The first time Kuchlong Kuchlong saw snow, he thought it was salt. It was the winter of 2000 and the 13 year-old boy had just finished a long, multi-stop trip from a refugee camp in Kenya to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was one of the roughly 4,000 Sudanese boys accepted into the United States at the height of the Second Sudanese Civil War, which raged from 1983 to 2005 and killed more than 2 million civilians.
The program was halted after 9/11, leaving another 10-15,000 boys in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The “Lost Boys of Sudan,” as they were known, had trekked a thousand miles from their homes in southern Sudan to escape the war—through deserts and across the croc-infested White Nile, while northern troops shot and enslaved them—only to languish for years at the refugee camp. They waited for the war to end, or for the lucky ones like Kuchlong, to be whisked away by an alliance of Christian groups and United Nations employees to a better life in the United States.
Kuchlong arrived in Sioux Falls with his brother, 17, and his older cousin, 30, and moved into an apartment provided by social services. He went to school, learned English, and made friends with an assortment of immigrants and refugees from his ESL class. It was a far cry from his childhood along the banks of the Nile, in the southern Sudanese town of Kapoeta, where he tended his family’s cattle with all of the other little boys, jumping in the water to wash away the dust as the sun set. In Sioux Falls, one washed with water that fell from above.
“The shower was the crazy one to figure out,” Kuchlong said. “I turned the water on and it came out, but then my brother told me to push the button. I did and then jumped right out. I’d never taken a shower with the water coming down like that before.”
There were other things. The alarm clock that wouldn’t turn off and the fridge; getting up early to go to school and living through the cold winter. A documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us,” describes the lives of several other Lost Boys who made it to the US, to places like Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Many of them suffered from something akin to “ambiguous loss,” a feeling that comes when one has lost a loved one without closure. American society is less communal, less friendly. Shopkeepers feared groups of tall, laughing Sudanese who traveled together to do everything. Working three jobs kept the Lost Boys so busy they could not spend time with their friends, they couldn’t joke and tell stories, commiserate or even just live. America meant working every day just to get by, and sending whatever extra they had back to the refugee camps to sustain family members still waiting for their golden ticket.
Kuchlong arrived as a young boy, so much of the trauma felt by the adults passed over his head. He learned English quickly, made friends, and in Sioux Falls he quickly was introduced to MMA.
“I first got into martial arts through a video game, Tekken, because of the guys like Martial Law and Bruce Irvin,” Kuchlong said. “It looked like some moves I could do, so when a show came to Sioux Falls and my friend Ben Nguyen was fighting, I was like, sweet, let’s check it out.”
He joined the local Next Edge Academy and began training Thai Boxing and BJJ when he was 20. He had his first fight within a year and won it. After that Kuchlong was hooked. He’s been fighting on and off for the last nine years, recently moving to Minneapolis to train at the MMA Academy with Greg Nelson, the same guy who trained UFC champions Sean Sherk and Brock Lesnar. His next fight is in February on the Legacy FC 51 card in Hinkley, Minnesota against Nate Togbah Richardson.
“Martial arts gives me something to focus on, it never really stops teaching me new things,” he said. “I’m not that interested in anything else, marriage or a job or whatever, I just train everyday and work enough to pay my rent while I train. That’s it. It’s just all martial arts right now.”
Things might change if they ever stop fighting in the Sudan. That area of East Africa has been in conflict for centuries: it’s where the Sahara meets the much wetter inland savannah, where Muslim-Arabic speaking expansionists meet Black African Christian cattle herders. There’s oil and gold between the two, and before they were fighting over that, the two cultures fought over land, dominance, and whatever it is people fight over.
The peace accord between the north and the south, signed in 2005, led to independence for southern Sudan and a series of job and oil-revenue sharing agreements which slowly unraveled in the decade that followed. The Republic of South Sudan, where Kuchlong and his parents are from, remained free from Sharia but unfortunately not from civil war. The two dominant tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, are fighting over who rules the country. Massacres are routine again and no one can go back yet. Most of Kuchlong’s surviving family is in the US or Canada now, scattered across the Dakotas mostly. He has one sister in Uganda and his father died years ago in the fighting. But if the chance ever popped up, he’d head back in a hurry.
“I want to go back, I really do. I miss the land and I know I can do some good there,” Kuchlong said. “Everyone there just knows how to pick up a gun and kill, they don’t know any other way to solve their problems. I don’t even know what they want. If I could go back, I’d open up an MMA school there—lots of big, strong guys in the Sudan, I’m telling you—and teach people there a new way. I think it would work well. But no going back until the war ends, that’s for sure.”
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