Abe Bol
Abe Bol in front of the Seattle World Trade Center. Photo by Nick Onken
Lost and Found
Do you remember your first birthday party? Abe Bol does. He blew out his first birthday candles in 2005, when he turned 20 years old.
That's right. Bol had never heard the song “Happy Birthday” sung to him until his junior year at Seattle Pacific University, when SPU staff threw a special party for him. In fact, this political science and history major wasn't sure about his age until June 2005, when he returned home to Africa for a visit. There, his sister informed him that he was born on August 26, 1985 — more than two years later than he thought.
But wait … how does a person lose track of their age?
For Bol, and thousands of his fellow “Lost Boys of Sudan,” birthdays and other details from their childhoods were swept away as they fled from violence. Bol was only 3 years old in 1989 when his village in Sudan was attacked. While many died there, Bol survived an incredible three-month journey across the desert, helped by a gracious stranger who carried him much of the distance. They ate grass and leaves, and struggled to endure environmental hazards and threats from dangerous people in the wild, until they reached refugee camps in Ethiopia. There they found relief and safety, and something more: an unexpected reunion with Bol's older brother.
But that was just the beginning of Bol's journey. Four years later, violence in Ethiopia provoked another flight. A historic exodus began … 25,000 Lost Boys, including Bol, made an 18-month trek to Kenya, surviving with the help of rations dropped by Red Cross planes. There, against all odds, he discovered his older sister and younger brother after eight years of separation.
In 2001, Bol, then 16 years old, was one of many Lost Boys who received invitations from the United States government to find new homes and work in America. Nearly 300 Lost Boys live in Washington state now, and Bol meets with them on occasion to discuss the transition, to make plans for the future, and to preserve their identity, heritage, and cultural traditions.
Stories of the Lost Boys' sufferings have inspired many Americans to become more aware and involved in aid endeavors. They also inspired the making of a recent documentary titled God Grew Tired of Us. The film follows several survivors' stories, and Bol's story is just as heroic.
After being in the United States for less than two years, Bol passed his High School Proficiency Exam, became a certified nursing assistant at Providence Hospital, Marianwood, in Issaquah, Washington, developed friendships at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Bellevue, Washington, and was accepted at Seattle Pacific University.
Bol says he was drawn to Seattle Pacific because it was a smaller, Christian school where he could develop strong friendships among students, faculty, and staff. “It was overwhelming at first,” he told etc. “The new environment, and so many people I didn't know … there were a lot of hardships to overcome.”
But through his hard work in classes and determination to become fluent in English, Bol has impressed everyone with his progress. Karen Altus, Bol's career counselor at SPU, says she's in awe of his generosity: “He has to study harder than most, he works odd jobs to send money home to support his family in Africa, and yet he still makes time for volunteering and helping others. He is the most unselfish person I've ever known.”
“Abe endured personal and societal tragedy beyond comprehension without losing his faith, his hope, or his good nature,” says senior Justin Peters. “What he continues to accomplish is equally impressive.”
His faculty advisor, Ruth Ediger, is another reason for Bol's academic success. “Dr. Ediger and I talk a lot about planning for graduate school,” he says. “She teaches me inside and outside of the classroom.”
Ediger says Bol's determination has inspired her. “The thing that most impresses me about Abe is his ability to overcome against overwhelming odds and his 'stick-to-itiveness,'” she says. “I was surprised, but probably should not have been, when Abe recently came to talk to me about studying abroad in order to gain further cross-cultural experience.”
Debbie Crouch, Bol's academic counselor, remembers their first meetings. “He's one of a handful of people in my life who model for me what it truly means to live a life of gratitude to God, and to view what we have been given … no matter how small the amount … as an abundance to share with others,” says Crouch. “One of the reasons others respond to his dreams is that they are never just for himself but for others first and foremost.”
During his time at SPU, Bol has been caught up in a new world of relationships. In Ashton Hall, he became friends with all 42 of his floormates. He also participated in Urban Plunge in '02, learning about the life of Seattle's homeless population in a real way.
“I don't feel like a minority here,” he says. “There are so many people at SPU with different ideas and experiences. I would tell other minority students to come to SPU. You'll feel welcome, and you won't want to go anywhere else.”
Despite a busy social life, Bol remains focused on his studies. He has pursued interests in health care, psychology, social work, political science, and history. He says that student ministry programs, chapels, and his instructors and advisors have helped him grow in his faith, and his UCore classes … as well as his life experiences … have given him a passion for human-rights issues.
Friend Justin Peters notes, “Abe started the African Connect Student Union to give African students a place to talk about their cultures and to help the rest of us become more aware and educated about that part of the world.” Bol also served as a coordinator of The Refugee Project, an outreach effort to inform students about refugee experiences.”
Keeping a watch on global events, Bol is deeply concerned about the possible failure of peace treaties in Sudan, and the escalating bloodshed in Darfur. In his internship with the World Affairs Council at the World Trade Center in downtown Seattle, Bol researches the lives of international figures that might come to the United States and become influential voices for cultivating change. Inspired by such leaders, especially Mohamed El Baradei, the Nobel Prize-winning director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Bol says, “I want to be a diplomat. I want to work for the U.N.”
In spite of his turbulent past and the current crisis in Sudan, Bol's eyes are set on the future … a better future. Coming out of so much loss and violence, now he is celebrating hope. And birthdays too.
Read other Feature Stories about SPU students and alums.