LANSING — When he smiled, his face lit up. It reached ear
to ear, accompanied with a joyful chuckle, and the brilliant shade
of white from his teeth seemed to enlighten his face, winning me
with his enchanting optimism. It shocked me that a person could
smile and laugh with such sincerity. I wondered about the past
experiences he had stirring quietly in his heart that brought that
smile to life.
Sisimayo Faki Henry was born in Mundri, Sudan. Growing up in
Sudan, his country had been savagely terrorized by war for decades.
Since the onset of his first memory, he understood little about the
corrosive violence and hate that seemed to blanket his childhood
and early adult life.
For fears of civil war, the Arab militia from the north had
mercilessly bombed native African villages, marauding and raping
the mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters of the southern Sudanese
men. Nothing remained but parched lands and burning embers of the
hate-filled hearts that had attacked them.
The violence of the civil war in Sudan in the mid-1980s was
fueled by religious differences between the Muslim Arabs in the
north and the Southern Christians in the south. Although
Sisimayo’s experiences in Sudan varies slightly from those of
victims of the current humanitarian crisis there, his story remains
similar to those suffering in Darfur — currently the
world’s worst genocide, as it was declared by the United
His story of pain, strength, endurance and hope gives voice to
the millions of people who have been silenced in Darfur —
those who have been waiting desperately for the world to hear their
Sisimayo recognizes that cry well: “I woke up one morning,
and the town was being bombed. I was with my brother in one of the
rooms, and my mother and siblings were in another room. When I
heard the bombs, I ran — and I just kept on running” he
recalls. “From the day I was born, until I was didn’t
understand why the people around me were fighting. I knew it was
war, but I didn’t know what the war was about.”
Like an animal being preyed upon, he knew nothing more than to
flee — and to flee fast. As he ran, his older brother who was
in the room with him at the time of the bombing ran ahead, and the
two have never seen each other since. “My brother had run
faster, and I lost him. He died from the bombing,” he
The remaining eight of his 10 siblings died as well from the
bombardment in his town. The two who survived are currently in a
refugee camp in Kenya.
Orphaned, starving, isolated, and tired, Sisimayo ran on foot
for a month and 13 days east, all the way across the country of
Sudan into neighboring Ethiopia. His parents, both of whom had
fallen victim to disease — one of many legacies of the war
— left a 10-year-old boy with the entire weight of the world
resting on his small, young, and fragile shoulders. didn’t
know where I was going. I just kept following people. A man and his
wife came up and started helping me,” Sisimayo said. “I
don’t even know how much weight I lost. I just knew I was
hungry. I felt tired from walking. If you sat down, nobody was
going to wait for you,” he said. “Everyone was
Surviving the entire journey across Sudan into Ethiopia and
Kenya on a feeble diet of wild fruits and leaves, Sisimayo felt the
echoing pangs of hunger and pain as he trekked what seemed like an
endless walk in search of help. “I was always hungry; there
was never enough food” he said.
The impending dangers of hungry wild animals loomed before him
and his group as they tirelessly walked into Ethiopia in search of
help. Starvation, dehydration and exhaustion were a constant
“During this month that I was running, if you looked at a
young boy running with me, you would have thought that he was an
old man” he said.
Once they reached the neighboring country, he was again chased
out by a separate civil war between the government and rebels in
Ethiopia. “All I had were the clothes on my back” he
lamented. Yet even in his story of despair, there were traces of a
redeeming rock-steady hope that shone brighter the more intimately
From Ethiopia, Sisimayo returned to Sudan after receiving an
education through various refugee camps that took him in. Helping
with the medical clinics at the age of 12, Sisimayo had learned how
to read and write in English.
When the majority of young American boys spend their middle
school years playing baseball on a Little League team and mowing
lawns, Sisimayo spent the majority of his preadolescence and young
adulthood in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya from 1992 to 2001. He
experienced the heartaches of a war-torn nation, assisted in
medical camps and grew up fast.
In 2001, he was identified officially by the United Nations as
part of a group called “The Lost Boys,” boys who had
been orphaned as a result of the civil war in Sudan. Sisimayo was
part of a group of more than 3,000 boys who were permanently
relocated to the United States.
Sisimayo was relocated to Lansing in 2001, and currently lives
with five other “Lost Boys.” “Coming to the U.S.
at least gave us the hope of what we wanted to be” Sisimayo
commented. Back home, when we are approved to come here,
you’ll find yourself buying a T-shirt with an American flag
on it. We buy doo-rags too, you know those things you wear on your
head” he said with a slight smirk, gesturing to his head.
“At that point, we consider ourselves Americans.”
As we talked, I was taken aback by the unshaken tone in his
voice. “My hope is to work with the humanitarian
agencies,” Sisimayo said. “I want to speak on behalf of
those who don’t have their own voices. I have a lot to do
here before I go back. In the past, God came down to help others.
These days, God uses people to help people. I believe there are
people who need my help” he said.
His passion was evident in his solid, glistening brown eyes.
“I think it was a really great experience” he
I shuffled in my chair as I struggled to grasp what he had just
said. How could a person who had seen such atrocities say that with
such honesty and confidence?
“God has a plan for me,” he answered
simply—almost as if he had read my mind.
He spoke with deep conviction as the passion in his eyes
continued to testify to his firm faith. “God is always
there,” he said. “When I was going from town to town,
there were people who were dying around me. I think in the presence
of God, he guides you. We can’t see him in our own naked
eyes, but you can feel his presence by his protection. One day, I
found myself with nothing to eat, and the next morning, there was
food for me. Now that is a miracle.”
When asked about his thoughts and feelings on the current
atrocities in Darfur, Sisimayo answered slowly as his past pain
rekindled. “Southern Sudan has been crying for equality.
It’s not right what the government has been doing in Darfur.
I believe that humans have God-given rights that people can’t
just take away. They are killing every human — child,
grown-up, old men and women. It’s important that
humanitarians and superpowers of the world get involved,” he
“Right now there are probably four to five million people
who have died. The people in the U.S. can’t see us crying for
help.” Knowing the cries well since they once came from his
very mouth, Sisimayo’s heart is to return to help his
“My hope is to go back home,” he said.
Again, he smiled — but this time with his eyes. “God
created a human on this Earth with a purpose,” he said
gently. “If you are a human being, you have a purpose. God as
Creator of the universe always creates people for a
There was so much behind that smile. There was hope behind it:
“Even if you are limp or paralyzed — he has a good
purpose for that limp man,” he said confidently.
His teeth shone again, and his face lit up.
And this time, instead of wondering, I knew why.