Lost boys, found men: From civil war in Sudan to the classrooms and convocation stage at Lethbridge College

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Part III: Canada

Mathon remembers a woman at the Calgary church who was particularly helpful and encouraging after he arrived in Canada. Her name was Antoinette.

“She said, ‘Sam, you are going to go to school!’” Mathon recalls with a smile. Instead, he went to Brooks, Alta., where he worked at Lakeside Packers for eight years.

Manyok arrived in Toronto and stayed there with other Sudanese refugees until January 2002. He had heard about job openings in Brooks, and so came to Alberta. The two Lost Boys found each other on the factory floor and became friends. Mathon had at one time travelled through Manyok’s village during the years he was displaced, but the two had not encountered each other until they arrived in Alberta.

The work they did at Lakeside Packers was gruelling. “Working in a meat plant is one of the hardest things you can do,” says Manyok. “That job is just not an easy job.”

Manyok stayed in Brooks until 2005, when he got a job in Fort McMurray. He left in 2009 after seeking four weeks of time off to visit his mother in Africa but being denied. “I hadn’t seen my mom in 23 years,” Manyok said. He ended up travelling to Africa for 14 days and spent 11 of them with his mother, a reunion which he simply describes with a smile as “very good.”

After Manyok returned to Alberta, his employer “wasn’t happy” and Manyok lost his job. He reconnected with Mathon, who had started taking ESL classes at Lethbridge College.

“I realized the best thing I can do is go back to school,” Manyok says. “I was making money, but nothing changed. It was a tough decision to go back to school. But education is the key to everything.”

Mathon agrees. “It is very hard going to school while you are in your late 20s,” he says, adding that he wishes he had started school as soon as he had arrived in Canada.

“Learning the language is one of the things we struggled with,” adds Manyok. “But we had many of the teachers supporting us.”

Over a seven-year period, Mathon and Manyok moved from the ESL program to the Upgrading program at Lethbridge College, which offers learning opportunities to students through to a Grade 12 equivalency, and finally enrolled in the General Studies program.

It hasn’t always been an easy experience, especially connecting with other students.

“The experiences we had can make it difficult sometimes with people here in Canada,” says Manyok. “I came here with goals. I wanted to learn. I got some negative feedback from some people, but that didn’t affect my goals. It can be hard to explain our life experiences to others who have grown up in a peaceful country. We overcame all of these issues. We have lost so many family members.”

While relating with other students was sometimes challenging, Manyok and Mathon have made deep and lasting connections with their instructors.

“We could not have done this without the support of our professors,” says Manyok. “They know our weaknesses and show us how we can improve our weaknesses. They encourage us. They are like our parents.”

“Our instructors gave us so much encouragement, even when we wanted to quit,” adds Mathon. “We would like to thank them all.”

Social sciences instructor Keith Dudley, whom Manyok and Mathon call “Uncle Keith” as a sign of respect for his age and position, is grateful for how much the two have contributed to the classroom over the years.

Dudley says their humour and their resilience, particularly in his “Sociology of the Family” class, was especially valued. “They were willing to talk about all of the traditions of their homeland – engagement, dating, dowry and bride price,” Dudley says. “They were very willing to talk about what was going on in their personal lives” and that has added so much to class discussions.

Psychology instructor Jennifer Davis agrees.

“I first ‘met’ John in an online class I teach on child development,” says Davis. “The experience and insights he brought to that class were truly mind blowing for many of his classmates, and for me. It expanded everyone’s ideas of childhood far beyond anything the textbook or other online materials could have provided.”

Davis has taught Manyok and Mathon in two additional classes since then and says their presence has made a real difference on campus, and not just for the increased diversity they brought to the classroom.

“Sam and John force the class to think beyond Lethbridge, beyond southern Alberta, and even beyond Canada, to how these principles apply in the broader world, and it focuses their attention on the existence and importance of that broader world.”

Their instructors hope the two will continue with their studies at university – and that is the goal Mathon and Manyok have both set.

“I hope to continue my education and go to university to pursue a degree in social work,” says Mathon, who has also worked as a volunteer at Lethbridge Family Services during his time as a student, putting his Arabic, Swahili and Dinka language skills to use as a translator. “I love working with people and would like to help. One day I would like to be working with the [United Nations]. Also I think in the future, I might get into politics.”

Manyok, too, has chosen to go into social work as a way to give back. He has applied to the University of Calgary’s Social Work program, which is offered at the University of Lethbridge. “If that doesn’t work out, I might do addictions counselling at the University of Lethbridge,” says Manyok.

Davis says she hopes they pursue that dream. “Personally I think they should go on to university,” she says. “I wish them all the best in their future. Wherever they go from here they will be successful.”

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