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A lost boy returns home for a graduation party

Posted: July 24th, 2012

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – In 2001, through a program established by the U.S. Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 3,800 "Lost Boys of the Sudan" were brought to the U.S. to be placed with families in cities around the country. The "Lost Boys" were part of more than 2 million Sudanese who were killed or displaced from their homes during the second Sudanese Civil War.

Becoming aware of the program through a news magazine, Lake Superior State University Provost Don McCrimmon approached LSSU President Robert Arbuckle about the possibility of bringing some of the boys to Sault Ste. Marie. Three cousins, Ajak Deng, Aciek Nai and Kuol Nai, were welcomed in the community after surviving an arduous journey across Africa to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, while tens of thousands of their countrymen succumbed to death by dehydration, starvation, disease, and attacks by wild animals and soldiers.

One of the three, Ajak Deng, is returning to Sault Ste. Marie this weekend for a graduation party given by the community and the Sault Rotary Club. Ajak, who attended Sault Area High School and earned two degrees at LSSU, recently completed a master's degree in social science from University of Texas at San Antonio. The community is invited to welcome Ajak home from 3-6 p.m. on Sunday, July 29, in the commons at Sault High. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to bring a dish to pass.


Ajak Deng, Kuol Nai and Aciek Nai at LSSU (John Shibley/LSSU)

"We're very pleased to welcome Ajak back to the community during this gathering at Sault High," said Tim Hall, Superintendent of Sault Area Public Schools. "Ajak has written to former Sault Schools Board President Gwen Worley, and he said he is very excited to return and is looking forward to seeing everyone."

McCrimmon, a Rotary Club member who helped facilitate living and learning accommodations for Ajak and his cousins, will be in town for the event.

"In March, 2001, I chanced upon an article in Newsweek magazine on the immigration of some of the Lost Boys from Kenya to the United States, including a number of them to Grand Rapids," McCrimmon said recently. "After consulting with President Arbuckle, I contacted the author of the story, who in turn put me in contact with Catholic Charities in Grand Rapids. In a matter of a couple of weeks, Lake State and the Sault Schools had agreed to assist three of them in seeking an education, accommodations had been found, and the Rotary Club had agreed to limited financial assistance. My wife, Rena, and I moved them to the Sault and the adventure began."

Current LSSU President Tony McLain was superintendent at Sault Schools when McCrimmon started the movement to bring the boys to the Upper Peninsula.

"I had the pleasure of working with Don to create an education plan for the three boys," McLain said. "All three were enrolled in the Sault schools and LSSU offered the opportunity for Ajak to complete his undergraduate degree. It's very heartwarming to know that Ajak has now completed his master's degree. It's the kind of opportunity that America is known for, and it's not surprising that Sault Ste. Marie would be so helpful and welcoming to these three young men."

After graduating from Sault High, Ajak earned an associate's degree in social work and a bachelor of science with a double major in sociology and human services from LSSU.

In 2003, McCrimmon moved from Sault Ste. Marie to take a position as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Cazenovia College in New York, a position he still holds today. He said fellow Rotarian Betsy Demaray took over when he left town.

"Betsy shouldered much of the responsibility for both mothering and mentoring Ajak, work I'm sure she would describe as both challenging and joyful," McCrimmon said. "Clearly, she was successful and deserves enormous recognition."

McCrimmon said Ajak's success is extraordinary, and said the accomplishments of many of the cohort of Lost Boys have impressed people nationwide.

"I'm terribly proud of Ajak and hope to keep in contact with him for the rest of my life. He's a prime example of a group of remarkable people, persistent survivors, who already have been - and will continue to be - examples of the best that immigration offers to our country," he said.

In a note to former Sault Schools Board of Education President Gwen Worley, Ajak said that life has treated him well since he arrived in the U.S. and that Worley and the Sault community had been a tremendous blessing to him. Through the assistance of Worley and Michigan Works!, he and his cousin Achiek both worked at the Sault's Glen's Market and Kmart while they were going to school.

"I have worked more than one job at a time since then, but left those jobs to pursue a master's degree," Ajak wrote. "Life has been good since…I am very healthy and plan to find my next challenge to pursue."

Rotarian and International Bridge administrator Phil Becker is organizing Sunday's graduation party and he extends and invitation to the community to attend. -LSSU-

CONTACT: Tom Pink, 906-635-2315, tpink@lssu.edu; John Shibley, 635-2314, jshibley@lssu.edu; Tim Hall, 635-6609, thall@eup.k12.mi.us


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