Gabriel Akok (left) talks with Amanda Wakefield of Coopersburg, Pa. Wakefield's family hosted Akok for two weeks back in 2001 while he got acclimated to American culture.
They say a person never forgets how to ride a bike, and certainly 14-year-old Amanda Wakefield will remember one pedaling lesson. In 2001, Amanda’s parents, Lynette and Andy Wakefield, hosted two Sudanese refugees, Gabriel and his brother Michael Akok.
Gabriel Akok was 10 years old when he was separated from his family and his other brother was killed during the 21-year civil war in southern Sudan. After being accepted into the U.S. government’s refugee program, the brothers lived in the Wakefields’ home in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania for two weeks while getting acclimated to American culture.
“When I got here, I was eager to learn everything quickly,” said Akok, now a senior at Arcadia University, during a presentation at Lehigh University given on Wednesday, April 9.
The family and their church taught the young men to drive, to cook in modern kitchens and to ride a bike. “They caught on pretty fast,” said Amanda, who attended Akok’s presentation with her parents.
However, during the riding lesson, one of the Akok brothers cut his leg. “He was bleeding like crazy, and yet he acted like it was nothing,” the Southern Lehigh High School student says. “He didn’t even notice.”
Seeing his numbness to pain, Amanda realized he must have suffered deeper cuts than the gash in the Sudanese conflict, which left an estimated two million people dead.
“I learned about cultural differences, and how different we are and how we need to help them,” Amanda says.
To learn a similar lesson, students and community members flocked to Maginnes Hall. At 6:55 p.m., all the seats in the originally schedule room were filled, but more students and community members were seeking seats, forcing the event’s organizer, Ryan Ruggiero ’09 to shift the venue, where they filled all 90 chairs.
Before Akok spoke, the audience watched the documentary Lost Boys of Sudan
, which followed two Sudanese refugees as they transitioned from Africa to the American Midwest.
Akok and the refugees in the documentary are just a few of the estimated four million people displaced during the almost 20 years of conflict in southern Sudan.
While a peace treaty was beginning negotiated in 2003, an unrelated conflict erupted in the western Sudan region of Darfur, where 200,000 people are estimated to have died and two million are displaced.
Akok declined to give details about his journey from Sudan to the refugee camp in Kenya and finally to Quakertown, Pennsylvania where he and his brother Michael settled. Instead, he described his life as a member of a tribal society known as the Dinka.
“In south Sudan, there is no education, no healthcare, no road even,” he said. “There’s no supermarket; they make their own food.” The Dinka people are traditionally cattle herders, and often the boys care for the animals. Akok remembers listening to other Dinka tell stories and being treated as every tribe member’s son.
“The life was just a normal life, but it was enjoyable.”
On March 11, Akok took an oath of U.S. citizenship, but he believes he has maintained his identity as a Dinka.
“I don’t think anyone can take away anyone’s identity. It’s up to the person to keep their identity,” he says.
Although his father died in 2006, Akok keeps in contact with his mother, who is living in a Kenyan refugee camp, and he frequently calls his friends in Sudan and Kenya.
Akok, a political science major with minors in pre-law and business, is preparing to take his LSATs in June. He plans to study international law and work with a humanitarian organization.
“I choose to be a lawyer. That’s how I can help people,” he says. “If I get a job with NGOs, that would be a good way for me to help them, because I know the area better and I know the language.”
Akok called on his audience to help end the conflict in Darfur by writing to their Congressmen and their U.N. ambassador.
Photo by Dominique Brown ’12