On Saturday we leave for our big excursion to the Republic of South Sudan. We take a team of 16 other Canadians with us and there will be lots of challenges. My health will be an issue since it wasn’t too long ago that I came out of major surgery, but we trust it will hold up.
But this year one special traveller will be journeying with us and for him the next few weeks promise to take him through an emotional roller coaster. Our son, Ater, is 15, and this will be his first trip back to Sudan since he came to us six years ago. Then he was just a small boy who, with his sister Achan, had suffered through the loss of their mother and were orphaned at a young age. Their arrival in Canada proved to be a pivotal moment in their development and they have flourished beyond what we even imagined.
But always – always – Jane and I have known that he was a gift we were meant to nurture. We have seen enough travail in the world, some of it brutal, to know that adoption is but one of the great redemptive acts by which we help to heal the tragedy of a broken world. Deep down, it is the troubling acknowledgement that the world is indeed in need of recovery – and compassion.
This trip has come at a time when Ater’s world is full of possibility. He has a remarkable ability to work with those who suffer – far greater than mine – and yet he is trapped in the years of youth when he still has to work things out. Two weeks ago he started working at a McDonald’s near to us and life has been good.
What will he think now, as he returns to his ancestral home and revisits the pain he endured as a boy caring for his younger sister following the loss of their mother? He will see some remarkable changes due to the realities of a peace that has only recently come, and an altered landscape as a result of climate change. Villages are disappearing as the Sahara encroaches and the rains come weeks late, or not at all. It was a world he only knew instinctively – its threats, the endless search for food and water, death, love, the endless gnawing of living in a world on the edge of extremes. Shortly he will view it as an outsider, more objectively, and perhaps with a little alarm.
But inevitably, imperceptibly at first, emotions will come creeping back into his conscience. This was once his world – the depravity and horror of it, the devotion of a mother’s love, the courage of a remarkable people, the shuddering reality of relentless war, the ongoing responsibility of caring for a young sibling in a world with few resources.
He had been in Canada about six months when he suddenly started screaming in the night. What was it we wondered? We held and affirmed him, feeling totally incapable in the process. It was only later that he recounted to us of the nightmares he endured at the sight of seeing his mother shot in brutal fashion. He even remembered the colour of dress she was wearing and how blood suddenly soaked through it. Will those thoughts come flooding back? Will he seek to put such things away or embrace them in the relentless tug of the enduring love his mother once gave him? He lives because she scooped up her children and fled for safety in a war zone. Surely he comprehends what kind of bravery that would take, but will he seek to get to know her better through memory and the surroundings of his homeland?
He will be a rock star over there – the one who escaped to Canada and now even has an iPhone. He will be healthy and educated and his home community will marvel at the change. But he is still Sudanese and being back with his people once more will surely reintroduce realities to his young heart that might have lain dormant for a time. We can only pray this his two worlds can begin the process of reconciliation in his wonderful mind.
And what of Jane and me? Will we handle it well, being there when the questions inevitably arise? We can only hope so. As he helps us provide clean water, give goats and sheep to returning exiles and former slaves, and even helps make bricks for the secondary school we are constructing – the only one in the region – will he suddenly see himself in the massive needs of the people around him? If so, we must be there for him.
Jane will surely come to terms with the reality that this special boy grew in her heart the way he once grew in his Sudanese mother’s womb, and there will be a sense of wonder in that. And we will watch him together, reflecting on the words of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant:
“There,” she said. She rocked him back and forth. “There, you foolish, beautiful boy who wants to change the world. There, there. And who could keep from loving you? Who could keep from loving a boy so brave and true?”
Brave and true he is, but he is still a boy and he is about to see the world as it once was for him. Think of him, if you can. Pray for him even. For he will be a young man returning home who will hopefully understand he will never be alone again.