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Film event features 'Lost Boy' who resettled in Utah

MILLCREEK — Solomon Awan was just 8 years old when he walked away from his village as civil war raged in Sudan.

He and thousands of other children, mostly boys, started what became a four-month walk to Ethiopia to escape death or being forced to fight with rebel forces.

"We didn't know where we were going. It was just running and running," Awan said in an interview Tuesday.

The boys often did not know where they were going, let alone the dangers each day would bring, he said.

That was in 1987. They stayed in Ethiopia for four years until its government failed. They tried to walk back to Sudan but didn't return to their villages because most of them were gone, and friends and relatives had either been killed or displaced.

They were soon on the move again, this time to Kenya, where Awan lived in a refugee camp until his early 20s.

Ask Awan how he survived hunger, dehydration, uncertainty and constant danger, he says faith in God and messages of hope from various religious communities in camps offered encouragement.

It was also a function of boys' natural tendency to be competitive, whether learning how to read in makeshift schools in refugee camps in Kenya or keeping up with the pack when walking hundreds of miles in unfamiliar territory.

"The life of boys is competitive. You don't want to be the weakest boy in the group," he said.

Awan was among 115 so-called "Lost Boys" who were resettled in Utah in 2001, many of whom earned college degrees, have careers, spouses and children. His reflections on his experiences in Africa and now the United States could fill volumes.

On Thursday night at the Salt Lake Main Library, 210 E. 400 South, the community is invited to a free screening of the documentary "Lost Boys of Sudan" to be followed by a question-and-answer session with Awan.

The event, hosted by Catholic Community Services of Utah, begins at 6:30 p.m.

Admission is free, but Catholic Community Services is requesting the donation of first aid kits or fire extinguishers that will be given to refugee families newly resettled in Utah.

Awan said his resettlement was aided by other "Lost Boys" who settled in Utah several months before his arrival in August 2001, some of whom he knew or recognized from the refugee camp in Kenya.

A Utah woman named Sue Player, whom "Lost Boys" consider their Utah mother, helped the young men acclimate to Utah, whether that meant getting them off to a good start in school, an occasional meal or word of encouragement.

Awan said he and the other Sudanese refugees took their studies seriously because few, if any, had the opportunity to attend school other than the makeshift schools run in refugee camps.

"In my village, no one even went to elementary school," he said. "No one knew how to read or write."

Upon arriving in Utah, Awan attended Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, then Salt Lake Community College. He went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from Westminster College.

Awan now works for the Utah Department of Workforce Services as a job developer helping refugees find employment, recruit employers who need their skills and a wide array of services to aid the employment process, everything from resume writing to arranging transportation to job interviews.

Just as friends and strangers helped Awan navigate a new life in Utah, he hopes to do the same as he assists refugees who need jobs and employers who need good workers.

He also founded and runs a nonprofit organization called United Visions for Change, which raises funds to build primary and secondary schools in South Sudan, as well as medical clinics that provide basic care.

Awan's new life in Utah has included marriage to Elizabeth Kuany, whom he met in his former village in what is now South Sudan in a return visit to Africa. The couple has three children, a son and two daughters, ages 5, 4 and 2. While many parents say they hope their children grow to be just like them, Awan said he means it.

As a boy, he endured the horrors of civil war, which meant he witnessed countless deaths, endured deprivation and coped daily with the anxiety of not knowing where his next meal would come from, let alone whether he would survive until morning.

Still, he kept a smile on his face.

"I want them to be like me. I'm a happy person," he said.