Against All Odds

By Erin Foster

NHIAL Malia was resettled by IOM from a refugee camp in western Ethiopia to Houston, Texas when he was 11 years old.  

Today, he is 26, a US citizen, holds a degree in Biology with a minor in Philosophy from Bethany College, Kansas, and serves as a water and sanitation volunteer with the US Peace Corps in Ghana.  

Life as a Refugee
Imagine this scenario, it is 1988 and violent conflict has escalated between North and South Sudan. A young woman with seven children, whose husband is missing and presumed dead, is forced to flee her home with all of her possessions.  

She is taken in by her husband’s brother and escapes with his family from their home in Bentiu, Unity State, South Sudan, across the border to Itang Refugee Camp near Gambella, Ethiopia.

She walks with her children, some of them babies, for more than six months across hundreds of miles from her home near the northern border of South Sudan. This all takes place during the rainy season which means thick mud, downpours and the threat of disease from living in the open. The family manages to survive encounters with wild animals and dodge air raids that mistake the travelers for rebel soldiers.

The young woman is Nhial Malia’s mother, Mary Nyayok Hoth. Nhial says he was only two years old when she set off on the longest trek of her life to protect the lives of her children. The family arrived at Itang refugee camp in September 1988 and remained there until May 1991.  The change of government in Ethiopia and outbreak of civil war forced the family to return to South Sudan, despite the continued volatile situation.  Conflict flared up again in South Sudan and by 1992 the Malia family was on the move, back to Itang refugee camp in Ethiopia. However, they were soon relocated to a second camp called Fugnido, also in the Gambella region of Ethiopia.

The move to the second camp would prove devastating to Nhial’s family and illustrates the dangers faced by refugees and displaced persons.

By the time they reached their new location, Nhial had lost five of his siblings and became, in an instant, the oldest child (he had been the sixth child of seven).  Two died from malaria, one died from a snake bite, one died from typhoid, and one died from kala-azar or leishamaniasis (contracted from the bite of a sand fly).  To further compound the situation Nhial’s mother contracted tuberculosis (TB).

Nhial’s early memories are shaped from life at the refugee camps.  School was held from 8am to 12pm, although he often missed class to collect firewood to sell when the family ran out of food.  After school he was also responsible for collecting water or grinding wheat on a flat stone.  His mother spent hours in the hot sun collecting leftover grains of maize or wheat from the food distribution site.  People in the camp would make-fun of her sweating in the sun, but she undertook this difficult work for her sons.  She took those grains and made alcohol and often sold this to the same people who heckled her.

Reflecting on his time at the camps Nhial describes what he says is people’s dependence on others to survive.  He quotes an African proverb “it is hard to wake up a man who pretends to be sleeping”, underscoring his belief that people need to take on responsibility and risks to truly become self-reliant.

Nhial was denied a childhood and forced to grow-up fast, but he says these early experiences and observations prepared him to cope with any life experience.

It was not just his time at the camp that influenced him; Nhial attributes this to his mother.  He describes Mary as his “living library and first philosopher.”  She called him Wicjal, which has two meanings: Wic a village or the chief of the village, and Jal the journey of life.

At the age of seven he received nightly lectures from his mother, not only about his family heritage but also about her belief in being a pacifist and compromiser.  Mary seemed to have known that there would be a time when Nhial would move on and would need this information to guide him.  Being illiterate herself, Mary prized education above all other accomplishments in life.  It was her dream for Nhial to become educated, and that this would serve as a guiding light in his future.

On the Move
In July 1998, Nhial’s uncle received the opportunity to resettle to the United States.  According to Nuer culture, he was responsible for the well-being of his brother’s family and asked to take Nhial with him as the oldest son.  Mary agreed and that summer at the age of 11 years Nhial left Fugnido refugee camp without any real knowledge of where he was going, except for stories of streets paved in gold.  Nhial remembers feeling anxious as there was the notion that once you leave, you never see your family again, but he also saw it as a chance to improve the situation for his family for generations to come.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) facilitated the resettlement of Nhial and his uncle’s family from Fugnido camp.  An orientation was held for those moving to the United States; although, he admits that he did not attend as he was a child. Nhial remembers “a group of people came with a truck and made an announcement the evening before departure for those who would go to the U.S.”  He says he will never forget carrying the IOM bag, the image, he says, is “ingrained in my brain.”

Nhial took his first plane ride to JFK airport in New York before transferring planes and arriving in Houston, Texas.  Throughout the process he says there were always people there to help guide them and make them feel comfortable.  In Houston they were met by a young woman from the YMCA and taken to their one-bedroom apartment. They had never seen such beautiful carpet and such a clean floor. “I thought people were crazy because the airplane carpet and apartment floor were too clean for people to walk on.”

They were soon confronted with their first challenge as they had never seen a refrigerator and didn’t know how to use a stove.

This was the start of their transition and learning process.  For the first six months after arrival his family attended daily lessons at the YMCA as part of an English as a Second Language (ESL) course.  They learned their first words of English and were taught about the United States geography, history and culture.  He would also just sit and observe the behaviour of Americans around him and tried to imitate this so he could “fit in.”

Through the YMCA programme he and his family met Erica and Katy, two women who looked after them to ensure they were adjusting to life in Houston.  They introduced Nhial to the library (still his favourite place to spend the day) and took the children to the local public middle school.

Life at the public middle school was tough for Nhial, he struggled to make friends and children often teased him about his accent and different appearance.  However, he quickly made an impression on his teachers and one soon recommended him for a coveted spot at Chinquapin Preparatory School; a boarding school for boys and day school for girls, that provides high quality education for economically disadvantaged youth from the Greater Houston area.

Nhial was accepted on a scholarship and started 7th Grade at Chinquapin.  He thrived surrounded by other students who he felt understood him.  However, each year was a battle for Nhial who had to plead with his aunt and uncle to stay at the school, as they were responsible to pay the remainder of his school fee (a couple hundred dollars per year).  By the time he was a Junior, Nhial’s aunt and uncle moved to Portland, Maine but he refused to go with them pointing to the importance of his education.

The Director, Board of Directors and teachers at Chinquapin all rallied around Nhial for the following two years and in May 2005 he graduated with his High School diploma.  He says this was only possible with the support of caring individuals from the school and their family members, who took turns to cook food for him on the weekends, drove him to visit South Sudanese friends and even did his laundry.

Of course, it was also at Chinquapin where he met his self-proclaimed Godmother, Betsy Phillips.  She received this title he says due to her influence in his life and introducing him to his future parents, Jen and Dan.  

Betsy, the former Director of Development, says she remembers when Nhial first came to the school.  He was tall, shy and extremely athletic (their track team made it to the state championships).  He made friends easily and was very engaging.  After his aunt and uncle left for Maine, Nhial spent many holidays with Betsy and her family who quickly grew to love him as one of their own.  She explains that that his life really took off after he came to Chinquapin and describes him as simply an “incredible” person.

During Nhial’s last semester of High School he received a job opportunity with the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.  The problem was that he needed to reside in Houston but he could not stay at the school dormitory after graduation.  He would become in essence homeless.

The last week of school Nhial, as a senior, led a tour of the school for Jen Pickering who as visiting as a potential board member.  After learning of his story and the need for a home that summer she offered for him to live with her and her husband Dan.  In a moment their lives were changed forever.

A Place to Call Home
Nhial quickly bonded with Jen and Dan during the summer, and in the Fall of 2005 he was off to Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kanasas on a track scholarship.  He would spend all his school breaks with his new mom and dad, as he refers to them, although he is not adopted.  He says he never asked for anything from his parents but they gave him many advantages in life, taking him on trips and teaching him about how to be successful in life.  The Pickerings also have two other children they support (also not adopted); their son Justin who they were matched with through Big Brothers Big Sisters and their daughter Chassidy who is a recent graduate of Chinquapin.

Jen explains that “when you have kids coming from the worst situation possible, they work hard and are appreciative of everything you offer. It means so much for these children who are resettled to be given a chance to succeed.”  She also says that taking an interest in your local refugee community and providing personal support can make a difference in the lives of others.  The Pickerings are proud of Nhial who they say has a positive outlook on life and is working hard to pay back what he was given.  Nhial's dad Dan describes the experience of being a role model and father figure as “an important responsibility and a joy, all wrapped into one.   Since he came into my life, I feel like I have found both a friend and a son!”

From his own observations Nhial says there are some distinct differences between American and Sudanese families.  Sudanese families, he says, have a survival mentality, often suggesting what their children can and cannot undertake in life.  By contrast he says American families have an investment mentality and encourage children to pursue their dreams.  “My parents taught me the value of investment and hard work.  They taught me how to create wealth not only material but in relationships among the people I meet at the cross-roads in life.”

Having a large support network also helped Nhial reach the next milestone in his life – US citizenship.  He never felt as if he belonged anywhere as an exile in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and then holding refugee papers in the US.  His Godmother Betsy started the paperwork for his citizenship while he was still in High School and by the Spring of 2007, he took and passed his citizenship interview.  In September 2007 he was sworn in a ceremony for 2,000 new citizens.  He says it was another step towards improving his and his family’s life and securing a place to call home.

Another step would come in May 2009, when Nhial graduated college with a BS in Biology and minor in Philosophy.  On that day he remembers silently thanking his mother, “thank you mother, thank you so much for your hard-work and those painful days at the refugee camp when you never gave up on me.  You sold your last skirt and dress so I could eat.  You sat in the sun to pick left over maize and wheat from the ground so you could make some money to pay my school fee.  You cared for me when I was sick.  How can I ever pay you back mother?”

For Nhial all he had accomplished was not only a fulfilment of his mother’s dream for him to be educated, but it gave him a feeling of pride and knowledge that he had created a new path for future generations of his family.

The Search
Although already a U.S. citizen, Nhial says it was when he arrived to Ghana in June 2010 that he truly felt American.  He had applied as a water and sanitation volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps to “pay forward” the help and support he has received through his life. However, he constantly had to prove his citizenship, especially when he first arrived to his village in Ghana, as he appeared “African” to them.  Over time he was accepted, and after nearly three years he has helped some 14 communities in Ghana to become Open Defecation Free (ODF).

The U.S. Peace Corps has also shaped Nhial’s view of development platforms, of which he wants to push a business development approach.  Self-reliance is the key for Nhial and he has given himself a new goal to achieve: to become the best social entrepreneur investor in Africa in the next 25 years.

Reversing brain drain and being part of the solution is the motivation for Nhial.  He tells his community in Ghana, “not to sit on their hands and wait for someone to fix the situation.”  

Following the end of his Peace Corps assignment in August 2013, Nhial is hoping to return to the U.S. and enrol in a graduate school.  He is seeking an MBA in Social Enterprise to focus on waste-to energy and water quality management.

However, Nhial’s mother has never been far from his mind.  It has been more than 15 years since he left his mother at Fugnido refugee camp.  During our interview in March 2013, Nhial said his greatest fear was not to see his mother again while she was alive, to share all the accomplishments he has achieved and to thank her for being his inspiration and guiding force.

He attempted to find his mother through family and friends.  A year ago, after a series of emails and inquiries, he received the phone number of a woman thought to live in the area of his mother.  He said he was known to his mother as Wicjal and then miraculously he spoke to his mother for three minutes before the line cut off.

The first thing she asked was if he was healthy and told him it was the greatest gift to hear his voice again.  He asked how she and his brother were doing.  At the time she said the Fugnido camp had dissolved with the establishment of the Independent State of South Sudan and she returned to an area close to Bentiu.

He had originally planned to travel to South Sudan last year, but the situation in the country was insecure and he feared for his safety. Sadly, in April 2013 Nhial received word that his mother had passed away in South Sudan. He conveyed a feeling of deep sadness and guilt for not being able to find and help his mother. However, he still plans to return to the country to try and find his family’s home and pay tribute to his mother.

In fact, he hopes one day to document this process to share with the many people he says helped to raise him and to show how given an opportunity a resettled refugee can achieve their dreams and make a difference in the world.

He thanks all those who were part of his transition from refugee to resettlement and the achievement of higher education, especially his parents Dan and Jen, Godmother Betsy, Bill and Kathy, Brian Lamore, Catherine Urban, Seth Ireland, Katy Ulrich and all Chinquapin school teachers and staff; IOM for facilitating his family’s resettlement process and telling his story; and finally, to the American people for their support and kindness “that allowed me to obtain the best quality education and bring that to the people in Africa. A special thanks to all Houstonians and Texans!”


Erin Foster is an Information and Communications Officer in IOM Ghana