U of M students present child abduction case to president of South Sudanby Roseanne Pereira, Minnesota Public Radio
A group of University of Minnesota students campaigning for the release of two kidnapped children in Sudan scored a major victory recently, when they were able to meet with the president of Southern Sudan.
St. Paul, Minn. — Gabriel Kou Soloman, 27, is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. His friends call him 'Kou' (pronounced 'koh').
And he has a big problem.
He's friendly, you might even say gentle, yet he's had a harsh life. Growing up in Sudan, he was kidnapped at age 6 and trained as a child soldier. Later, he was forced to walk for days as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and he's been separated from his family for years.
Things were looking up for him once he gained refugee status in the United States. That is, until last month.
Solomon's two young nieces in Southern Sudan, 3-year-old Yar and 18-month old Ajak, were visiting their grandmother when the unthinkable happened.
Armed men burst into the house and demanded the children. When the grandmother refused, they shot her dead. While running to a neighbor's house, Solomon's stepmother was shot in the leg. It's since been amputated.
The kidnappers were from a neighboring tribe known as the Murle. It's not known why they took the girls. Solomon suspects it's because girls are valuable and can be exchanged for cattle when they are old enough to be married.
Solomon hasn't heard any information about his nieces since their abduction.
"A lot of Sudanese, especially Southern Sudanese, we never really know where to turn to," says Solomon.
But, Solomon did find someone who could help. In fact, he found a lot of people -- his fellow students in a human rights advocacy class at the University of Minnesota. He says they spread the word.
"I told a couple friends ... and here we are, eight people in the class, maybe next week we'll have 20, two weeks after that, maybe 30. That is how I hope to bring my nieces back home," says Solomon.
Together, they launched the Save Yar campaign, named for Solomon's 3-year-old niece. They gathered signatures for a petition, mailed postcards to the president of Southern Sudan, and barraged Washington D.C.-based Southern Sudanese government officials with phone calls.
Southern Sudan is a region with a separate culture and history from the rest of Sudan. The Southern Sudanese practice traditional indigenous beliefs and Christianity, whereas Islam is more of a presence in other parts of the country.
Last weekend, Solomon and three other students went to Washington to meet policymakers face to face. Their main goal was to try to meet the president of Southern Sudan, who was visiting the U.S.
One of the graduate students on the trip, Robyn Skrebes, has been surprised by how much support they got in just a few weeks.
"When you say child abduction, it inspires a lot of people to take action right away because they can imagine how they would feel, if the same thing happened to their own children," Skrebes says.
The students met with staff from Minnesota's congressional delegation and with State Department officials.
Then, they headed to the Southern Sudan mission.
Usually, a visitor must be buzzed into visit the mission's D.C. headquarters, but when the students arrived, the door was slightly ajar. Skrebes says they walked right in.
"People popped their heads out of their offices and they were sort of like, what are these people doing here?" recalls Skrebes.
Skrebes says, though the officials at the mission had not responded to their calls from Minnesota, when they met them in person, they were very helpful.
"In fact, the second in command at the South Sudan mission said, 'Don't be ashamed, you carry a very precious message.'"
He called an aide to the president and requested a meeting for the students. He then directed the students to the hotel where the president was staying. They waited there for four or five hours, but eventually were informed they could meet the president the following morning.
Amanda Lyons is a second-year law student. She accompanied Solomon when he met President Salva Kiir.
"To walk into the hotel room and to see him there seated in his armchair, just very stoic, after all that time, it was a strange thing to see him," recalls Lyons.
Solomon launched into the story of his missing nieces. Then Lyons presented the petition, saying that she was a representative of all of Solomon's supporters back at the University of Minnesota.
"I'd kind of shrunk the font and gotten it as small as I could and gotten it down to 70 pages. We had it all printed out in a University of Minnesota folder," says Lyons. "I actually got to give it to the president. I think that was exciting, to see the end result of actually getting the petition and the message to the president."
Lyons says Kiir seemed patient and sympathetic to their cause. However, he told them he did not think peaceful intervention with the tribe that abducted the children would be possible. He thought a military intervention would be more effective.
Having returned from Washington, the students are now planning their next steps. Amanda Lyons says they realize there is a lot of work ahead, but she's optimistic, given the response they've had so far.
"I think people have a lot of faith that 20 of us together, getting 100 people around us and, then, the thousand people we got on board with the petition -- there wasn't this sense of skepticism, like, 'Can we really do it? Are we really going to make a difference?'" Lyons says. "I never heard talk like that. It was always, 'What are we going to do next?, 'How is this going to move forward?'"
The group will continue to work toward Yar and Ajak's safe return. However, they have a larger goal to end child abductions, which are widespread in some parts of the world.
Solomon has likened his mission to that of John Walsh of America's Most Wanted, fully aware that the problem of child abductions impacts many families in many countries.
The students will give a presentation on Sudan and update the public on advocacy efforts on Nov. 19, 2007 at 3 p.m. at Cowles Auditorium at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Center.
- All Things Considered, 11/16/2007, 5:53 p.m.