Joseph, a South Sudanese who has lived a life of refuge, street… and resilience

The story of Joseph, who escaped Kakuma, became a street child, was buried by his family… but keeps a beautiful smile in front of life.

Portrait of Joseph.

They reached Kakuma few years later. But in 1999 he escaped to Nairobi and became a street child. Until he was found by Sr Louis, a German nun working at JRS.

After the dead of the father, and following their tradition, the brothers of the husband have right to have the widow. Joseph’s uncles were staying in the camp with them, and were abusing his mother and his sister for years. Result of that, the mother got more children while in the camp.

“I had nothing on me. I was only wearing a t-shirt, nor even pants nor shoes.”

He was only 7/8 years by the time. Thinking that the trucks that were bringing the food rations to the camp were coming from South Sudan, he smuggled into one of them.

After three long days of traveling, hidden in the back part of the truck, he arrived to the destination. However, contrary to what he thought, it was not Juba, but Nairobi.

“I saw electricity for the first time in my life. I didn’t know where I was… It was full of big buildings, as the ones I had seen only in movies.”

“I saw this big glass, where I could see my reflection. It was like a big mirror. I had never seen something like this… back home we only had one mirror, small like this [makes a small circumference with his fingers, about 5cm].

I stood there for a long time, just watching at me. People exiting the building was looking at me and laughing.”

“A women came to me, saying something I could not understand. Now I guess she was asking where I was coming from… After a while, she left, and came back with some chips. I had never seen something like that before. She was showing me how to eat them. I understood nothing, until she started eating them. So then I ate.”

He became a street child.

“I did not know where to go. Every area was the territory of a different group of children. I just had to adapt”

Him and some other children used to collect cartons and bring to a lady who had a shop. She was giving them some shillings and some gatheri in exchange. That is how he managed to survive for few years. He was in the street until 2001.

One day he saw a group of South Sudanese, that drove him to Sister Louis, a german nun that used to work with JRS by the time.

“I wondered… who is this people? They look like me! So I followed them.”

Once the Sr saw him and realized he was a street kid, she gave him some clothes, shaved him (for the first time in more than 2 years!) and brought him to a boarding school. That is how he abandoned the streets and entered into formal education system.

He managed to continue his studies until finishing secondary education.

On the meantime, his family was still in Kakuma, not knowing where he was. Following the tradition, once someone goes missing, after a period of time the family has to do a burial with no body. So joseph’s family buried and moaned him.

Joseph and one of his friends watching a basketball match.

“They did a local prayer, welcoming back to life.” [he laughs]

Few years later, in 2005, his uncles went back to South Sudan due to the harsh living conditions in the camp. And they forcefully took his sister with them.

They where asking me for the Nuer. I just asked them ‘But what have Nuers done?’ so they hit me until I was nearly killed

The night after, while he was visiting another family members, the military returned to his home and killed his cousin. He had to ran away again to Kakuma, and then to Nairobi. Without any knowledge about his sister.

“Even if the Parliament is dissolved, the people in power will not be elected by the people. There will still be the old men in power. It is us, the young people, who needs to bring peace to the country.”

He points ethnic tensions and the corrupted power as the reason why there has been no peace in South Sudan.

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JRS East Africa

Jesuit Refugee Service, with the goal of accompanying, serving and advocating for forcefully displaced people in Ethiopia, South Suda, Uganda and Kenya.