When I heard that UNICEF’s pilot Young Ambassador program in Los Angeles was hosting a conversation with Paul Lorem, a refugee from war torn South Sudan, I was eager to attend. His remarkable, unlikely journey from the desolate Kakuma refugee camp to Yale University — a story Nicholas Kristof chronicled for the New York Times — captivated me. I wondered how he overcame so many seemingly impossible obstacles: growing up in a remote Sudanese village without a school, health clinic, or electricity, his home ravaged by civil war, his friends turned child soldiers, victims of violence and disease. To save him from this fate, his parents abandoned him at the refugee camp in Kenya, leaving him to be raised and cared for by a gang of young boys known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. On the brink of applying to college myself, I marveled at his achievement.
As UNICEF board member Christina Zilber asked Lorem about his experience in the refugee camp for this audience of elementary and middle-school kids, I braced myself for an emotional account of Lorem’s early struggle and loss. But another, surprising story emerged. He spoke of playing soccer and lemonade stands. He reminisced about relaxing and roughhousing with his friends. He went to school, and like many young boys, even liked to hate it. Life in the camp was a kind of “paradise” to him. “I never wanted to leave the camp,” he said, wistfully. “It wasn’t all tragedy — it was my normal life.”
The UNICEF Young Ambassadors, most of them more acquainted with summer camps than refugee camps, excitedly peppered Lorem with questions about his lemonade business, his soccer games, and even his Yale application. I was struck by how easily they conversed with him, seeking connection. Most of all, in their exchange, I saw how the joys and innocence of childhood could transcend borders and squeeze through dark circumstances. It didn’t seem to matter to Lorem that his soccer ball was not really a ball but a makeshift sphere made with scraps of found materials. At the time, it didn’t matter that his 300 person school was held outdoors, under a tree, without notebooks or pencils, or that he had to write his assignments in the dust. Perhaps a child’s capacity to live and desire to thrive is universal.
As Kristof reminded us when he interviewed Lorem last year, the “blunt truth” is that “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” Most of the world’s 42 million refugees do not thrive. Talents wither. In a way, Paul Lorem was nurtured. The Lost Boys raised and protected him, teachers advocated for his education, and many others along the way believed in him, saw his potential and talents, and helped him navigate his way to the Ivy League. After he finishes Yale, he plans to return to Sudan “to rebuild my country.” Perhaps the lesson of Paul Lorem is that even if human talent and childhood spirit is universal, ultimately it is his sense of human responsibility that will make a difference.
Photo credit: "Boys Playing Soccer" by Arsenie Coseac