Salva Dut escaped civil war in Sudan by walking 1,000 miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He would spend a decade in refugee camps before coming to the U.S. at the age of 21. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

A Lost Boy of Sudan finally found his way to Riverside on Sept. 23 when Salva Dut visited Hauser Junior High and Ames Elementary School to fulfil a commitment made in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

During the 2019-20 school year, 12 fifth-graders in teacher Catherine Dykes advanced learning class at Ames School read the novel “A Long Walk to Water,” based on a harrowing 1,000-mile walk to a refugee camp in Ethiopia that an 11-year-old Dut made in 1985 to escape a civil war in Sudan.

One of the students in the Ames class, Sophie May, was so moved by the book that she suggested raising money for the foundation Dut founded, Water for South Sudan, which builds wells so villagers there can have a safe, reliable source of water.

May’s classmates raised $1,400, which qualified Ames School to be entered into a raffle to win a visit from Dut, who is now 47 years old. Ames was selected for the visit, but because of the COVID pandemic, Dut couldn’t visit Ames until this year. 

Those Ames fifth-graders are now eighth-graders at Hauser, so Dut visited both schools last week. He spoke at an assembly for all students at Hauser in the morning and addressed third- through fifth-graders at Ames in the afternoon. At each school he spoke for about 10 minutes and then answered questions.

Dut also had a smaller lunch visit with 11 of the 12 Hauser eighth-graders who raised the money when they were at Ames nearly three years ago. Unfortunately, May, who suggested the Ames fundraiser, was the only student not at the lunch because she was out of town with her family. For the other students, it was exciting and inspiring to meet Dut after having read about him and studied his work.

“It’s weird because you hear about him, you always hear about this great person and you see him and like you realize that he’s a human that went through all of this,” said Henry Hall, who was also a leader in the fundraising efforts. “He’s not some mythical figure. He’s just a person that went through this and his story. … Seeing him is really inspiring to me.”

Carly Romero had a similar reaction, saying that it initially seemed strange to actually see and talk to the person whose harrowing journey and work they had read about.

“At first it was so surreal and hard to believe that he was actually there, and it was super cool just to see him in person,” Romero said.

In addition to May, Hall and Romero the other former Ames students who read the book and helped raise money for the foundation are Nico Caputo, Chole Cochran, Aidan Douglas, Jake Dudzic, Eli Halliwel, Grace Stanley, Siri Streng, Ella Vacek and Liam Wallace.

“The book was really awesome,” Romero said.

Hall and Romero both said that in some ways Dut’s visit was more meaningful to them than it would have been if the visit had taken place when it was originally scheduled.

“I think it means more now because I understand more,” Hall said.

Dut thanked the 11 former Ames students for raising money to help out people in South Sudan, which is now an independent country.

The fundraising and learning about the Water for South Sudan Foundation taught them what it is was like to help others.

“It’s always important to give back to people who don’t have as much as you,” Romero said. “Here we’re all just super privileged, so it’s nice to just even give a little money to people who need it.” 

Dykes enjoyed finally meeting Dut.

“He has a really calm and inviting presence,” Dykes said.

During his presentations to students at Hauser and Ames, Dut gave a brief outline of his experiences and the work of the foundation that he formed years after he came to live in Rochester, New York when he was 21 after living for 10 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. 

Dut now splits his time between living in South Sudan, where he supervised the work of his foundation, and traveling around the United States raising money for the Rochester-based foundation.

He had been separated from his family when Sudanese soldiers attacked while he was in school in 1985. His teacher told Salva and his all-male classmates to run into the bush because it was too dangerous to return to their village. That was the start of his 1,000-mile walk, which took about three months.

“At 11 years old, running away from your family was not that easy,” Dut told the students. “It was very challenging.”

He didn’t see any members of his immediate family for nearly two decades. Dut didn’t reunite with his father, mother, sister and one brother until he was 28. Two of Dut’s brothers were killed in the civil war.

Dut told the Hauser and Ames students that they should be grateful for the material advantages that they enjoy, such as never having to worry about having something to eat.

“You guys being born in America, you are very lucky, and you should not take things for granted or waste your opportunities,” Dut said. 

Drawing upon his own experiences, Dut told the students to never lose hope or give up when things don’t go well or they face difficulties.

“Whatever happens in your life, please never give up, have hope, faith and perseverance and keep walking,” Dut said.