For 12 hours a day, Peter Ajak studied in Maryland last summer for a program to increase minorities in international service. But no matter the coursework, Ajak, a La Salle University senior, has faced harder challenges.
As a boy, Ajak fled Southern Sudan for a refugee camp in Kenya with his siblings and mothers (his father has six wives, a custom in the region.) They were part of a tidal wave of millions of Christian and Animist Africans who flooded out of the country to escape the government of the Northern Sudan. Now, preparing for a possible career in the foreign service, he said of his summer program, “The main reason I was there (studying) is to do well — I must do well.”
“I have been moving around the world because of the civil war in my country (Sudan),” Ajak said. In an application for a La Salle scholarship, he wrote, “As a child, I witnessed my village burn down, people getting slaughtered, women getting raped, and many other brutal and sinister atrocities waged against my people by the Islamic Government of Sudan. As a result, I suffered severe starvation, outbreak of fatal diseases such as cholera, and severe poverty. The enemy robbed everything that my family once owned, and we consequently became refugees, homeless and wandering in foreign lands. I always remember these experiences with pain.”
An Economics and International Studies major at La Salle, Ajak was awarded a fellowship with the Institute for International Public Policy (IIPP), which is administered with the United Negro College Fund. Out of 630 applicants, Ajak was one of 50 selected in 2005.
His involvement with the IIPP program last year included coursework at a policy institute in Atlanta during his sophomore-year summer, and he spent the spring semester of this year at an Egyptian university. Last summer he took graduate courses at the University of Maryland. Eventually, Ajak hopes to earn a graduate degree in international studies.
In April, Ajak was awarded the Joseph Flubacher Scholarship from La Salle, given annually to an economics major. It is named after Joseph Flubacher, who taught economics at the University for 50 years.
At the Kenyan refugee camp, Ajak, then an eighth grade student, school, volunteered to teach sixth- and seventh-graders.
“The refugees’ schools were established by the United Nations, [but] food’s paucity was always an issue,” Ajak wrote in his application for the Flubacher Scholarship. “I became a role model to little children who realized the value and future in education. I enjoyed every day I spent teaching and helping others because the beauty in it is phenomenal… Through this experience, I planted hopes and visions in the lives of these children and inspired them to pursue their dreams.”
Eventually, Ajak came to Philadelphia, where he graduated from Central High School, and then enrolled at La Salle.
While in Egypt this past spring, Ajak visited his homeland and saw his family for the first time in five years. His father had fought alongside rebel leader John Garang de Mabior and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement, which battled the Sudanese regime for 22 years until a recent 2005 peace settlement granted the Southern Sudan its autonomy and a future referendum on independence. Ajak’s father now holds the rank of brigadier general in the re-unified national military and is currently residing in the country with his youngest wife.
The rest of the Ajak family remains in Kenya, but Peter says they are living in significantly better conditions today.
“Things are improving for the South,” he said. “After the peace deal, things were very uncertain. At one point, there was even the danger of more starvation. But now there is a lot of job growth. The government and private companies from overseas have become big employers. There are a lot of opportunities for anyone with skills.”
In his application for the Flubacher Scholarship, Ajak wrote, “Since I was a kid, I have been in a search of knowledge. The education that I seek is not only to develop myself… but it is to advance humanity. Having lived through most of the 22-year Sudanese conflict, I am well aware of changes that we humans must collectively endeavor for.”