In 2001, 15-year-old Sudanese refugee Gai Nyok arrived in the United States. In September 2015, he was preparing to represent his adopted land as a newly minted diplomat.
Nyok was one of 20,000 “Lost Boys” who fled the Sudanese civil war in the late 1980s. To escape the violence, he trekked through Ethiopia and Uganda before joining 100,000 other refugees in Kenya at a U.N. refugee camp.
In that camp, Nyok first met his first American diplomats. They treated him “with dignity, with respect,” Nyok recalls.
After a series of interviews with the U.N. and U.S. officials, Nyok was one of about 4,000 Lost Boys granted asylum in the U.S.
He lived with a foster family in Virginia and graduated early from secondary school with excellent grades. Nyok then earned a dual undergraduate degree in economics and international relations from Virginia Commonwealth University.
But adjusting to life in America wasn’t easy. Start with the language: Nyok spoke English but sometimes struggled to understand local accents, and people sometimes struggled with his.
There were other adjustments.
“In Sudan and East Africa, young people, when they speak to somebody of authority or someone who is an elder, people do not look at them in the eye,” he said. In America, it’s a sign of respect to look people in the eye, he said.
“But luckily, I had my American friends on the [secondary school] soccer team, so it did not take too long before I was completely or almost completely adjusted,” Nyok said.
Today, Nyok is learning Spanish as he prepares for his first State Department assignment — to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.
“I hope to be a good Foreign Service officer, to be able to do my job and serve my country in the best way that I can,” he said. “I hope to be able to inspire other young people, not just new Americans, but people who have been American for a long time.”