Former South Sudanese Lost Boy becomes US diplomat
Gai Nyok, an alumnus of Patrick Henry High School and Virginia Commonwealth University and former Lost Boy of Sudan, was inducted into the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer.
Nyok, 29, was officially sworn in as a U.S. diplomat on Friday, Oct. 16, realizing a dream in international relations that he had aspired to since he was a young boy. Nyok has many years of foreign experience, but his story is unique.
In 1986, Nyok was born in Bor, a city located in what is now the Republic of South Sudan. Three years earlier, the Second Sudanese Civil War had begun and due to the increasing violence, Nyok and his family were forced to flee by foot to nearby Ethiopia in 1987, Nyok said.
“We basically walked to Ethiopia, then there was a civil war in that country…. The government was overthrown when we were there. We were caught in the middle and had to go back to Sudan,” Nyok said.
Since Sudan was still unsafe, Nyok wasn’t there long before leaving again to eventually end up in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, in 1992 or 1993 as one of the nearly 20,000 Lost Boys of Sudan, Nyok said.
“We were just stuck there in Kenya, but getting support from the U.N. We were given food, sometimes clothing. It was not enough, not the life you wanted for yourself. People were tired of being there…. So it was always in the back of my mind to come to the U.S.,” Nyok said.
Around 1998, Nyok had his first brush with the U.S. State Department when they arrived at the refugee camp and implemented a program aimed at resettling refugees.
Nyok said he and the other Lost Boys jumped at the opportunity to interview with the International Organization for Migration, U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and after a lengthy process Nyok was granted asylum.
He was scheduled to fly out of the country Sept. 15, 2001, but days before, 9/11 occurred and delayed his travel until Sept. 24. He arrived in New York City on Sept. 25, and was then taken to Norfolk on Sept. 26, Nyok said.
Soon later he was placed in a foster home in Beaverdam in December 2001 and began school at Patrick Henry High School. Although Nyok had learned English while in Kenya, the language barrier was still present.
“It was difficult to understand the [Southern] accents. I had to respell things, and the kids couldn’t understand what I was saying at some times and would ask me to slow down and repeat…. I have a thick accent and I speak fast, so that doesn’t really help,” Nyok said.
Nyok began taking French classes during his freshman year with then–PHHS teacher Angela Will, of Ashland. Over the next few years, the two formed a special bond and certain circumstances allowed Will and her husband Joe to become Nyok’s new foster parents in October 2004.
The Wills provided him with a home, and even their two older children welcomed him in as a brother, Nyok said. Nyok played soccer for Patrick Henry High and also for a travel team, and said that “Mom” (Angela Will) would come to his games all the time to watch and support.
“He’s a wonderful, wonderful boy and brilliant, just brilliant,” Will said. “It took him three years to finish high school. He did his junior and senior years simultaneously. He graduated with honors [in 2005] and got a scholarship to VCU and got two degrees from there in four years: one a B.A. in international relations and a B.S. in economics.”
Nyok held several different jobs while at VCU, and after graduating cum laude in 2010, he got a temporary job at BrownGreer PLC, a law firm in Richmond. He continued to work as a supervisor at the VCU campus security office – a job he held while in school – until August 2011 when he accepted a position as a faculty assistant in the VCU School of Pharmacy.
At this time, he began exploring opportunities that would help him pursue his long-term dream of working for the State Department, Nyok said. He discovered the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program, which provides graduate students with financial support and professional training to prepare them for a career in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service.
Nyok applied for the fellowship, and among his competition were Fulbright Scholars, Harvard graduates, Yale graduates, and many other impressive students, Will said.
June 20, 2013, Will found out that Nyok had been awarded the fellowship when he told her to watch U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on World Refugee Day. Nearly 12 minutes into the speech, Kerry said, “I’m proud to say that today Gai [Nyok] is one of our Pickering Fellows here at the State Department on the path to becoming a diplomat in the foreign service.”
“And I’m going, ‘Oh my gosh!’ Then he starts giving Gai’s biography! And if you know Gai, you know he’s so modest,” Will said.
Nyok began his graduate studies in economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2013, and graduated in May 2015. As part of his fellowship requirements, he interned at the State Department in Washington, D.C. in 2014, and spent the summer of 2015 as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Geneva, Switzerland.
In late October, Nyok officially became a U.S. diplomat in Washington, D.C. and was assigned to aid the country of Venezuela. He is currently in political and economic training and will soon begin Spanish lessons to help prepare him for when he travels there in July 2016, Nyok said.
For Nyok, becoming a diplomat was “about public service. It was about giving back.” He said he was lucky to have an American family supporting him and helping him to aspire and achieve big things.
“I’ve seen people who came over with me and not be able to have the same opportunities, or don’t have an American family to help guide them through and navigate the challenges that people face when they come here. To know how to adapt, to apply for colleges and apply for jobs, and how to interview for jobs… and to apply for fellowships. I would not have known about the Pickering Fellowship or that I could apply for it without that help,” Nyok said.
“It’s a heartwarming story,” Will said, “and special people like Gai just need a chance.”
–Abby Mergenmeier, H-P Intern