Emerson student, a Lost Boy of Sudan, forges future

by Anna Buckley / Beacon Staff • October 30, 2014

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Sophomore William Muorwel is a Lost Boy of Sudan.
Sophomore William Muorwel is a Lost Boy of Sudan.

At the age of eight, William Muorwel believed he had the best life possible. Living in a rural village in southern Sudan, he said he spent his time taking goats out to the grassland, swimming in watering holes, and wrestling—it was a young boy’s dream.

“It was the perfect beginning,” said Muorwel, 35.

But then civil war erupted in Sudan in 1983, which would kill an estimated 2.5 million and displace millions more. Muorwel’s life changed drastically, and forever.

A childhood stolen

When the war began, Muorwel, now a sophomore at Emerson, was separated from his brothers, sisters, parents and friends, like over 20,000 other children of the Nuer and Dinka tribes of Sudan, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Muorwel and the other Lost Boys were led out of the war zone by their elders to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Though he knew to trust the guides, Muorwel said it was not easy to leave his home, and life as he’d known it, behind.

“It was not my decision to make it out,” said Muorwel, a the visual and media arts major. “That’s where the worst of my life’s experiences came in.”

Muorwel spent the next few years on the run, and said his exposure to death was immediate and jarring. Some around him died from hunger, others from disease, and others in horrific encounters. When the boys were forced to cross the fast-moving Gilo River in Ethiopia, Muorwel said he witnessed drownings, crocodile attacks, and his fellow brethren being shot at by Ethiopian rebels.

“At the time when I was young, I never knew people could die,” he said. “When the war came, everything just seemed [like] play in real life. It’s difficult to imagine everything that happened.”

The boys arrived at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 1992 after a year of walking, with only half of their original 20,000. For nearly ten years, Muorwel and the other refugees were confined within a 30 mile radius, and occupied themselves by holding soccer tournaments and going to school, which is where Muorwel learned to speak, read, and write English.

In 2001, the 4,000 Lost Boys who lost their parents, like Muorwel, were granted asylum by the U.S. government—a special designation for those who, like the Lost Boys, cannot return to their homes due to persecution or war—and as political refugees, could become citizens.

Muorwel said that although this was the chance at a fresh start, it was very difficult to part with his friends, family, and homeland.

“It was not exciting because you feel the separation,” Muorwel said. “It was another tearful journey. People cried, but they wished best of luck for us. If the U.S. government didn’t give me asylum, I might not have made it out.”

Discovering a direction in a new country

Muorwel and other Sudanese refugees were assigned to fly from Africa to Boston in 2001 via the International Institute of Boston, an agency that receives government funds to help refugees with the transition to America.

He is now living in Chelsea, where he rooms with fellow Sudanese refugees and frequently attends events at the South Sudanese Community Center of Greater Boston.

IIB contacted the Marriott Copley Hotel in 2002, Muorwel said, to suggest him for a position. He said he has now been employed in both catering and audio-visual work with the hotel for 12 years. While working full time, Muorwel began what he said became one of his most important journeys—his education.

Because he was unable to finish high school in his homeland, Muorwel needed to first complete his GED diploma. After passing the tests, Muorwel said he enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College. While taking classes part-time, he said he started watching the Travel Channel in his breaks, and a documentary about Sudanese life and culture caught his attention.

At that moment, he realized he wanted to learn about the medium of visual storytelling.

“I chose to major in communications so that I can tell my story,” he said.

While at Bunker Hill, Muorwel said he learned about Emerson’s programs and took a tour of the school. Muorwel decided to apply, was accepted, and is now at the college, focusing on television production.

He said his goal now is to turn the book The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience, which features his cousin who now lives in Atlanta, into a documentary. It looks at the everyday lives of refugees now living in America who, as its description states, “had never before turned on a light switch, used a kitchen appliance, or ridden in a car or subway train—much less held a job or balanced a checkbook.”

Emerson senior scholar-in-residence Cathyrn Edelstein—who moderated a panel earlier this month, during which Muorwel spoke about his life—said that Muorwel’s passion for education shows his desire to be successful in life.

“He has such poise and elegance in his demeanor,” she wrote in an email statement to the Beacon, “and [he] knows that what he learns at Emerson College will help realize his dreams.”

Communication studies professor Heather May, who teaches Muorwel’s Fundamentals of Speech Communication course, said her class is lucky that he is willing to share the distinct viewpoints that stem from his life experiences.

“William revealed that he was one of the Lost Boys, and he told me, ‘I want to find my voice, and tell my story,’” May wrote in an email statement to the Beacon. “I am someone who believes strongly in the power of a person’s story, spoken out loud, to influence and change the world. I’m so glad that Emerson has given him a way to share his story.”

The cost of a dream

But attending Emerson comes with a hefty price. Muorwel said he wouldn’t describe himself as middle-class, resulting in a need to take out loans to fund his education. But he said he is doing this in hopes of attaining the elusive “American dream,” a goal he’s had since before coming to the country.

“To get a piece of the American dream,” Muorwel said, “you have to get a college education.”

Though it was difficult for Muorwel to board a plane to America in 2001, knowing he was leaving behind his family and friends, he said he knew his purpose in doing so—to make something of himself and give back to his family and community.

A Lost Boy who took refuge in Chicago, Jok Kuol Wel, co-founded Help Sudan, an organization focused on improving the education opportunities in the country’s Bor region, according to Chicago Public Media. Jacob Atem, a refugee who was moved to Michigan, returned to Sudan and opened up a health clinic in his hometown of Maar, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Michael Kuany, a refugee relocated to Wisconsin, formed Rebuild South Sudan, an organization that has built a primary school prototype for refugee children in Jalles.

An overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a January 2011 referendum to secede and form Africa’s first new country since Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1993, according to BBC News.

“That was all because of our journey here, and to us, we feel like we won what we were looking for,” Muorwel said. “Getting South Sudan out of the bigger Sudan was the key.”

Muorwel was able to go back to South Sudan for a visit in 2010, and said he met with a few of his brothers. Muorwel said he was known as “the Uncle who came to visit from America” and had the opportunity to meet nieces and nephews he had only heard about in letters—an experience he described as an exciting commemoration.

“That was one of the moments that we had to celebrate the long forgotten childhood—the way we were in the village,” Muorwel said. “Now, everything has changed, so we have to celebrate the modern way.”