By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

VILLANOVA – As the vigil for peace neared its end, several hundred students sitting in St. Thomas of Villanova Church were asked to do three things:

1. Get out their cell phones and call the White House (the students had a slip of paper with the phone number) to leave messages for President Obama, asking him to continue to work for a peaceful solution in Sudan.

2. Light the candles they were given upon entering the church.

3. Recite a prayer for peace in Sudan as part of the “101 Days of Prayer” movement launched on the International Day of Peace, Sept. 21, in Juba, the capital city of southern Sudan.

With the lights dimmed, the glow of the candles symbolized the solidarity that the standing students pledged with the people of Sudan. The students heard several speakers, including three of the approximately 30,000 “lost boys” of Sudan: Malual DengDuot, Peter Chol and Garang Kwach. {{more}}

Following two decades of civil war between the North and the South, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005. It granted southern Sudan an autonomous regional government and a referendum in which voters will choose between continued unity with the North, or secession after a six-year interim period. That period ends with the referendum on Jan. 9, 2011.

The purpose of the Dec. 7 vigil, sponsored by the Catholic Relief Services Ambassadors’ program, was to bring awareness to the crucial day of voting. The Obama administration has been engaged in diplomatic talks with Sudanese leaders in preparation of the vote.

Tim Horner, a professor of humanities at Villanova who is the advisor for the Center for Peace and Justice, spoke about the necessity of the vote being peaceful and fair.

“We’re not here to cheer for one side or the other,” he said. “This is not about religion, it is about what is best for the Sudanese people. We stand in solidarity with the entire country; we want the future to be worked out without violence.”

Barbara E. Wall, vice president for mission and ministry at Villanova, spoke about the responsibility everyone has to each other.

“We are called to learn about the people of the world,” she said. “We live in a very broken world, and that is not the way society should be. We in the United States live a privileged lifestyle. People around the world would die for what we have. We have the opportunity to share what we have. We are called to do this.”

Wall said the situation in Sudan is one of human dignity. She asked the students to pray that the referendum be held without violence, and “to actually do something for their cause.”

Maureen McCullough, the regional director for Catholic Relief Services, said the students’ advocacy “gives the people of Sudan hope.” She challenged the students to be “a voice for peace.”

DengDuot was one of the final speakers. At the age of 18, he escaped from Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War. As one of the displaced “lost boys” of Sudan, he wandered through Africa as a young boy after his village of Wangulei became entangled in war.

According to an article in the May 20, 2006 edition of the New York Times, DengDuot “spent nine years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where he learned to read, write and speak English.” The article reported his graduation from Wagner College on Staten Island with a degree in international affairs.

Before the vigil for peace, DengDuot spoke of his concern for Sudan and the referendum.

“My goal is to raise awareness of what is going on in Sudan,” he said. “We have two choices – we can stay in peace or return to war. The peace that was signed has been very important for all of us.”

DengDuot is now 28 and lives in Bensalem with his wife Martha and their two daughters, Agau, 3, and Kuir, 6 months. He also attends graduate school at Villanova. When he returned to southern Sudan in 2008 he found improvement in the living conditions, particularly in his village of Wangulei. “People were enjoying peace,” he said. “When I left (in 2000) there was only one house. Now there is a road. They are drinking clean water.”

It is estimated that 2 million people have died and another 4.5 million have been driven from Sudan during the war. The North is Muslim and the South is Christian. Fifteen percent of the 37 million people in Sudan are Catholic.

The conflict, however, is over resources. “Oil in the South,” DengDuot said.

To that point, military from both sides have closed in on the border in anticipation of the Jan. 9 vote. “My father was one of the 2 million killed,” DengDuot said. “I don’t want to see another boy suffering the way I did. I don’t want to see people with one arm or one leg.”

He wants to see the referendum conducted freely with observers from outside countries, including the United States, and the United Nations. “The two militaries are only 15 miles apart,” he said. “If the U.N. puts troops between them, there is a way to prevent war.”

In addition to the vigil, STAND, a student-led spanision of the Anti-Genocide Coalition, and other campus organizations and members of the Villanova community are “advocating, educating and raising consciousness for peace and stability in Sudan.”

On Jan. 9, DengDuot and other local “lost boys” will travel to Washington, D.C., to vote. There are six locations in the United States where Sudanese nationals can vote.

DengDuot, who will graduate from Villanova with a master’s degree in May, hopes to return to Sudan.

“I see myself in Sudan,” he said. “In my life I have been helped by other people. I need to speak up for people. I need to pay back this help for the Sudanese.”

Jim Gauger is a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside, and a freelance writer.