On November 27, 2012, Sharnoff’s Global Views concluded an interview with Joan Hecht, Founder and President of Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan, a 501 c-3 foundation assisting with health and educational needs of Lost Boys and Sudanese in Jacksonville, Fl. She has been volunteering full-time with the Lost Boys, since their arrival to the US in 2001. Ms. Hecht is also author of the award-winning book, The Journey of the Lost Boys. In the 1980’s, she toured as a professional backup singer with the Johnny VanZant Band, but has since retired from a career in music and marketing.
In addition to her duties at Alliance for the Lost Boys, Ms. Hecht served as voluntary Chair of Education for three years with the Lost Boys and Girls National Network, based in Washington, DC. Ms. Hecht was selected by the National Network to be a participant in a US delegation traveling to South Sudan in 2009.
Ms. Hecht has received numerous awards and recognition for her efforts on behalf of the Lost Boys, including the “2007 Local Heroes Award” from Bank of America, the “Daily Points of Light Award,” from the National Points of Light Foundation, “The Points of Light Award” by former Florida governor, Charlie Crist, the 2008 Florida Sunshine State TESOL Presidents Award and the “2009 International Outreach Award” from Hands On Jacksonville. Ms. Hecht and her family, along with Jacksonville Lost Boys, were also featured in the November 2008 issue of Disney’s – FamilyFun Magazine.
SGV: For at least a decade, Sudan has suffered civil war and genocide. Since 2003, approximately 400,000 Muslims, Christians and Animists have been murdered in Darfur and 2.5 million displaced by the Khartoum-backed Janjaweed militia. Today Sudan barely receives coverage in the media. What is the current status of the conflict?
JH: It’s really impossible to give a complete update or history on the many conflicts within Sudan in this short interview. Sudan has been enthralled in one civil war or another, for the majority of years following its independence from the British in 1956. Our focus at Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan is based primarily on providing education, medical assistance and humanitarian aid to the people of South Sudan and raising awareness for those needs.
But in order to clarify and touch on just a few updates – the civil war between north and south Sudan lasted over two decades, killing approximately 2.5 million people and displacing millions of others. It was one of the longest lasting civil wars ever recorded and ended (at least on paper) in January 2005 with the signing of the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement). However, clashes still occur between Sudan and South Sudan military, especially in the South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains State and other areas where oil fields are located. This stems in part from unresolved demarcation issues, stipulated in the 2005 CPA, requiring that borders be defined between South Sudan and Sudan.
According to SPLM/A-N official spokesman, Arnu Ngutulu Lodi, twenty-one bombs were dropped in the South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains State by Sudan government Antonov fighter jets on November 24-25, injuring three children. Men, women and children have sought shelter inside caves in these areas and are without food, water or any humanitarian assistance. These actions are considered by many as acts of genocide, but have for the most part, gone unreported with little intervention by the UN or world leaders.
The conflicts in Darfur, also considered by many as genocide, continue with little media coverage or outside intervention.
Although these ongoing conflicts are considered as separate issues, they share one commonality: The Sudan Government.
SGV: Was there a particular aspect of the Sudanese conflict which inspired the creation of the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan?
JH: Approximately 3,800 Lost Boys were granted refugee status in the US during the years 2000-2001. From that original group, approximately eighty-five resettled in my hometown. We’ve had upwards of 150 living in our city since that time, as well as hundreds of other South Sudanese Diaspora.
When first arriving, many of the Lost Boys attended services at my former church. When hearing their story for the first time, I was not only moved to tears, I was moved to action. I felt that helping them was not an option, but rather, a call to my heart from God and I responded. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do at the time, but I knew that I had to do something.
Initially, they needed instruction in basic daily tasks, such as how to cross the street at a red light, how to use electrical appliances, how to eat with forks and knives, etc… They were extremely bright and appreciative for the help they received and I noticed within them an insatiable desire for learning.
While living in the refugee camps they adopted a common slogan that said, “An education is my only mother and father.” Presumably orphans, they knew that an education would speak on their behalf, when their parents no longer could. For the majority, receiving an education was their ultimate goal when coming to America.
After watching them work as many as two full time jobs, while also attending classes and sleeping as little as two hours a night, I established, Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan; a 501 C-3, all-volunteer foundation, to assist with their health and educational needs. Beginning in 2005, we also began many rebuilding and humanitarian efforts in South Sudan.
Most of these young men are the first in their family’s history to attend college. To date, Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan has provided books and tuition to over sixty local Lost Boys and South Sudanese. Not only are they achieving their dream of receiving a college degree, but many have earned places on the Dean’s List, The Presidents List and the National Honor Society. One of our college graduates, Simon Nygok Deng, returned to South Sudan just two days after receiving his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of North Florida. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed Secretary General of Secondary Education Examinations for the new government of The Republic of South Sudan. He’s one of many success stories from our college scholarship program.
SGV: What does the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan seek to achieve and what projects have helped raised awareness?
JH: Our mission is multi-faceted and continues to expand according to the needs of those we serve. I guess our ultimate goal is to offer these young men (and women) an equal chance in life; to be there for them when needed. We strive to provide them with the necessary tools, such as an education, mentoring, tutoring, etc., that will enable them to become independent, successful and contributing members of our society.
We also stress the importance for “Paying It Forward” and giving to others in need. All of our scholarship recipients are required to perform community service hours. You can see some of our community service projects and more about what we do on our website at www.allianceforthelostboys.com or on our Facebook page.
SGV: Where are you based and are there plans to expand?
JH: We are based in Florida and have no plans to expand at this time.
SGV: Can you share one specific example of a how Lost Boys is playing a positive role for the Sudanese people?
JH: I mentioned previously the accomplishments of former Lost Boy, Simon Deng, but there are many success stories regarding Lost Boys who are positive role models.
Former Lost Boy, Peter Kok Ter, one of the Lost Boys featured in my book The Journey of the Lost Boys, recently returned from Azerbaijan where he served as a teacher with the US Peace Corps. He even enlisted for a second term in the Peace Corps, saying that he wanted to give back in appreciation for all that America has given to him. He’s a great example of a former Lost Boy who making a global, positive impact. Abraham Kuany and John Kuai, also featured in my book, are attending classes in preparation for becoming doctors. Abraham currently works as a phlebotomist in a local hospital and is highly regarded and respected by his superiors and peers.
The Alliance was able to procure free reconstructive surgery for another former Lost Boy, Angelo Deng, who was injured and disfigured in an attack by the Sudanese government militia. Angelo is a former Alliance Scholarship recipient and is currently in the finals rounds of Medical school with hopes of becoming a doctor. We have more stories than room to write them and we’re extremely grateful for the many volunteers and donations that have helped us achieve our success. There are also many success stories regarding the Lost Girls of Sudan.
SGV: After years of Civil War, South Sudan formally seceded from Sudan and became an independent country in 2011. Has independence, greater awareness and international recognition of South Sudan helped prevent further atrocities for the Sudanese people? What role does your organization play in the post-conflict resolution and reconciliation process?
JH: This question is a difficult one to answer, because in my opinion, the people of Sudan have never received the appropriate attention they deserve. However, I can’t help but believe that if they had that far fewer lives would have been lost and humanitarian and rebuilding efforts in Darfur and South Sudan would have been greatly hastened.
As mentioned before, we are involved in numerous efforts/projects in South Sudan, such as funds for construction of an X-ray clinic at a hospital in Werkok, drilling of six water wells, a house and thirty beds at an orphanage, goat programs for women at risk, distribution of solar lights and much more. We speak around the country helping to raise awareness for the story of the Lost Boys and the Lost Girls, as well as the history and needs of the South Sudanese people. We’ve conducted many cultural art exchanges and pen-pal programs between US students and students in South Sudan in an effort to forge relationships and create awareness for generations to come. The results of those programs can be viewed on our website under education.
SGV: What is your vision for the future of Sudan and South Sudan?
JH: My vision for South Sudan is one of success for the South Sudanese people. However, that vision can only be achieved through transparency of the Republic of South Sudan government and the dedication and hard work of the south Sudanese people. The future of South Sudan also depends greatly upon education, the support of world governments and leaders and help from everyday people like me and other volunteers at the Alliance and around the world, who are willing to step outside the box and make a difference.
SGV: Finally, what message would you like to share with the international community and the Sudanese people?
JH: Following the Jewish Holocaust, people of the world joined together in a common pledge: “Never Again.” However, we have not upheld that promise in regards to the people of South Sudan, Darfur and The Nuba Mountains and for that, I am deeply saddened and sorry. The world owes them a tremendous apology and a firm commitment to do better in the future.
I’d just like to say to these people, who continue to suffer unnoticed and without aid: there are many people who hear your cries, hold you in our prayers and use our voices to speak on your behalf. Don’t give up!
SGV: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.