A lost boy, found

He is liv­ing proof that ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble, no mat­ter where you come from.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By MAR­I­ANA GREENE

JOHN Ajak, a Lost Boy of Su­dan now 32, has some­thing in com­mon with all gar­den­ers, de­spite the vast dif­fer­ences be­tween his past and the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans. Ajak calls his work tend­ing dis­play gar­dens at the Dal­las Ar­bore­tum his ther­apy. When I be­gan to talk to him about how gar­den­ing was my ther­apy, too, I quickly found my­self blub­ber­ing.

Was I boo-hoo­ing be­cause gar­den­ing, for me, is so con­nected to my late mother? Or be­cause I can no longer dig in the dirt, due to a back in­jury three years ago?

Maybe I was moved to tears be­cause, hav­ing read Ajak’s just-pub­lished mem­oir about the vi­cious civil war in what is now South Su­dan, I knew he was sep­a­rated from his mother for 25 years, each think­ing the other dead.

Ajak, as a boy of only seven, ran for his life for lit­er­ally 14 years, dodg­ing bul­lets and croc­o­diles, hob­bling on skinned feet, starv­ing and de­hy­drated, of­ten gulp­ing wa­ter thick with stag­na­tion and an­i­mal fae­ces.

Ajak’s smile is broad, bril­liant and gen­uine, a gift freely given to a stranger. Al­though he has earned two grad­u­ate de­grees since his 2001 re­set­tle­ment in the United States by Catholic Char­i­ties, he keeps his job at the Dal­las Ar­bore­tum.

He will tell you proudly that he is a gar­dener, some­thing like his late fa­ther, a farmer who grew cas­sava for food. The ar­bore­tum plants cas­sava, also known as tapi­oca, as a sum­mer or­na­men­tal.

He has earned ex­tra re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at this job of 12 years, both on pa­per and among his col­leagues. He has a knack for en­vi­sion­ing what a fairy­tale house made of pump­kins or a flower bed in the Jon­s­son Color Gar­den should look like in the end. When co-work­ers are stymied, they come to Ajak, say­ing, “You have magic hands. Make it work.”

There are many rea­sons Ajak calls the ar­bore­tum his ther­apy. There is the phys­i­cal beauty of the place; hun­dreds of thou­sands visit it an­nu­ally for that rea­son. That Ajak has a role in that beauty is salve for his in­ner wounds, which he kept locked in­side un­til he de­cided to write Un­speak­able: My Jour­ney As A Lost Boy Of Su­dan.

He loves to watch chil­dren at the ar­bore­tum tum­bling on the grass, squeal­ing at squir­rels, mar­vel­ling at the houses made of pump­kins and flow­ers. Happy, con­tent chil­dren re­mind him of his life be­fore civil war, be­fore he was hunted, be­fore the years of a refugee camp in Kenya, when his fa­ther was alive and fam­ily mat­tered more than any­thing else.

“I feel I be­long here. I feel I con­nect with the plants,” says Ajak, a more than 2m-tall man in like-new ath­letic shoes and an ar­bore­tum sweat­shirt. “I am do­ing some­thing to make the chil­dren happy. My heart is al­ways filled with joy.”

Pas­sage af­ter pas­sage in the self-pub­lished book de­scribes the boy Ajak’s days in the brush or jun­gle, dodg­ing bul­lets, hear­ing oth­ers’ screams of tor­ture, afraid to sleep for fear of be­ing eaten by a wild an­i­mal, and walk­ing, al­ways walk­ing, in search of safety. Even af­ter read­ing the words on the page, it is im­pos­si­ble to imagine what he and other chil­dren en­dured.

Ajak’s rea­son for writ­ing the book is to of­fer the pos­si­bil­ity of hope to oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly to chil­dren in Dal­las, in Texas, who are poor, hun­gry or alone. Can any­one re­fute his as­ser­tion that his life today is proof that ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble, no mat­ter where you come from, what you have suf­fered?

“If I would be able to reach any poor kid,” Ajak says, “I would be glad. I used to strug­gle not to talk about what I have seen. But love and suf­fer­ing have no bound­aries.”

Love is what Ajak fo­cuses on now. Al­though he is sep­a­rated from his fam­ily by con­ti­nents, he bud­gets 50% of his salary to pay for the ed­u­ca­tion of his seven younger sib­lings. The youngest of them he does not even know, yet

I am do­ing some­thing to make the chil­dren happy. My heart is al­ways filled with joy.

the fam­ily bond among Dinka tribes­men is that strong. Four fin­ished sec­ondary school, a fifth has a col­lege de­gree.

With the youngest about to fin­ish col­lege, one might think Ajak could fo­cus on his own life now. He would like to fall in love and be­come a fa­ther one day, but he does not feel fi­nan­cially ready.

“I have not looked yet,” he says, dim­pling. In­stead, the Su­danese-Amer­i­can will put any book prof­its (he’s plan­ning a se­quel) to­ward buy­ing school sup­plies for the chil­dren in the vil­lages wracked by civil war. School, al­most ev­ery­where, is a chalk board un­der a tree, with a vil­lage vol­un­teer as the teacher. There are no pens, pen­cils or pa­per – un­til Ajak gets to work on the prob­lem.

The love shown Ajak in his life, first by his par­ents, later by the ar­bore­tum and other Tex­ans, he says, com­pels him to give back what he can.

“Even though I have noth­ing to give,” he says, his eyes re­veal­ing lit­tle of what he has en­dured, “I give my heart.”

Like his knack for en­vi­sion­ing a fin­ished project, John Ajak also has a knack for a turn of phrase. It is not from book-learn­ing, but, again, my imag­i­na­tion fails to com­pre­hend this man.

He re­turns our con­ver­sa­tion to his daily joy, his job at the ar­bore­tum among the flow­ers.

“I’m a spring guy,” he says, men­tion­ing the tulips and daf­fodils that draw hun­dreds of thou­sands to the botan­i­cal gar­den ev­ery March and April.

“I see the fall, when the leaves fall, as the world is fall­ing apart. In spring, the world is re­cov­er­ing.” – The Dal­las Morn­ing News/ McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Big-hearted: John ajak, shown here out­side his cre­ation of the cin­derella-themed pump­kin vil­lage in the ar­bore­tum he works at, sends any money he makes from his best­selling mem­oir to his home­land, Su­dan, to help equip schools. — mcT

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