An SU alum's journey from fighting to freedom

As Paul Ariik dragged an AK-47 on Sudanese soil, he never imagined he'd one day earn both a bachelor's and a master's degree in America.

Weeks after 9/11, a plane landed in New York City. On board was Paul Ariik, a 21-year-old Sudanese Lost Boy. As the plane began its descent, Ariik looked out the window. It was nighttime and he thought he was seeing fireflies on a river. The fireflies were in fact the New York City skyline. Ariik had never been in a plane or even a city before. In fact, the first time he saw a telephone, refrigerator or even traffic lights was hours after this very flight.

Photo: Zoe Mintz
Ariik's journey as a refugee ended at the Kakuma refugee camp in 1995.

Ariik spent his childhood on the run. He was born in the village of Pageleng in present-day South Sudan where his first memories were of the country’s second civil war. From escaping life as a child solider to witnessing starvation, torture and murder, Paul Ariik never thought he would earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in America.

Between the ages of seven and fifteen Ariik walked from one displacement camp to another throughout southern Sudan until he made it to Kenya and was selected to resettle in Syracuse.

His walks lasted months and the camps he found didn’t always offer peace. He recalls the three weeks he spent in the Kotobi Internally Displaced People’s camp in southwestern Sudan. The camp was close to the town of Mundri, a site of extreme civil conflict.

He remembers swimming in a river at the camp. When he dunked his head underwater he heard a loud boom. “When I came back up there was dust everywhere and I saw people crying. It was an air bomb," he says. "Everybody was running. It was really terrible.”

In 1994, when Ariik was 14 years old, he became a soldier. He was walking with a group of people, including his father, to yet another displacement camp when a jeep pulled up and chose young boys from the pack. Within hours he was given an AK-47 which he had to drag along the ground because it was too big for him. He spent three months as a child solider. Fortunately, he was not sent to the frontlines. Those who were, he never saw again.

With his father’s help Ariik managed to get on a truck and escape the army. A year later he arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. “The camp was good to me,” Ariik says. “There was no more bombing. I felt safer.”

In 2001 when Ariik was 21 years old, he was selected to resettle in the United States. His sole knowledge of the country was of a set of planes that would fly over his village every morning. The villagers said they were “American.” Over time Ariik has grown comfortable sharing his story. To this day he relives the trauma he experienced as a boy: the starvation and air raids, the rapes and murders.

“Many people see the consequence of war as death,” he says. “But we Sudanese refugees here in America can receive an education – something that was not there for us back in Sudan. My dad can’t even write his own name.”

Seeing the educational opportunities afforded to him in his new country, Ariik earned his GED two years after arriving in Syracuse. In 2008 he received a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Syracuse University and in May 2011 he earned a master’s degree in public administration from Marist College.

“Back in my village it was all cows,” Ariik describes. He is part of the Dinka tribe, a semi-nomadic people whose culture places extreme value on cattle. “You couldn’t buy a high school education even if you wanted to,” he says.

Looking back on his experiences Ariik asks, “Where in the world can someone who should have been a cow keeper, be able to go to school, get a bachelor’s and a master’s?”

Only in America.

Great Article! Very Inspirational!

Great Article! Very Inspirational!

Ark's Story

Paul Arik is an amazingly focused man who is most deserving of his honors. I am blessed to call him friend.

Powerful story! Great quotes!

Powerful story! Great quotes! Congrat's!

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