Penn guard has come a long way from Sudan to Ivy League

Penn freshman guard Dau Jok lost his father and grandfather to violence in Southern Sudan.
Penn freshman guard Dau Jok lost his father and grandfather to violence in Southern Sudan.
Posted: January 28, 2011

RAGE WELLED UP in young Dau Jok when he was told what happened: The Gok Dinka paramount chief Jok Dau Kachuol - his grandfather - had been slain in crossfire during yet another eruption of violence in Southern Sudan. It happened just under a year ago. Dau was living in Des Moines, Iowa, where he and what remained of his family had settled in 2003, and where he had emerged as a very fine high school basketball player. Given that he was also an "A'' student, he had become enchanted with the possibility of attending Penn, where he could not only play college ball but also fulfill his ambitions academically.

But he began to waver as he absorbed the news of his grandfather, with whom Dau had become especially close since the bloody death of his father, Dut Jok. Dau had only been 6 years old when that happened. Dut had been a general in the Sudan People's Liberation Army and a beloved figured. Dau remembered that his father would "send bags of wheat, corn, sugar cane and soy beans to those in need." Upon seeing the lifeless body of his father - who had been shot in the head during an encounter with the Arab opposition - Dau became so angry that he picked up an AK-47 with the intention of seeking revenge. But that would be a job ultimately undertaken by older members of his tribe, whom Dau says "hunted down and killed 200 to 300 Arabs" in retaliation.

Some of the same feelings overcame him as he sat there 7,000 miles away in Des Moines and pondered the death of his grandfather. For an hour, he remembers that he could not move, that he just "sat frozen in the same position." Inside, he was churning with fury, possessed by the urge to do something to avenge what had happened. The small boy in him, who still was grieving the loss of his father, wanted to fly back home and take up arms. He told himself: "Someone has to be accountable!" But he knew that would be forbidden by his family, so he came up with a Plan B. Instead of attending Penn, he would go instead to the United States Military Academy.

"West Point had recruited me, so my first instinct was to call their coach," says Dau. "I just wanted to join the Army [and] learn the skills and go kill people. What hurt most was the fact that another human being took his life and I could not do anything about it."

But that was the boy in Dau speaking.

The man in him knows that he could do more for his people with his brains than with bullets.

Chances are you have never encountered anyone quite like Dau Jok. Given the horrors his young eyes have seen, it is extraordinary to think of how far he has come. Well apart from his ability on the basketball floor, where Penn coach Jerome Allen says he is still a "work in progress" as the Quakers begin their Ivy League schedule this evening against Yale at the Palestra, he carries himself with a purposeful air in whatever he does, be it in the classroom or the plans he has under way to create a foundation to send sports equipment back to Southern Sudan. One day, he plans to go back and build a school for children, who are still educated there by teachers who gather their students beneath a shady tree.

"We had no pencils or paper, so we would write our answers in the sand," says Dau, whose uncle was the late Manute Bol, a Dinka tribesman and a center for the Sixers. "And the teachers were allowed to whip you. There is a standard and you are expected to succeed."

Smiling, Dau says yes, he was whipped.

"A lot," he says. "On the hands. They do it to promote education. In math, I had to get a 95 or above or I would get whipped. They would do it with a stick."

Casually, Dau searches his bag and emerges with a handful of snapshots of his home. In them, Dau is still just a boy, dressed in a red shirt. There is a photograph of his father, of whom Dau has become such a "spitting image" that his family sheds tears whenever they see him. In one of the photos, Dau is standing in front of a rectangle of upturned earth, beneath which his father is buried. Over his shoulder, there is a fence, beyond which prowl lions and leopards. Dau says that "during the rainy season, you can see their footprints. And you can always hear them roaring in the evening." Scattered through the photos are homes he and his family lived in, which were essentially a series of huts.

Civil war between the Africans and Arabs over the division of fertile agricultural land has ravaged the Sudan for better than two decades. With the support of the Sudanese government, the Arabs had conducted genocide of African insurgent groups, which have battled for a larger voice in the government. An estimated 2 million people have perished and more than 4 million have been displaced. With starvation widespread and the absence of educational opportunities and health-care services, international humanitarian organizations have called the people of Southern Sudan a "lost generation." While Dau and others are heartened by the passage earlier this month of a referendum for independence, he knows that "things are still unclear" and that the vote is just the beginning. He asked that the United States keep applying "diplomatic pressure."

"Of course, I appreciate everyone who has helped - George Clooney and President Carter and others," says Dau, whose mother, Amelia Ring Bol, still shuttles back home as a parliament member of the Government of Southern Sudan. "But the question I have is: Where has the world been while this has been going on? How many people have to die before it is considered genocide?"

Dau was born in Cueibet, Lake State, in the Southern Sudan in 1992. When his father died, his mother moved Dau and his three siblings away to Rumbek and then Uganda. They came to the United States in December 2003 and settled in Des Moines, where there was a large Sudanese refugee population. There, Dau learned to speak English, worked hard at his studies and discovered basketball. Quite a fine soccer player back home, where as a boy he used to "wrap a balloon or hospital glove with tape and use it as a ball," he began playing basketball by occasionally kicking a soccer ball into the hoop.

"Kids were always mocking me how bad I was as a basketball player, so I learned how to play to prove them wrong," says Dau. "I would go to the YMCA and watched someone play, then when they left, I would get up and do exactly what they did. I did that over and over again."

When he learned that basketball possibly could finance his education, Dau - a 6-4 guard - says he began to take it "really seriously." At Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, he developed in his junior and senior years into one of the top shooters in the state. In an AAU game, the summer before his senior year, former Penn assistant coach John Gallagher says Dau "drained something like nine 'threes' in a row." Says Gallagher, now the head coach at Hartford: "When we found out what his GPA was, we were all over him." With a smile, Dau says of that game, "I was just stupid that day." While he had had some scholarship interest from some other schools, he liked the idea of pursuing an Ivy League education. He believed it would help him realize his ultimate goal: to help his people.

It was something he had discussed with Manute Bol. While Dau did not know Manute well, he had the chance to meet him once in Kansas City. The 7-7 Bol supported the cause of the Sudanese refugees with a large percentage of his earnings during his 10-year NBA career. When Bol died last June, at age 47, Dau says, "the whole nation mourned him for what he had accomplished." Dau remembers Bol had advised him: "Use your experience to motivate you. Get your education and go back and try to help people." Dau has been thinking of how he can do that ever since.

Friends in Iowa say Dau has come a long way since he landed in the United States. Dau himself says that he has developed better control over his anger, which he says used to flare "if someone just looked at me the wrong way." According to Bruce Koepple, who became a mentor for Dau in high school, Dau has learned to let go of the culture that schooled him in answering violence with violence. Says Koepple, the Iowa state director for AARP: "He is not taking everything so personally now. He is working through things with logic."

Growth also is occurring on the basketball floor. While he has only played in four games and is 0-for-5 from three-point range, his coach says he is an excellent shooter and one of the hardest workers on the team. Allen says Dau "comes to practice early and stays late" and that he "really, really wants to be coached." While Allen says Dau still has to show some improvement in his defense and ballhandling, he expects that his young freshman probably will get more of an opportunity to contribute once the Quakers get deeper into league play. Allen just shakes his head when he thinks of what Dau has been through - and where he is going.

"This is not your typical 18-year-old," says Allen. "In my opinion - in the end - the university will have benefited more from having him than he will from having attended Penn."

As he thinks back on the boy in those pictures, it occurs to Dau how quickly he grew up, how his early acquaintance with violence has shaped him. Always, he lived in fear, and prayed not for himself but for the people he loved. Every day, he would look at some member of his family and wonder if he would see them again, if they would be cut down by bullets and carried home under a sheet.

The boy still inside of Dau says, "In my memory, I can still see them bring my father home; I could see his feet sticking out. From that day, the goal was, 'How do I get back at those Arabs?' "

But the man that has emerged in Dau says this: "I cannot hold to those feelings. But what I can do is be the closest thing I can be to my father in spirit. If someone needs food or a place to sleep, provide it."

Or . . . an education. Dau cites this statistic: Only 2 percent of boys and 1 percent of girls complete school in Southern Sudan.

"The numbers are staggering," says Dau, who can envision a day when children no longer asked to study under a shady tree. Given the opportunity, he will go back and build the schoolhouse he would have liked to have attended when he was young. It will have chalkboards and desks, with paper to write on instead of sand, and pens to do it with instead of fingers. Smiling, Dau says, "It will happen. Success in the only option." *

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