In a time when so much that we hold dear is being undermined, the brave and poetic voice of Nyuol Tong is a source of strength and sustenance for the fight that we now face. His story is one of unlikely outcomes and breathtaking possibility, of dreams rendered real by a welcoming America. A graduate of Duke University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently the inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, Nyuol was born in the South Sudanese village of Ayeit during a time of chaos and horror. In the 1990s, armed militiamen came in search of his father and demanded that the 6-year-old Nyuol tell them where he was. He has written about it: “When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in, and began to fire. Luckily, I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence and sent my mother, siblings, and me to Khartoum. From there we sought asylum in Egypt.”
For six years, Nyuol and his family were refugees in their own country, fleeing to Egypt in 2003. In Cairo, Nyuol met an American University professor who took an interest in him, recognized his ability and his yearning for education, and helped to maneuver a student visa and scholarship for him to attend high school at Dunn. Nyuol is acutely aware of his extraordinary good fortune and has sought to find ways of giving back. While a student at Dunn, he founded a nonprofit organization called SELFSudan that has built a school in his village, and he strives to always make his life a narrative of kindness, humility, and gratitude. “I survived,” he wrote in 2012, “but more than two million people were killed in the war, with more dying even today.” (In fact, the United Nations recently declared famine in parts of South Sudan, where war, a collapsing economy, and impeded humanitarian access have resulted in an escalating catastrophe.)
With his thin frame, gentle manner, and elegant bearing, Nyuol seems almost too slight to carry the unimaginable burden of what he has witnessed and experienced, but it is with him always. “Being a refugee is a perpetual kind of homecoming in which you move from place to place,” he explains, “each place holding the promise of some kind of security, stability, a community to which to belong at last — but of course that rarely happens, and so you start to look for another home again, prepare for another homecoming. But when I came here, I felt like I had finally arrived, found that community in which I could begin anew.”
The November election jolted that sense of home on many levels, particularly in terms of policies and attitudes toward immigrants. “For all my trust and confidence in my belonging to America,” says Nyuol, “I am being told that actually I don’t. My strangeness, my foreignness is being highlighted, and the figure of the refugee has been reinscribed to me.” He recognizes that some of the support for Trump stems from a sense of fear and victimhood by those who feel they are not getting their fair share of jobs or privileges. “But if you look at the argument that the ‘others’ are a threat to our way of life or they’re lazy, it’s just not true. No one works harder than those refugees and immigrants. They’ve been working hard all their lives.
“Generally, the return to nationalism, especially in Europe and America, is not sustainable, and those who want to restore that kind of parochialism know it,” he reflects. “You cannot keep the refugees away from your doors. It’s not sustainable. But there’s nothing more dangerous than a dying animal. That’s what Trump is.”
In the meantime, Nyuol grieves for the kindhearted America he knew, and he seeks through his writing to restore truth and eloquence to a time of incoherence. “Especially when something in the present evokes the past, like this fearmongering and hatred and bigotry and cynicism that Trump has occasioned, this darkness that is not too dissimilar to what has been happening in Sudan for many decades, it’s hard not to despair.
“Of all the sufferings that one endures as a refugee, hope is the most difficult. It’s not willed. It’s not you saying, ‘I’m going to be hopeful.’ It just happens. Hope is often born out of hopelessness. Refugees are the few survivors, at least in the case of South Sudan during its protracted wars; they are the ones who have made it out, the ones whom death has given a pass, to whom death has shown kindness. When you have been avoided by death — not avoided death, but avoided by death — you learn that it has nothing to do with your will.
“I keep going because I have to, because there’s nothing else to do. Beckett said it best: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’ There’s nothing intentional or heroic or poetic about it. If anything, what you feel is probably embarrassment, a bit of shame, too, that you were spared, ignored by death. And there is nothing heavier to bear than death’s mercy, but I suppose that’s what you have to bear and come to terms with every day, the debt you have to pay, the reason you have to carry on, and carry on we must.”