Dolores teacher Nyibol Bior endured war in Sudan as a child but never gave up – an experience she translates into lessons of perseverance, hard work and compassion.
As a child in the 1980s, Bior’s village fled the Sudanese civil war by walking more 1,000 miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya with other families.
The harrowing journey was fraught with violence, hunger and exhaustion. It eventually led to asylum in the United States and citizenship for her family.
She shared her refugee story during a well-attended presentation at Dolores Public Library last week.
“When I was suffering too much, I was lucky to rely on voices of encouragement along the way,” she said. “The experience taught me that love is the most powerful weapon to save the world.”
Between 1982 and 2005, a civil war raged in Sudan triggered by the inequalities of the developed north and impoverished south.
Bior, 37, is from the village of Renk, now within the new country of South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011.
When she was born in 1982, south Sudan rebels fought the north for equality and freedom. Her father, an accountant, joined the battle.
Her mother moved the family to Wernyol, an agricultural village along the White Nile. But while traveling to their new home, her mother’s boat was mistakenly bombed.
She was presumed dead, and a funeral was held. Then Bior learned her mother had survived after she jumped from the burning boat and was rescued from the river. She was pregnant and lost her baby.
Growing up in Wernyol was peaceful, with abundant crops and cattle and a loving grandmother.
Then one day a truck showed up to take villagers to an Ethiopia refugee camp.
“I did not want to go and cried and cried,” said Bior, who was 5 at the time. “At the border, they dropped us off, and we walked the rest of the way to the refugee camp,” about 300 miles in 20 days.
Then the communist Ethiopian government was overthrown, and the new government forced refugees to go back to Sudan.
“Soldiers came into the camp, shooting guns in the air telling us to leave or be killed,” Bior said. “We packed up and walked the 600 miles back to south Sudan. My motivation was to see my grandmother again.”
The cross-country desert trek was hazardous, as refugees avoided dangerous wildlife, huddling in bomb shelters, crossing crocodile-infested waters in leaking boats and surviving physical endurance with little food or supplies.
“We returned to a country at war, with thousands being killed,” Bior said.
A few years later, her family and thousands of others became refugees again, forced to walk more than 500 miles in 40 days to Kakuma, Kenya, to escape the violence.
“No paved roads, no gas stations for a snack. We ate once per day – dried cereal with sugar and oil,” she said.
Despair and exhaustion set in for Bior, then 8 years old.
“I was so tired, hungry, thirsty. I’d lost so much weight. I dropped to my knees, thought maybe it’s better to die now because I’m going to die walking anyway. I told the adults to go on,” she said.
A voice in her head that sounded like her father’s said: “Get up, Nyibol, we are almost there.” The rest of the way was like “sleepwalking in a dream,” she said.
She referred to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter, whose 1993 photo of a starving child and a nearby vulture symbolized the Sudan conflict.
“It teaches us we ought to help each other when we see suffering,” Bior said.
As a result of the second Sudan civil war, 2.5 million people died and 4 million were displaced. Bior’s family was granted political asylum in Kenya, then in America after a four-year application process.
Her father was jailed, wrongly accused of fighting for the north, and tortured, Bior said. The case was investigated by the United Nations and built the case for asylum in the U.S.
In Kenya, she and her siblings were put up in an apartment, went to school and became hopeful. It was the first time she saw electricity, telephones and tall buildings.
“My grades were good, I had my own room and books to read,” she said.
The family was relocated to Dallas, and at age 13, she started her new life in the U.S. learning English, working at a grocery store, graduating from high school then college with a teaching degree.
She experienced some racism in Kenya and America, but also love and support.
“It reminded me that humanity is not dead. I took their advice and kept going,” she said.
Her mother and father worked to support their family in the U.S., she said. Her grandmother died in 1997 before she had a chance to go back and visit. And her grandfather died shortly after she visited him in South Sudan in 2013.
“He chose to dodge bullets rather than leave his village,” she said, even though he was offered asylum.
Bior is grateful for her life in the U.S. and wants to help those in need in Sudan.
“Americans took us in, helped us persevere and receive an education,” she said. “People in Dolores are very welcoming, and I’m grateful. I use my story to help children be strong not give up on their lives.”
Bior is writing a children’s book, “My Beautiful Colors,” in addition to an autobiography about her experiences as a child and adult.
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