“My friend was dying so I looked at him and told him, ‘I’m going to eat you tomorrow,’” he said.
These are the words of Emmanuel Jal, a South Sudanese political activist who now travels the world to promote peace. Jal used these words to describe the lowest point of his existence as he spoke before a small audience in a middle school auditorium in Salt Lake City.
This pursuit of peace brought Jal to Utah for a “Night of Dialogue,” an event where multiple refugees tell their stories and gave advice as to what members of the community can do to help refugees make their transition a little easier.
Jal was born in South Sudan; he was just 5 years old when a war broke out in his country. This would be Sudan’s second civil war, a war, waged in the name of equality, in which 2.5 million people died. Jal’s family was killed in the war with the exception of his father. Jal’s father sent him to Ethiopia, where, by the ripe old age of 8, Jal was touting an Ak-47 that was taller than him. He became a child soldier, where he fought to avenge his family.
It was this point in life that would be the lowest for Jal; his general marched the army for three weeks when they were only meant to go for one. The group ran out food and had to subsist off of vultures that would land to eat the dead bodies of the starved soldiers.
“Those little animals that we depended on decided not to come close to us,” Jal said. This was when the soldiers had to eat the flesh of their fallen friends in order to survive.
Jal was later rescued from the army and smuggled to Kenya by a British aid worker named Emma McCune.
In parting Jal gave his last piece of advice, saying, “The worst people are those who turn a blind eye and watch the atrocities happen.”
Joe Nas, a refugee from Sierra Leone who now lives in Salt Lake City with his family, was forced to leave his country as war broke out. Nas shared his story, describing how hard it was to adjust to life in Utah. “There is no way refugees can stand on their own two legs if they don’t get … support,” he said.
Nas encouraged the community to reach out to refugees and offer them direction. It is this direction that, Nas believes, will empower people.
Most refugees are poor in the United States; they are smart and hard working but don’t have someone who can give them direction, Nas said.
Kim Buhler, an attorney at law and a refugee from Vietnam, also spoke out for refugees.
“Very few of us are going to be able to go to Somalia; very few of us will go to Kenya … but we don’t have to because right in our midst of Utah … are refugees,” she said. When growing up, Buhler was able to have mentors and encouraged the communities across Utah to offer direction to refugees.
Jal, Nas and Buhler all share a common thread. Their lives were forever changed because of war. Many refugees are sent to Salt Lake City every year, where they must adapt to a new life and culture. The message Jal, Nas and Buhler shared was that of peace, to extend a hand to those in need.