John Thon Majok shares his experience as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, while providing vital insights for how to navigate the challenges of current human migration patterns.

Behind the Numbers: Humans in the Warehouse

– John Thon Majok

The immense potential of refugees is wasted in the current system. How can success stories change the equation?

Ask John Thon Majok to relate the details of his amazing journey as a former refugee from South Sudan to Washington D.C., and the first thing he mentions is not about himself at all.    

“Seventy years ago this year, the world came together and set up a system,” he says. “That was The 1951 Refugee Convention. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It was a system to address an issue affecting all of humanity. And I am a beneficiary of that system. As a former refugee. I consider myself a beneficiary, but also a success story.”

Kenya / Sudanese refugees / Lokichokio camp / Unaccompanied minors / "The lost boys of Sudan" / UNHCR / 22067 / B. Press / July 1992. Betty Press/UNHCR.

Majok was one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” – the group of 20,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers who fled that nation’s civil war in 1987 to find refuge in Ethiopia and then Kenya. The tale of this immense forced displacement – during which fully half of those who set out did not survive – has been told in numerous books, films and other media. He recalls that the words of his father sustained him as he fled with so many other young people: “Be strong-willed, be courageous, never give up, and do not let anything weaken your heart.” 

After surviving that ordeal and receiving education in refugee camps, Majok arrived in the United States in 2001 and has since forged a career as Director of Grants Management and Senior Analyst at the Wilson Center – and as a powerful advocate for more humane and effective policies on refugees and displacement. 

Here is his story in his own words.

From “Cowboy” to “Lost Boy”

I was brought up in a pastoral society. The Dinka society in southern Sudan whose main property is cattle. Cows. So as the cultural norm, I was exposed to that way of life early on. I was raised in that community knowing the cows. That’s where I became, you know, a cowboy.

Manyiel Cattle camp in Southern Sudan. Courtesy Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

It was a community that passed on stories from generation to generation orally. So you listen to the words of your parents. My father talked to me about life – and how things are not always the way they should be.

My father talked to me about life – and how things are not always the way they should be.

That's where I got that frame of reference. My dad's words telling me about life. So my cultural upbringing taught me some of the values that I hold dear. 

I was one of the more than 20,000 unaccompanied minors who became known as The Lost Boys. My first country of asylum was Ethiopia in 1987, when I crossed the border from my village. 

It was quite a journey, of course, to an unknown country. But we became a family when we were without our parents. Separated from our parents at an early age. 

Refugees and Resilience

Majok says that resilience is the lens through which he examines his experience as a former refugee – and the lessons it has for others.

Kenya / Sudanese refugees / Unaccompanied minors / Lokichokio transit camp / Toys imitating UN trucks and planes / UNHCR / B. Press / July 1992. Betty Press/UNHCR.

My experience is a way for others to learn about something I always talk about: resilience. How do you cope with adversity – whatever it is in life? 

The refugee narrative has always focused on the post-traumatic stress disorder. But I want it also to include what kept the refugees moving, and why they survived. There are four coping mechanisms that I recall – and that I still have in mind. How I – and others who were with me – coped with the adversity of forced displacement.

One, as I mentioned, is cultural upbringing. It gives you a mental toolbox. Something to refer to as a frame of reference. I was brought up in a society that encourages bravery and independence, and requires you to be self-sufficient as you graze your cattle in an inhospitable environment. Living in a refugee camp, that cultural upbringing helped me cope with the situation.

Another mechanism is a sense of community. We had a support network of brothers and sisters, sharing the same life experience. We banded together in a dorm-like environment in the refugee camp. We helped each other. We depended on each other. The younger [refugees] were helped by the older ones. A sense of community among our refugee peers helped the situation.

Third is religious faith. This is very important for policymakers to understand the context for refugees. What do refugees actually hold dear in their life? Because they don't have many things. But there are certain things that they hold dear that keep them going. Faith in God was a key factor for me. A sense of optimism. A sense of hope. When you have a higher purpose, you don't give up. Faith gives you that. 

A church service under the trees at Kakuma Refugee Camp. 1995. This photo, and the church, are very dear to Majok, as this is the church with which he used to teach Sunday School. Majok is sitting in the front row, right, wearing the white outfit and being squeezed near the big drum. Photo courtesy Abraham Yel Nhial.

The fourth factor in resilience was our drive to obtain an education. In the refugee camp in Ethiopia, we did not have cows anymore. Our life was disrupted. But the UN system encouraged refugees to get an education in the refugee camp. So there was a  drive for formal education among us – and myself included.

I started my formal education in 1988. Learning under the tree. Doing my exams by writing in the sand, because there were no notebooks. 

Those four factors are what makes resilience. I also recalled my father’s words: “Be strong-willed, be courageous, never give up, and do not let anything weaken your heart.” Many times when I was at that point where my heart would be weakened by forced displacement, I remembered my dad's words.

As a child, and becoming a teenager, there were a lot of temptations. Life in the camp was like living your life in a warehouse. So often you don’t have basic needs. Food. You go hungry for two weeks, waiting for the next ration to be distributed. 

Life in the camp was like living your life in a warehouse. You go hungry for two weeks, waiting for the next ration to be distributed.

That tests your character. Whether to give up and just surrender yourself to the circumstances, or to hold on to something that you believe in. 

But you still wake up in the morning. You have that drive for education and still go to classes. Believing that this moment will pass, and then there will be a bright future.

That environment tested my character. But my dad's words just kept spinning up into my mind. “Do not let anything weaken your heart.” And that means everything. 

New Beginnings in Arizona

Majok argues that his story and the narratives of other refugees – especially their successes in a new life in countries where they were resettled – must be retold again and again to evoke “the mindset that created that system that benefited humanity.”

In a time of crisis such as this, with the magnitude of global forced displacement, we need to turn to one another, and not against each other. That is very important. 

When we come together, we set up a system such as the Geneva Convention that has benefited humanity. But when we turn against each other, and start to vilify refugees, and look at them as “other,” we contribute to an assault on human dignity and identity already bruised by displacement. 

John Thon Majok during his graduation with honors from the University of Arizona, 2005. Courtesy John Thon Majok.

How did I get to the United States? When we were in the refugee camp, the brand name we knew was UNHCR. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It was on every food ration distributed. We also knew UNICEF – the educational wing of the UN system – because it was on the notebooks that we shared.

I recall in the 1980s in Ethiopia when a delegation from the United States Congress arrived. We were taught to recite: “ Welcome, welcome American Congressmen!” We didn't know what that meant except that we wanted to recite what was taught to us. But, then, it meant something when we came here to this country. 

The resettlement process started when I was in the refugee camp in Kenya. We did not apply to be settled. It was determined by the system – the UNHCR system – and the receiving country (in this case, the United States). The process was a decision that this group of refugees should be prioritized, given their background and the experience that they went through, to give them an opportunity in a new country.

So we went through this process. I went through an interview and the medical clearance. I think it took almost a year. More than a year. We didn't know where we were going. 

Majok knew little about the United States, save what one might glean from “a history book.” He was told he was coming to Arizona, and his flight on June 5, 2001 took him from New York to Dallas and arrived in Tucson after midnight. 

It was a daunting experience in terms of the cultural challenges. But that is the resilience paradox: Exposure to prior hardships helps us and strengthens us to be more resilient to later stressors in our life. My prior exposure to refugee camp life helped me to adjust to the United States in a better way than if I had not had any prior experience of hardship. 

Community support is very important in the journey. The Tucson community was very welcoming. We had volunteers from all over, helping us adjust to life in cities – which was overwhelming. 

Majok observes that being resettled in a more agrarian community “would not have made any difference” to his adjustment to the United States. Tucson’s “dry heat” was familiar. And any place where he and other Lost Boys were resettled was immensely different than home – or the refugee camps.

That is the thing about having no choice. This is the definition of “forced migration.” You are forced to leave. You do not have a choice.

That is the thing about having no choice. This is the definition of “forced migration.” You are forced to leave. You do not have a choice. 

In everything concerning refugees, things are done beyond your consent. Everything is not about choice. You have no freedom. This fact should inform the policies we make for refugees and people who are forcibly displaced. These are people who are forced by fear – fear of being killed, fear of persecution – to leave a country against their will.

Stories Inform Policy 

Forced displacement is an assault on human dignity and identity. Our policies should preserve refugee identity and dignity. The policies we make should not vilify refugees. 

On Capitol Hill, Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe with John Thon Majok who interned for him in 2004. Courtesy John Thon Majok.

The narrative is important because we see the statistics. Right now, there are over 82 million people displaced worldwide. Out of that number, 26 million are refugees. Those are just the numbers. The statistics. 

But there is always a story behind those numbers. The narrative – the personal story and experience I am sharing – shows policymakers that you are not just talking about labels such as “refugee.” Or 82 million as a statistic. You are talking about real people. And those real people have dignity. And those real people are not just “other.” They are fellow human beings.

The goal of public policy should be to make life better for our fellow citizens, but also for our fellow human beings. So when we hear stories of our fellow human beings overcoming adversities that were not created by them, then there is a moral part that we can play.

The international refugee system has benefited millions of people. The current discourse on forced displacement is too politicized. It has a lot of feelings behind it. So we must ask if we are making policy that makes the life of unaccompanied children better? Are we giving opportunities to people who have no opportunities? Or people who have lived in the refugee camp for far too long? Are we addressing the root factors that caused them to leave their villages? Forced displacement is a multigenerational challenge. It is at the intersection of the urgent need to flee and the long-term impact it creates. And that long-term impact is felt beyond the region of origin. It affects us all as human beings. 

Forced displacement is a multigenerational challenge. It is at the intersection of the urgent need to flee and the long-term impact it creates. And that long-term impact is felt beyond the region of origin. It affects us all as human beings. 

Stories help us paint a different picture. Refugees are not just passive victims. They are models for resilience. And we can learn something from them for our own lives. When you hear the story of someone who has overcome a great deal of adversity, you can apply it to yourself when you are having a bad day. The story of someone who has overcome adversity can help you.

But the ultimate goal here is that we want to make better policies. Policies that can better the lives of children. A UN report shows between 2018 and 2020, more than 1 million children were born into refugee life. Can you imagine it? And these people remain in refugee camps. 

What is their future? Is it in the best interest of the public – or the best interest of any country – to have these children waste their potential living there in a warehouse? That is the policy implication of this situation. Can we give them better education?

Majok at the Africa Policy Breakfast on Capitol Hill with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. 2016. Courtesy Bol Akum Deng.

I am a success story. I would not be talking to you today had I not been given the opportunity to get an education and to come here to the United States and integrate myself into the American life and get better opportunities. So our policy should work to give opportunities to the people who are suffering for something that they did not do. 

This is where I think the narrative needs to shift – from “passive victims” to “people who should be given an opportunity to better their own lives – and the lives of others as a result.” 

This is where I think the narrative needs to shift – from “passive victims” to “people who should be given an opportunity to better their own lives – and the lives of others as a result.” 

Breaking the Cycle

John Thon Majok’s country of origin – South Sudan – still faces major internal displacement and refugee crises almost three decades after the Lost Boys began their march. 

It is very sad to see my country of origin still in this environment where the majority of its population is still being displaced or is still beyond its own border.

In the 1980s, when the civil war forced me and others to leave, Sudan was still one country. In 2011, South Sudan became independent. That's my country of origin, the South Sudan. Now it has the largest number of displaced persons in Africa.

The neighboring countries of Uganda and Kenya have been very hospitable for years in hosting our people. Had it not been for Kenya, I would not have obtained my education. So Kenya has been very good. Uganda has been very good.

Family reunion after Majok returned from the U.S. to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2007. Courtesy John Thon Majok.

But the question goes back now to the country of origin. This is a policy question where the global community has to come together. Why are leaders happy that their people are always moving along the borders – and becoming refugees in other countries? Is that something that makes them proud? I don't think so. 

So how can they make life better so that civil war does not displace people from their homes? All refugees want to stay within their villages, no matter what their state of development. They have their homes. They want to farm in their own backyard. Because they are forced to leave, they are now living these lives. 

All refugees want to stay within their villages, no matter what their state of development. They have their homes. They want to farm in their own backyard.

In 2018, the world came together again, and passed a non-binding compact called the Global Compact on Refugees. It calls for the sharing of responsibilities and burdens – especially with host countries. It's non-binding, but, again, it tests the solidarity of our humanity on this issue. Are we helping the countries that host a disproportionate number of displaced persons in their backyards? 

Kenya recently stated that because the world is not helping us, we are going to kick out all the refugees. Where are they going to go? We need to help pressure  countries to address the root causes of forced displacement. But we also need other countries – countries that are not in that situation – to help host countries until conditions in a country of origin allow refugees to return. 

Now, there are efforts to forcibly return refugees to the country from which they fled. That is against international law. 

We need to rethink our commitment, to rethink the international architecture, and the humanitarian architecture as well. Where do we need to improve? Because we need to improve it. There are realities today that were not there in 1951. 

The United States – through the Refugee Act of 1980 – incorporated the Geneva Convention into its own domestic law. So the United States is a world leader. It should also lead by example. Our political leaders should know that it has been a bipartisan success story to help refugees from other countries. We should not abandon that. We should continue our bipartisan support of refugee policy.

Why Forced Displacement Matters

The spillover effect of forced displacement from one region can reach everyone. There was a study in 2016 that actually estimated the monetary global impact of violence and conflict, which cause forced displacement. It came to around 14.3 trillion dollars. That means that every person in the world is affected. It translates to almost two thousand dollars per individual each year.

John Thon Majok on a panel at the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) in New York City, 2019.

But we can also contribute to a solution to this global crisis. In a time of crisis, we need to turn to one another, and not against each other. And this is the time to do that. 

For instance, we saw the spillover effects of the Syrian war to Europe in 2015. The global refugee crisis existed before 2015. They did not think it was coming to their borders. They did not see it coming. But it came to Europe. In 2021, we have seen it with Afghanistan – a crisis whose spillover effects have extended far beyond Asia.

If we can address the root causes before they grow to this magnitude, I think we will be better off as a global community. But when we sit back and think, “That is a problem for a particular country?” Here we are. Eighty-two million people. That is a country of its own. 

If we do not give these refugees opportunities for education, we waste their human potential. And the burden will fall on us.

If we do not give these refugees opportunities for education, we waste their human potential. And the burden will fall on us. On the other hand, if we give them potential and opportunity where they are, they can contribute to the global treasury as productive citizens, and we can all work to resolve this issue. 

That is why countries such as Kenya should have an integration policy to enable refugees to work – or give them citizenship. Refugees sitting in limbo in camps are not helping anyone. There are children, you know. And it's not their mistake. 

The issue of protracted displacement is significant. People are staying in camps for far too long. They are no longer confined to the refugee camps. There are urban refugees now. It is a development challenge. It is a multi-generational challenge. We are wasting a great deal of humanity in the warehouse.

So, let's take it on as a global issue, because it affects us all, and let us proactively work on policies that can help resolve it. Starting with addressing the root causes.

John Thon Majok is the Director of Grants Management at the Wilson Center where he also served as a senior program analyst at the Global Risk and Resilience Program. In addition to his grant oversight role, Majok frequently speaks, writes, and provides thoughtful analysis on refugee and forced displacement issues among other topics of global concern. A former refugee, Majok was born and raised in South Sudan, and lived for 13 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before coming to the United States in 2001 through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. He has written articles and served on panels about refugee campsglobal refugee crisisrefugees and national securityrefugee resilienceprotracted refugee situations; and resettlement and integration. Majok holds an MPA in public administration from George Mason University, with a focus on public management and international development. He graduated with honors from the University of Arizona in 2005. He wrote his honors thesis on globalization and its impact on human rights.

Cover photo: Family reunion after Majok returned from the U.S. to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2007. Courtesy John Thon Majok.