Sudanese refugee helps to provide wells in his homeland

April 23, 2007

Salva Dut, tall, slender, son of a Dinka cattle herdsman, has a smile that will light up any room. History calls him, and thousands of other children who fled Sudan, Lost Boys.

At age 11, Dut, with other children, fled from his school into the bush through gunfire and jet-bomb blasts. As he ran, each day he was in danger of being conscripted by rebel armies or killed by militiamen from the north.

Although many children died trying to escape, Dut survived the trek across hundreds of miles of desert. His uncle was executed by bandits from a rival tribe. Another friend was devoured by a lion while they slept. An ambush killed 200 children in his group. Finally, those who remained settled at an Ethiopian refugee camp.

Forced by Ethiopian soldiers to flee the refugee settlement in 1991, thousands fled across the crocodile-infested Gilo River to Kenya. After another five years in refugee camps, Dut came to the United States under sponsorship of St. Paul's Church in Rochester, New York, whose parishioners are involved in refugee resettlement.

At Christmas five years ago, the parish helped him travel to Africa to visit his sick father, who he had not seen in 19 years. At the United Nations hospital there, doctors said that if his father was to live, he must have clean water to drink. Unfortunately, there was none in the village where he lived.

When Dut returned to Rochester, he himself was sick and 10 pounds lighter. He first thought it was from eating peanuts, but believes now it could have been the water. The trip opened his eyes to the plight of his people.

"I wish I could do something to help my father and my friends," he said at the time.

Providing community wells

He spoke with the right people. St. Paul's already had a strong relationship with the Sudanese community in Rochester and a personal relationship with Dut. The parish had helped to fund a school and a bore hole for ground water extraction in Sudan. Parishioners had traveled there and had seen the living conditions first-hand. They were eager to find a way to help.

As a result, Water for Sudan was born. The name was registered, a board formed, a business plan developed and the job of fundraising began. St. Paul's provided a generous amount of seed money over several years. A partnership with the Rotary Club developed a matching-funds project. Dut spoke at high school assemblies, church forums and other organizations to raise money.

Churches in California, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia and New Hampshire joined the project. One elementary school raised $500 from bottle redemptions.

In 2005, Dut and St. Paul's parishioner Jim Blake traveled to Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. They opened a bank account and gathered workers and contractors. They contracted for seven completed wells at $10,000 per well.

Then they returned home to continue raising funds. When they returned to Africa, it was with a drilling rig, which reduced the cost of a well to between $5,000 and $8,000. It also meant the project was less dependent on a contractor's schedule. Today, all seven wells, some of them 300 feet deep, are completed.

Salva trained the villagers to maintain the wells and established three committees. The first is responsible for keeping animals away and testing the water for contamination. A second goes to each household to ask members to contribute crops or an animal to pay the people who maintain the well. The third is the conflict-management committee -- a common issue is that a household cannot contribute to the cost of the well. Since a peace accord was signed in southern Sudan and fighting has died, Water for Sudan operates with some degree of safety.

Salva Dut is in Sudan drilling wells during the dry season. He is expected to return to the United States in June. To invite him to speak to your group or church, go to http://www.waterforsudan.org.