I have just checked into my hotel, but find myself staring blankly at rehearsal notes. I am to be interviewed by a panel of diplomats for the Pickering Fellowship, a fellowship which recruits college students for careers in the Foreign Service. As I wait for the interview, I wonder to myself, will my education get paid for and will I become a diplomat? My phone buzzes – texts from my foster mom, sister Hunter, brother Charlie, and friend Mawut, read “good luck.”
It’s deja-vu, because 12 years earlier, in 2001, I spoke with another group of diplomats, who considered whether America should grant me asylum. Things were very precarious then. I was among the 10,000 Lost Boys of Sudan who, at seven to 10 years old, escaped war in Sudan, walking 500 miles for months to reach Ethiopia. On this escape, the United Nations estimated that 5,000 boys perished from hunger, thirst, or gunfire.
War still raged in Sudan, so our hope was Kakuma, Kenya, a sprawling camp housing 100,000 refugees. Kakuma was a refuge in relative terms only. Food rations were meager and unreliable: only three kilos of wheat flour every 15 days. On the 12th or 13th day, food ran out — the camp went into hibernation until the next delivery. We were stuck in time. We could never become Kenyans. Return home was no option. So when America knocked, I answered. In 2001, I was afforded the opportunity to be resettled in the United States.
Flash forward: I am in America now, but fate again confronts me as I apply for the Pickering Fellowship. The events of my life play through my mind as I wait for my interview. If given the chance, I wonder, what would I tell those diplomats I met so many years ago, the International Organization for Migration, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program representatives, and the civic organizations that made my resettlement in the United States possible? Words could never fully express my gratitude, but here is a try: because of the UNHCR-provided education in Kakuma, my transition went perfectly. I finished high school early with a 4.0 GPA then graduated cum laude with an Economics and International Relations degree.
I’m pleased to report that my second time interviewing with a group of American diplomats went well as well as the first. Today, I am a Pickering Fellow on the path to becoming a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service. I will be forever indebted to the many individuals who helped me make every step of this long journey possible.
About the Author: Gai Nyok is Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow and a recent graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University. He will be pursuing graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in fall 2013.