The Amazing Odyssey of John Dau

Spend even a few minutes with John Dau, and you will no doubt sense his imposing presence.

It has nothing to do with his height, which, by the way, is 6-8. It has, instead, everything to do with his poise, passion and positivity, his goodness and decency, and the stories of his experiences and outreach. Mainly, it has to do with his strength of heart, the quality of his character and the depth of his soul.
Dau, Collegiate’s Global Scholar-in-Residence, is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
The very short version of his amazing story of survival is that in 1987 at age 12, he was driven from his village during the Second Sudanese Civil War. After three months, he arrived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Four years later, he was displaced by war once again and forced to live off the land and battle deprivation and nature’s viciousness before he and the Lost Boys with whom he was traveling found sanctuary in Kenya.
He immigrated to the United States in 2001 and settled in Syracuse, NY. In the years since, he has earned a degree from Syracuse University, founded three nonprofits (including the John Dau Foundation) to enhance the lives of his fellow Sudanese and received a host of honors for his human rights activism. In 2006, he was featured in the acclaimed documentary God Grew Tired of Us. He is married with five children, three of whom attend Collegiate.
Monday evening, he will deliver the keynote address at the opening session of the sixth annual International Emerging Leaders Conference, a consortium of 41 international students representing 11 countries and 20 senior ambassadors from Collegiate who will convene for 10 days of collaboration, exploration and fellowship.
One afternoon recently, Dau and I met in a conference room in the Sharp Academic Commons to talk about his upcoming presentation, his life odyssey and his perspective.
Dau is a spellbinding speaker and storyteller, both in one-on-one conversations and before large audiences. He describes unimaginable challenges with a philosophical bent and without a trace of self-pity. He exudes wisdom and optimism. His fervor, courage and resolve are palpable. Close your eyes, and you can almost picture the images he creates with his well-considered, well-chosen words.
I inquired first about his message to the IELC conferees.
He responded that it would be, appropriately enough, leadership, a subject about which, it quickly became clear, he was eminently qualified to expound upon.
“Is a leader born?” he began rhetorically. “Or are leaders created because of situations? To me, it’s both, but those that are created by the situation, by experience, are the strongest. Sit back and think about very strong leaders in the United States. If you read their backgrounds, they were forced into situations that helped them perfect their leadership skills.
“In the African village, when you are born by one mother, same mother, the older boy and the father and mother are always the ones taking care of the family. In my case, I am the number three of three boys. If I were in South Sudan, I would never be in the position that I am in today. I became a leader when I was 12 taking care of myself and the other young brothers from other parts of South Sudan who we call today the Lost Boys of Sudan. I became a leader because of the situation.”
“So you had no choice?” I offered.
“No choice,” he replied quickly. “No choice.”
He then shared a parable passed down by his father.
“It is,” he said, “about a guy who became a winner, or a leader, because of the situation. There was a group who actually later split into three, and they were competing over which would get to the top of the mountain and be given an award. There was Group A, Group B, and Group C. The mountain was very tall. Now, the day came when they were to race to the top.
“Group A was set to go. They ran up there, and they climb and climb and climb, and the mountain became so steep and difficult. Others would say, ‘Why are we going there now? An award? What kind of award?’ Somebody said, ‘Oh, no, I hurt my hand.’ Somebody else said, ‘Oh, I hurt my leg.’ Then they start talking among themselves. ‘Why don’t we go down? This is nothing at all.’ They decided to go down before they get to the top.
“Group B did the same thing. ‘No, I can’t go there. It gets very tough. Oh, I hurt my leg.’ So they all came down.
“Group C, the same problem started. ‘This is terrible. We can’t go there. It’s wasn’t a good idea.’ Group C came back except for one guy. One guy kept going. Everybody watched from the foot of the mountain. He climb and climb and get to the top. When he climb down, Group C came to embrace him and celebrate, and he kept going in the opposite direction.
“The people say, ‘Why?’ Later they found out the man was deaf. What is the moral of this story? When you are a leader, you don’t listen to the bad stuff, the discouraging statements that people say around you. People say you can’t do it. It’s tough. When you’re a leader, you must not give up. When you want to achieve, you listen and figure out what is best and what is wrong. The deaf guy was not born a leader. He became a leader because of the situation.”
“And you learned that story as a young child?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “It actually helped me in my journeys. When I go through a difficult time, that story clicked. That’s the story I want to bring to this school. We in the Sudanese community did not have school. That does not mean we were not educated. We were educated through storytelling.”
“So, early on, you learned through stories not to listen to negative talk?” I asked.
“Correct,” he answered. “There’s a bad John and good John. If I let the bad John overtake me, I become negative all the time. Then I cannot see things in a positive way. You must continue to pursue what you want to do.”
“You’re well-educated," I observed. "Is it fair to say that you’re one of the (more fortunate) among the Lost Boys?”
“That is fair,” my friend replied. “It happened because of so many things. When I was separated from my family, I was not only taking care of myself. I was taking care of other boys. The situation was bad. We had nothing to eat. We all live on wild food like a bird, chewing grass, a cow. Walk with no clothes on. No blanket. We had nothing at all.
“We came out of that because of two things. Almighty God helped me, helped the rest of my brothers to survive. Second to that is the fact of what we call cultural resiliency where you share things with somebody else. We help each other. We support each other. If someone decided not to walk, want to die there, we sometimes tried to drag that person. We create songs to give someone the strength to go on.”
Dau then sang several bars in Dinka, his native language.
“What it means in English,” he continued, “ is, ‘You’re the weak person. You can go on and die, but tomorrow we have a lot of food. Tomorrow, we have water. Tomorrow, we have milk. It’s up to you. The stronger ones will keep going. Remember: tomorrow we’ll have food.’
“We didn’t know what tomorrow will bring. We were in the jungle. We were in the forest. We did not know where we were going, but we talk about tomorrow. It’s the cultural resilience where you support each other, not only giving things to people but also giving advice not to give up.”
“Did you ever doubt that you’d be successful?” I asked.
“No,” he replied without hesitation. “I did not know that I would be successful in a detailed way. What I knew…there was no mountain so high not to climb in my life.”
As he spoke, his voice became more intense, more impassioned.
“I say somebody like Abraham Lincoln, like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, like Mandela,” he said. “Why is it that they can do more, and I can’t do? Why? Why? I can do more. You can do more. It’s attitude. Impossible are things that you refuse to do. That’s it. Nothing else.
“When I came to America, I didn’t go to Baggage Claim because I didn’t have a bag. There’s nothing impossible. There are so many opportunities out there. I’ve been telling South Sudanese: when you come to America, it’s half your success; the other 50 percent is up to you. You must have faith in what you do.
“In American football, they say, ‘Don’t take your eye off the ball.’ What they do not say is, ‘Keep your eye on the ball, even if you’re not seeing it.’ Life is very cloudy. Life is foggy. Sometime, you see the ball. Sometime, you can’t see it because it’s on the other side of the cloud. But if you keep your eye on it, it will appear. That’s why people give up…because they don’t see their goal.
“Did I know that I would be successful? I knew that I would be successful, but I knew that it would always be foggy between me and my goals. What I had to do was persevere, endure, work hard. When I fall, I get up. ‘Til I reached my goals.”
                  -- Weldon Bradshaw