LAUREL - When Jok Nhial was 6 years old, the happy childhood he had shared with his parents and siblings on their farm in southern Sudan was over. If he wanted to live through the country's bloody civil war, he would have to run.
Nhial shared his story of survival as one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan with a rapt audience of Meridian Middle School students Thursday, Feb. 21.
"It was nobody's choice to leave his family behind," he said. "I had to run for my life."
He and about 30,000 boys left their homes after a government decree to kill boys in the southern regions of the country. The boys, some as young as 4, banded together, wandering the country and stopping at displacement camps that were often the target of government bombings.
When they were walking, the boys survived by eating fruit and leaves from the trees at the best of times, with many starving. Clean water was scarce. Some boys resorted to drinking their own urine.
"It was eat or be eaten," he said. "I ate some of the most disgusting things you can imagine. I don't regret it. That's why I'm alive today."
Eventually the surviving boys made it to a refugee camp in Kenya. In 2001, Nhial was one of about 3,800 refugees able to come to America, where he attended high school in Tacoma before getting a scholarship to Gonzaga University. He's since started the nonprofit Liliir Education Project, which provides scholarships for students in South Sudan and aims to build a high school in the region.
"The kids back home, they don't have a high school to go to," he said. "When they finish eighth grade, they don't have anywhere else to go."
Nhial's talk was paired with a school-wide reading assignment, Linda Sue Park's "A Long Walk to Water," based on the true story of one of Sudan's Lost Boys. After Nhial's talk, he visited with students in their social studies classes to answer any questions they had.
"It's really making that real world connection with these kids," Principal Jerry Sanderson said. "It's not a video game. It's not a television program. It's real."
Eighth-grader McKay Ross was shocked that the kind of violence and struggle that Nhial talked about was so recent. To him, it had seemed like the stuff of long-ago history.
"I just didn't know people went through that when they were 6 years old," he said. "To have to walk through the desert, and seeing those kids who looked like they were starving, it's pretty horrible."
The talk gave eighth-grader Bailey Carpenter the chills, as well as a sense of perspective about how good her life really is.
"It opens your eyes up to things outside of 'Oh my god, I have school tomorrow. I have a test.'" she said. "Right now, I'm hungry, but I know I'm going to eat in 20 minutes. There are kids who don't know when they're going to eat next."
MERIDIAN STUDENTS' Q&A WITH 'LOST BOY'