual and tradition of naming.

For Chol Kelei and friends David Mayen and John Garang, their names brand them with their shared, turbulent history.

They are, in fact, Chol Kelei, David Chol Mayen and John Garang Chol.

In southern Sudan, where children are given many names, young ones also adopt a label that marks a notable event -- a drought, for example. Chol is given to a sibling when a family loses its first child. In Sudan, Chol is ubiquitous because of protracted civil war.

I talked to some of these guys not long after they arrived in Winnipeg in 2003 from Kenya -- in the middle of winter, some no doubt wondering "what had they done!?" They have clawed their way through the troubles of finding work while decoding a new language and culture and living on minimal stipends from the federal government.

Kelei is particularly impressive. He grabbed work early, having learned some English in Africa, and he parlayed his income into support for himself, family back home and, very quickly, savings for university with RRSPs.

These three young men all are from the same state in southern Sudan, but met in a refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing war that emptied their homeland of Christians when government troops from the north took over in 1987.

They were young boys, and finding safe harbour would see them bounce from country to country in East Africa, until, en masse, they and hundreds other Christian Sudanese were airlifted to Canada, out of displaced persons' purgatory.

It has been a hard run, settling amid a culture of permissiveness and affluence, Kelei, 28, says.

But they, too, have found great fortune.

Kelei enumerates his wealth: He has grasped the language, is months away from getting his economics degree, and consistent employment has allowed him to send monthly assistance to family in Africa.

And now, the three of them plan to put a roof back on a shattered school in their childhood town of Bor.

Their commitment to paying it forward inspired like-minded students and staff at Sturgeon Heights Collegiate to raise $4,593.47 in three months.

Some of the mud-walled schools in what was once a missionary compound have been rebuilt, but many are missing parts. In fact, in a trip home in 2008, Kelei found whole towns remain destroyed, and bombed-out vehicles still sit at the roadside, testament to the devastation in the Christian and oil-rich south, and of the continuing neglect by the government in Khartoum, which in 2005 turned its sights on Darfur.

"So much destruction," Kelei says, over coffee at Portage Place. "I found schools with no roof and took photos."

He showed his photos to Sturgeon Heights' Sandra Melo, who had taught Mayen and Garang. The young men suggested the roof would be a worthy subject for Sturgeon Heights' annual social-justice fundraising campaign. Melo took the idea to social studies teacher Brian Hull and his Just Cause club at Sturgeon.

In three months, at $50 a "tile," donations topped the $4,000 Kelei estimates will be needed to buy and erect the sheet-metal roof. The money was deposited into a trust account held by St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

The men's connection to the church itself is a testament to their resilience. Long persecuted for their faith, when they arrived in Winnipeg they sought out a safe place to pray, recalls Rev. Cathy Campbell. Within a few years, they became the independent Emmanuel Mission parish, at St. Matthew's.

"This particular group has a horrific background but also has a quite, I think, sophisticated understanding of the wider world that's more than self-serving," Campbell says.

She says the roof money should flow within three months to an Anglican priest in Sudan, who has responsibility for Bor. St. Matthew's is trying to hook into a designated humanitarian organization so the donation can draw matching funds from Ottawa.

Kelei says there is no shortage of need in his homeland, which teeters on the cusp of war again as it approaches a referendum on southern independence in January 2011.

Once the roof is on, he says, the school will be full because there are more kids than classrooms. "The more they make buildings, the more they come."

Campbell regards the work of these folk as a gift to Winnipeg, too.

I agree. We are enriched as the roots they set down tie this city to a people, place and purpose a world away.

Kelei plans to return to southern Sudan to do a wider survey of the needs there. It is on the to-do list: He finishes his degree at the University of Winnipeg in May but must keep working full-time with a security company in order to qualify to sponsor his wife and his one-year-old son, who live with Kelei's mother in Uganda.

Melo says Garang and Mayen and others in their crowd are similarly impressive.

"They're just amazing humans." Amen to that.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2010 A10

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