I am delighted to be in Nairobi, Kenya to be appointed as a High Profile Supporter of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is a unique opportunity.
My journey has come full circle in many ways. I am honored to be recognized as a supporter of the refugee cause. I also feel a heavy burden of personal responsibility.
During the last fourteen months, my country, South Sudan, has seen the displacement of more than two million people. Less than four years ago, we experienced the euphoria of Independence.
I went home to vote in the Referendum that led to our country’s independence. Never in our worst dreams could we have imagined that our homeland would descend into civil war so quickly; that the nightmares of our childhood would return to hound another generation.
It is for these reasons that I feel a burden of responsibility. My journey has taken me from an idyllic childhood in the village Akobo in South Sudan—which I remember vividly—to child soldier, to refugee, to actor and international model, to peace activist.
I was uneducated in the Western sense when I arrived in the United States aged 16. I persevered, and went on to earn a college education.
Yesterday, as the world marked International Women’s Day, I thought of my mother. I thought of the women of South Sudan who are living and reliving the adversity of displacement, crowded in UN bases or scattered in rural areas, and in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Like refugee and internally displaced women around the world, they are the caregivers who protect their offspring as best they can when their world explodes in warfare. I have known their pain through my mother, and my sisters, and the women of South Sudan at large. It is the pain of losing loved ones, of not knowing where they are or whether they are alive. That pain came back to haunt the nation of South Sudan when war broke out in December 2013.
I consider myself fortunate. There were so many moments along my journey when I could have perished, as so many of our people did.
It breaks my heart that today kids from my country are experiencing the nightmare of killing, destruction and mayhem—while elsewhere their age-mates go to school. Can one ever count the human cost, the lost opportunity for these generations?
As for our mothers and sisters—those pillars of resilience—what have they done to deserve the burden of uncertainty that displacement imposes? I am honored that UNHCR should select me to join the ranks of those who speak for refugees.
I will share my life’s journey of hope and the ability to overcome adversity. The importance of the task is not lost on me. It is my turn and my humble obligation to take up the mantle, having survived the tragic exodus that is famously called The Lost Boys of Sudan, having been given the opportunity to receive a world class education and to realize my potential through God given skills.
The opportunity to advocate for the work of UNHCR fulfills me in ways that are beyond words. My journey with this organization started when I was a small boy in Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia. I was brought to Dadaab by UNHCR and resettled from there to the United States 22 years ago.
Last year, UNHCR assisted me to travel to Kakuma where I found my mother and 14 family members among 42,000 South Sudanese refugees who had just fled the war. UNHCR took me to Gambella where I saw refugees streaming across the border. I heard horrendous stories of their experiences in flight. It was heartbreaking, and it sealed my resolve to become a voice for refugees.
Meditating on my experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly—has helped heal the pain of war. Through storytelling and sharing my personal story, I have found a way forward. I am proud to partner with UNHCR, and to continue to share my experiences with those who have been uprooted from their homes around the world. I am deeply moved, humbled and privileged to advocate on their behalf.