Refugee finds his home in Garden City
By Myra Holmes
Akoon Kenyang was only six years old when he fled his home in South Sudan to escape civil war. He was one of some 20,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” who embarked on a treacherous journey in the late 1980s and one of about 4,000 who eventually came to the U.S. as refugees.
Once lost, Kenyang is now found in Christ and has a new home at Garden Valley Church (GVC), Garden City, Kan.
An unthinkable journey
Kenyang’s journey, like that of many refugees, is like something out of a nightmare. He was tending the family’s cattle when shooting started in his village. He and other children began a three-month journey on foot, fleeing Muslim forces from North Sudan across borders to Ethiopia, back into Sudan, then to Kenya. He talks of wondering where his next meal would come from and of not knowing whether his parents were alive.
At one point, he and a crowd of displaced children were crossing a river to escape rebel gunfire. Because many of the children could not swim, they strung a rope across the river to aid in the crossing. But the rope broke under the weight of so many desperate children, and many drowned. Many, many others were shot. Kenyang could swim; he survived.
A childhood that should’ve been filled with innocence was spent in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. In 2000, he was one of the first of the Lost Boys brought to the United States. “We were coming to America to have hope over here,” he says. “We don’t know what place we are going; we just know we are coming to America.”
His first stop was in New York City. From there, he was placed in Richmond, Va. But when he lost his job there, he went to Amarillo, Texas, then in 2010, he followed the advice of friends to Garden City. “I don’t know if Garden City has a job,” he says. “I saw a quiet place and nice people.”
Those “nice people” helped him get a job at the Tyson meat packing plant. He found Garden City so agreeable that he spread the word among his friends, and some of them came to Garden City, too.
Thanks to community, lost are found
The trauma that refugees experience often leaves deep scars and sometimes leads to poor choices. In Kenyang’s case, his choices landed him in jail. His wife left him, and he lost custody of his three children. When he was released from jail, he had to start over–again. “I was so mad,” he says.
At this low point in his life, an acquaintance advised him to go to church, but he was resistant. “Where I come from I don’t believe in God,” Kenyang says. “I just believe when I’m going to get up tomorrow and where I’m going to get food. That’s the thing I focus on.”
But his friend persisted: “You need to call this guy—his name is Steve. He can help you.”
Finally, he called Steve Ensz, pastor of GVC, to ask for a ride to church. Kenyang felt welcomed at GVC: “So I said, ‘Let me keep coming!’” And he brought friends.
“Before we knew it, there were three or four Sudanese attending,” Ensz says.
As Ensz got to know the men and visited with them in their apartment, he was humbled to see they had only three mostly-broken chairs, no beds, no furniture. He wanted to help, so he asked what they needed. One responded, “You need to keep talking to Akoon.”
“I was humbled at that point,” Ensz says. “It wasn’t so much tables and chairs they needed; they needed community.”
Kenyang’s understanding of the gospel grew as he got to know people from the GVC congregation. People like Jonathan Lightner, who makes an intentional effort to visit with Kenyang and the other Lost Boys. GVC attendee Matt McCallister gave Kenyang an audio Bible so that he could listen to Scripture while he worked. When his coworkers teased him about listening to music so often, he told them, “It’s the Word of God.”
Ensz and others at GVC have recently been able to get an audio Bible in the Sudanese Dinka Rek dialect, so that Kenyang can also listen to Scripture in his own language.
Because of the love the GVC congregation showed him and because of the power of the Word of God, Kenyang made a commitment to Christ. He was baptized at GVC on Easter Sunday 2014.
“I believe in God now,” he says.
Ensz says that, although Kenyang’s story is far from over, he is making better decisions and working toward a better life. He has regained custody of his children and is learning what it means to be a single parent of three.
And Ensz sees a new joy in Kenyang through it all: “I can see a change.”
After so many “rough” years of survival and fear, he is beginning to feel safe in Christ’s love. “Jesus right now is showing me the way. If I believe in God, nothing can happen to me. He can protect me wherever I am going. That’s the best thing in my life, changing me.”
While helping refugees is not a formal ministry of the church, there is a growing awarenes at Garden Valley Church of the importance of being aware of and serving the refugees that have come to their community.
Akoon Kenyang, Peter Malual, Joseph Wani and Ajok Aruei, former "Lost Boys of Sudan" who now live in Garden City, Kan., have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing refugees.