UNIVERSITY PARK – For most students, going away to college is a time for self-discovery — a chance to develop independence and grow into adulthood. For Penn State student David Gak, independence was imposed on him prematurely at the age of 9.
Gak, a Sudanese refugee, was separated from his parents in 1987 when civil war broke out in his country. Fighting between the northern Islamic regime and the southern separatists forced 26,000 young boys to flee their villages and walk thousands of miles — through several countries — to safety. Many of them did not make it.
“We all had a tremendous fear of being killed and we were very homesick,” Gak said. “On our way to Ethiopia, hundreds among us died due to the shortage of water and extreme insufficiency of food. Some were eaten by wild animals. Some drowned in the river or were eaten by crocodiles. All of this was caused by the war in Southern Sudan when we were forced to leave our homes in order to stay alive. Life was extremely horrible and tragic and hard to believe it could really happen.”
For 10 years Gak and other Sudanese boys lived in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Gak said he had little hope for a better life during this time. He witnessed the death of relatives, neighbors and friends and constantly feared for his own life and the others he befriended.
Gak found hope at the turn of the century. In 2000, several U.S. agencies helped bring the “Lost Boys” to America and resettled them in cities throughout the country. At 19, Gak was sent to Philadelphia, to live on his own in a foreign country; he was too old to live with a foster family. His younger brother Jacob, whom Gak had taken care of since their displacement, was assigned to live with a family in a nearby neighborhood.
To support himself, Gak worked at night and attended high school during the day. He graduated in 2002 and was accepted to Penn State’s University Park campus. Applying for colleges and financial aid, he said, was hard to do without support from a parent.
But Gak doesn’t dwell on his past — he’s focused on the future. With a major in health policy and administration, he graduates from Penn State on May 19 and has his sights set on finding a good job to support his mother and brothers living in Kenya.
Clemente Abrokwaa, assistant professor of African-American studies, has interviewed nine of the “Lost Boys” that are currently at Penn State for a paper he’s writing about the refugees. He said all of the Sudanese students are highly resilient.
“Knowing what they’ve gone through, with the civil war and living in the refugee camps, and knowing that they’ve put it behind them is an amazing feat,” Abrokwaa said. “Most people would go into a depression, give up or complain about what they’ve been through. But they always have a positive attitude and are quick to crack a joke.”
Abrokwaa serves as adviser for the African Students’ Association and met Gak in 2002, when he first came to Penn State. He said that all of the “Lost Boys” are hard working; they don’t take their studies lightly.
Unlike the other boys that he’s interviewed, Gak is highly sociable and more at ease speaking in public, Abrokwaa said. Gak, he explained, is often more laid back because he’s more fluent in English. This has contributed to his substantial accomplishments.
“He’s an analytical thinker and forward looking in terms of what to do with his life,” Abrokwaa said. “He seeks bigger opportunities and associates with people in higher places.”
Gak sought a better opportunity when he chose to go to school at Penn State.
“Deciding to attend college was one of the most exciting and proudest decisions I made in my life,” said Gak. “I was so eager to learn and have a degree so that my life would be easier. It has been the honor of my life to be a part of the Penn State community. I have met people who have inspired, empowered and changed my life and I’m very grateful for their support.”
Dennis Shea, head of Penn State’s Department of Health Policy and Administration, said a lot of students in the major have an interest in the health field, but realize health policy and administration will give them a better opportunity to influence global wellness. He’s not surprised Gak chose it as his major.
“David, having seen how changes in a political system impact people and knowing the influence large organizations can have on the health of thousands, was able to see how a career in the field could link with his personal interests,” Shea said.
Shea suspects that with experience, Gak’s talents and background will equate someday to a future in international health. He does not doubt Gak will be successful in his profession.
Friends that know Gak agree.
Kenneth Holdsman has known Gak since 2000. He recommended Gak for an internship in his office in Washington, D.C., at the Academy for Educational Development. Gak did research in global health, specifically in Africa, while there.
Holdsman uses the words courageous, resilient, passionate, humanistic and thoughtful when describing his Sudanese friend. He’s impressed with Gak’s ability to grasp an understanding of American culture, politics and society.
“Before he got to America he had never been on a public bus system or used a flush toilet,” Holdsman said. “He’s always been smart and kind but now he’s about to graduate from a major American University. The work he’s done to get to where he is now is unbelievable.”
In addition to working and going to school, Gak started a nonprofit organization for the people in his war-torn country. Gak founded the Ayual Community Development Association in 2003. He hopes to offer a better life through education and better health services.
“Families and children have endured some of the worst consequences of war,” he said. “People are dying from preventable diseases and I thought it was time to do something about it.”
Currently, Gak’s organization is trying to raise funds to build a health center in southern Sudan.
Last year, Gak took a semester off from school so he could work and earn money for a trip to the Sudan. He saw his mother for the first time in almost 20 years and described the overwhelming emotions: exhilaration in seeing her, desolation in knowing he’d lost 20 years with her and powerless to the fact that her health is fading.
Abrokwaa said that even though Gak has always had the drive to succeed, his trip home renewed it. In addition to his studies and two jobs, Gak speaks publicly about the Sudan — its politics and the war — to raise awareness about the situation in Sudan and to help build his organization.
On Sept. 7, 2006, Gak became an American citizen. Although he works hard and enjoys his life in the United States, Holdsman said Gak has a deep sense of connection to the Sudan and still considers it his homeland.
For more information on Gak’s nonprofit organization, visit http://www.aycda.org online.