At age 9, Mathon Noi was told by his mother to run. Their home in South Sudan was being overrun and destroyed by men with guns. Although he had never seen a gun, he knew there was danger. Mathon ran into the woods with many other children; some of his family ran the other way, and he thought in the morning they would all come out of hiding and be safe.
That was not to be. That is the day in 1989 when war came to his village, and Mathon joined thousands of boys in his country known as “the Lost Boys”. He would spend the next several years running, hiding, surviving.
“I lost many friends and family. I saw people dying around me.” Many boys died from exposure, lack of water and food. Some met their fate from crocodile and other wild animal attacks. Some drowned trying to cross waterways. Mathon was from a village near a river and had learned to swim. This helped to save his life.
While living on the run, Mathon was shot three times. “There were no ambulances or doctors, I just crawled to keep going,” said Noi. He had been shot in the left hand, and with no medical care for over 30 days, he arrived at a U.N. Refugee Camp in 1991. The hand was infected and a doctor wanted to have it amputated. “I did not want this, I told an interpreter,” he explained. “I did not know how I could survive and care for myself if I lost my hand.”
A doctor explained that if he did not want to have his hand amputated, he could dip his finger in ink and make a mark on a paper (like a signature) to say that he refused the amputation. He did that and the hand was cleaned and stitched, but not taken off. Years later, the misshapen and nearly useless hand was cared for by doctors at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, and he has use of that hand today.
In 1998, a U.S. State Department representative came to the Refugee camp and asked if any of the boys who had no family wanted to come live in the United States. “Many of us said yes, but it was two more years until they came back to us,” said Mathon
At age 21, Nio and his cousin Sebastian Maroundit were among 3,000 Lost Boys sent to the United States. About 45 of them ended up in Rochester, NY. “I remember when a woman from Catholic Family Center came to pick us up in a car, I got to sit in the front seat, and it was amazing. I had never done anything like that before,” grinned Noi. “We also had to be told at our new apartment, how to turn on a light. At age 21, I was learning these kinds of things.” said Mathon. He also learned English here.
With the equivalent of an 8th grade education, the boys began taking classes, and eventually, Mathon learned enough to get what would be considered a GED. He attended Monroe Community College and later transferred to Niagara University, where he earned a BA Degree in Accounting and now works for Citigroup. Sebastian also attended MCC and SUNY at Brockport.
At age 31, Mathon now lives in Buffalo and is an account analyst. His cousin Sebastian, now 32 lives in Rochester and works at Strong Memorial Hospital in the parking department.
When the two men were able to return to their village in 2007 to search for their families, they found that their villages had been destroyed and children were attending school “under the trees”, literally. The children used sticks for writing in the dirt to do their lessons. Sebastian offered to send money so his little brother could go to school in Kenya. At the time, another boy heard of this, and said, “What about me? What about the rest of us?”
Feeling inadequate and hopeless to find a solution, the two men came home to find a way. As of 2010, with the help of many, many generous and caring people, a 501c3 non profit was formed to raise money for building schools in South Sudan. The group was called “Building Minds in Sudan” (recently renamed Building Minds in South Sudan–since the country has now split and South Sudan is its own country). BMISS had a banner year in 2012 and raised over $130,000 to foundation and one set of 4 classrooms , which accommodate 50 students per room (very crowded, but very welcomed). The group is continuing to raise money for the next set of 4 classrooms, latrines and teacher’s room, kitchen and storage. Both Mathon Noi and Sebastian Maroundit give talks on their experiences.
Joining them at these engagements, as a friend, and officially as the person who arranges their speaking engagements, is Judy Schwartz of Brighton.
Anyone interested in hearing Mathon and Sebastian’s strories and find out more about Building Minds in South Sudan, may call Judy at 585-442-5111 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may visit their website (and donate, if you wish) at buildingmindsinsudan.org.