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'Lost Boy' of Sudan Says This Year's Independence Day Draws Mixed Feelings

By Mina Bloom | July 14, 2015 5:57am
 Peter Magai Bul is one of the
Peter Magai Bul is one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan." He now lives in Rogers Park and runs a community center in Uptown.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

UPTOWN — During the Sudanese Civil War in the '80s, 7-year-old Peter Magai Bul walked hundreds of miles on foot to refugee camps to escape death.

At one camp, he was tasked with keeping 500 kids alive.

"You have to do whatever it takes to support them. It was a challenge. There was no food and people were dying from diseases. We would have to tell them to honor the children we had lost. We had to go the cemetery and bury kids together," said Bul, who's now 34 years old, lives in Rogers Park and runs the Chicago South Sudanese Community Center in Uptown.

It's experiences like these, along with the loss of his brother and father, that have made Bul — one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" — into who he is today: an activist living on the North Side, whose primary mission is to educate Americans about the state of oil-rich South Sudan, one of the "least developed countries on earth" wracked by civil war and violence.

Mina Bloom says Bul is incredibly humble and inspiring:

Last week, South Sudan celebrated its fourth independence day — an anniversary of becoming the world's youngest nation. After fighting for years to break free from Sudan, there was a referendum in 2011 in which 98 percent of the East African's country's population voted to declare independence.

In 2011, Bul and other refugees threw a big celebration at Truman College. But there was no formal celebration in Chicago this year. 

Bul said there's a reason for that.

"When you have the war going on back home, and people are dying — thousands of people — it's not a good year to celebrate independence the way you would celebrate it in peace," Bul said.

Instead, Bul said he was planning on going to the Taste of Chicago with a few friends, which is an event he goes to every year. He likes the fact that the event offers "food from everywhere." 

Big celebration or not, independence day is significant, he said, because 2½ million South Sudanese people lost their lives fighting for independence, including Bul's brother.

The "disappointment cannot overshadow the importance of being independent," he said.

"But we are celebrating this year with a mix of feelings. There are people who are shooting their relatives."

Bul is referring to civil war that broke out between the government and rebel forces in December 2013, a few years after the nation voted to part ways with Sudan.

"We are destroying our nation for no reason," said Bul, who towers over most people at 6 feet, 6 inches. 

"Despite what is going on in this country, people have to be come together and talk about how we get out of the war whether they're here in Chicago or back home."

Since moving to Chicago in 2001, Bul has made it his mission to educate Americans about the conflict in South Sudan through presentations at schools, churches and organizations. Bul and the rest of the nearly 4,000 lost boys and girls who made their way to America have made it so the world "cannot ignore" the atrocities going on there, he said. Their journey inspired the 2014 film, "The Good Lie," starring Reese Witherspoon.

Chicago feels like home now, he said. He's been able to make close friends even though life in a South Sudanese village is very different from life in Chicago's neighborhoods.

He pointed to the fact that Americans don't get to know their neighbors the same way people living in South Sudanese villages do.

"In America, life is very much about you. In our society, we had to know our neighbors. Here you're on the second floor and you don't need to know your neighbors on other floors," he said.

The first time he took an airplane was "big," and he had to adjust to Chicago's cold weather.

"We came here in April and I thought it was still cold," he said, adding that South Sudan is "always 100 degrees."

Though "nothing would prevent [him] from going back to South Sudan," he said it's important for him to stay in Chicago.

"If the purpose of life is to contribute to humanity, I think I am in a better position to do that here," Bul said, referring to getting an education at Truman College and, most recently, Northeastern Illinois University. 

"We survived to tell our story."

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