Every student at the University of Michigan-Flint has a story about the path they traveled to reach college. Anjelo Upieu has a saga. Anjelo is an international business and finance student at UM-Flint. However, his journey is one of overcoming more than obstacles, but atrocities unfathomable to anyone who has not survived them—as Anjelo Upieu did.
Anjelo’s journey began in Africa in 1986, three years after civil war broke out, pitting the North against the South in his home country of Sudan. In April of that year, government-backed troops approached his village. He says the young men were often captured by the military, sent to the north, and forced into military service. Just before his village was attacked, nine-year-old Anjelo fled with other young men with help of rebel troops, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
For months, the group of young boys, which swelled to nearly 600 eight- to fifteen- year-olds, moved through the countryside, seeking safe passage into Ethiopia. They faced horrific obstacles on the way, crossing the desert for several days without food and sometimes without water. Wild animals like hyenas and lions would attack them as they moved through thick forests. Yet perhaps the most terrifying obstacle they faced was crossing major rivers. At such crossings, they were exposed to attack from government forces, and many of the boys were physically unable to swim across the swift-moving waters. Anjelo said, “Sometimes when I reflect back, I wonder why I survived.” Those who did eventually crossed into neighboring Ethiopia, where the boys were welcomed and camped in the town of Dima. A total of about 27,000 young men from southern Sudan were then refugees in Ethiopia. It was there that Anjelo began his formal education.
“Our classes were held outside, under a tree,” recalled Anjelo. “We cut up boxes and formed the cardboard so we could write our ABCs and 1, 2, 3s. We used charcoal to write with. When the teacher wanted to see our work, we wrote in the sand.”
He would spend five years in Ethiopia, getting through one day at a time and continuing his education. In 1991, change would come. War broke out in Ethiopia. The government of Ethiopia told the boys they had 72 hours to leave the country. Anjelo began a three-day journey to reach the border and cross back into Sudan, where a camp was set up. Once again, they left under a cloud of confusion and terror. Before reaching the border, many of the boys lost their lives to bullets fired by local tribesmen who tried to steal the few possessions the boys were able to carry. For the next four months, the rainy season, Anjelo and the others survived on roots and whatever other food could be found.
By this time, the number of “Lost Boys” had decreased to about 16,000. They were divided into two camps in Puchalla and Pakok. Although he was in his native country again, Anjelo could not return home because war was going on all over Sudan, including his village of Lafon. A few months later, the war came to the camps, and the military took a renewed interest in the boys. This time, however, the United Nations stepped in to help move the boys to safety. Anjelo remembers they were moved to four different locations before finally being resettled in Kenya in 1993. By this time, the Lost Boys had dwindled to about 14,000. Many had been killed; many just disappeared.
“We had to make our own shelters. They gave us sheets of plastic that we covered with branches,” said Anjelo. “Because wars continued in Sudan, other young men from various parts of the country joined us, and our numbers grew to about 20,000.”
In 1997, the rest of the world finally took notice of the Lost Boys. Countries volunteered to take them in as refugees. Four years later, 4,000 of them came to the United States. Anjelo was among one of the largest groups of about 300 who settled in the Grand Rapids, Mich. area. In 2006, Anjelo earned an associate’s degree from Grand Rapids Community College, and in 2008 he earned an accounting degree from Davenport University in Grand Rapids.
A peace agreement between the North and Southern Sudan was signed January 9, 2005. When Anjelo returned to his village, Lafon, it was 2008. He had not set foot in his village for 22 years. Both of his parents had died, but Anjelo found his brother and sister alive.
“The first meeting with my sister and brother was filled with mixed emotions. We didn’t recognize each other because when we separated my sister was three years old, and my brother was two.” When Anjelo looked around his village, what he saw did not match his memories. “I see the place completely different from the image I had been carrying with me throughout all the years I had been away. The image I carried was the image from my childhood, when I was growing there before the war.”
In addition to losing his parents, Anjelo learned that some of the friends and relatives he had hoped to see had also been killed in the civil war.
Anjelo is a firm believer in the power of education to improve the lives of individuals and whole societies. He hopes to help others pursue their dreams by sharing his story of overcoming adversity and striving to achieve what once seemed impossible.
While some of the young men who shared his experience don’t like the label “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Anjelo views it differently. For most of his youth, he didn’t know where his family was, where he was, where his next meal would come from, or what circumstance beyond his control he would be confronted with next. To him, the label is appropriate.
Today, Anjelo has found a new path and embraces the opportunity to shape his own future, on his own terms. “Sometimes, especially when I’m driving, I think to myself, nobody is telling me where to go. Nobody is saying, ‘Anjelo, turn here’ or ‘you have to go there.’ I’m the one who decides. I’m the one who manages my own life. A big part of my life now is helping others to be able to do the same. It feels really good.”
A poem by Anjelo Upieu
Rivers are beautiful and sources of life
Rivers provide us with water and food
It's fun to swim in the river
Rivers flow, symbolize peace
Rivers provide all we need
And rivers are home to crocodiles and snakes
But my memories of rivers are terrible
Because of two rivers, Raat and Gilo,
Rivers that took my cousin, who perished in my face
Rivers that took my friends when I watch them
drowning because I was helpless to rescue any of them
I cried and shouted, but my cry did not help me
I did not see rivers as a source of life anymore
But I see a river as a killer
When I see a river it gives me flashbacks
Of what terrible and cruel rivers did to my cousin,
friends, and my comrades