Former refugee brings hope to homeland
May 23, 2007
As the slight man speaks with passion and zings of humor, Treasure Mountain students surround him in silence, as if in a trance. Solomon Awan, who could be seen as frail, has survived hell, and wants to return to it soon to quash its fires.
As an eight-year-old, it was his job to tend cattle, on the outskirts of his village in Sudan. One day he and other cattle-tending boys returned to the eye-searing smoke from the ruins of his village. Everyone was dead, including his father and brothers, shot by rebels from the north. His mother and sisters were gone. He and thousands of other boys fled the attackers, staying alive by eating any dead animals they came upon, roots, at times eating mud and drinking urine while crossing 400 miles of wasteland.
Awan, who was born with a painfully curved spine, a condition called kyphosis, used his will to keep up with the others.
The ‘Lost boys of Sudan, trudged for months, settling in Ethiopia. With few resources and no one to help them, the future looked bleak.
Vicki Whiting, a Westminster college professor, met Awan after he came to the United States to get an education so he could return home and help his people. Now they are close friends and Whiting and her son Philip have joined Awan in his cause.
"Solomon has a wicked sense of humor," Whiting said. "When he spoke of the survival skills he developed with the Lost Boys, he said to her, referring to his curved spine, "Obviously, I’m not the hunter of the group."
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Since Awan’s body didn’t lend itself to speed, he developed instead a business sense. Multiplication seemed to be his answer, the turning of one item into many salable products, with proceeds invested further.
Awan realized that education was essential to the survival of his people. If they could become enterprising through farming, creating something out of nothing but hard work and knowledge, they have a chance.
But he also realized that his skills lay in gaining an education so he could educate others.
Awan made an equally difficult trek to a Kenyan refugee camp, where he spent nine years sharpening his business skills.
The International Rescue Committee noticed his farming skills and hard work and trained him further.
Solomon put his efforts toward reaching the United States for formal education, spending four years working toward that goal. With perseverance, his dream came true, and with the help of the International Relief Society, he arrived in the United States August 16, 2001. Utah, considered an International refugee center, became Awan’s new home. He said he has had a hard time getting used to the cold.
A Treasure Mountain student asked him if he has tried skiing.
"It is the thing I most don’t want to try," he said. "I’m brave, don’t get me wrong but not in skiing."
He has become a U.S. citizen. "I am proud to be an American citizen. I am proud to be Sudanese," he said.
Awan has gone from a second-grade education, knowing no English, to completing a college education at Westminster, all within six years.
It was there that he met Whiting. She acted as his advisor as he made his way through business classes. She introduced Awan to her family. Her son, Philip, a Treasure Mountain ninth-grade student, has taken on Awan’s cause. Philip told his geography teacher, Kathy Brandon, of Awan’s quest to raise money to build an elementary school in Duk Padiet, Sudan. Soon the whole class was involved.
Brandon told the class, "If you would like to donate, spend what you would spend on junk food in a day." She said some students gave as much as $20 which likely had little to do with a junk-food addiction and more to do with compassion.
Awan hopes to dole out large numbers of micro loans to the people of Sudan. Through the Foundation of International Community Assistance, FINCA. The micro- loans will allow people to buy necessary supplies or tools to start businesses allowing them to sell their wares at market.
He, Vicki, and Philip Whiting hope to make a trip to Sudan in May 2008, to deliver loans.
He said the key to fighting off rebel forces, who may attempt to take loan money, or destroy thriving businesses, in educating people about the importance of unity in fighting this enemy together.
Meanwhile, Awan recently graduated from Westminster, with a bachelor’s degree in Finance and International business. He is working for the Union Bank of Switzerland, U.S.A.
He plans to return to a village outside of Kenya, where he has learned his mother and sister are living. He has not seen or spoken to his mother in 20 years. He has spoken with his sister over the phone, but will see here for the first time as an adult.
To contribute to Solomon’s cause, visit http://www.theopealliance.org , click on "How you can help, and then "Donate."