Role Models & Heroes: Salva Dut (2017)

By January 31, 2017 November 19th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models

The following essay on Dale Chihuly was written by Jakob Shonbrun Siege, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.


        A role model is someone who exemplifies your values and beliefs and does so in an inspiring way. They reflect what you think it means to be a good person and they even influence you and how you live your life. My role model is Salva Dut, a “lost boy” displaced during the recent civil war in Sudan (now Sudan and South Sudan). His inspiring story, in which he walked thousands of miles to find safety, shows his strength, his bravery, and, above all, determination to achieve his goal.

        Salva Dut was at school when it happened: being a kid, he was sitting in class, bored. It was a normal day, and he was looking forward to going home and drinking a nice bowl of milk, which his mother gave him every day.

But that didn’t happen on this day. Salva’s daydreaming was interrupted by gunfire and bombs and replaced with fear and panic. His teacher screamed at the class to run into the bush, away from the village. He had no time to look for his family. He left them without even a goodbye. It was 1985. Salva was 11.

        Once the fighting stopped, Salva found himself in a small group of people from his village, but none were his family. The rebel soldiers that were with them told them to separate into two groups: men in one group and women and children in the other. Salva thought that even though he was young, he could be strong like the men, so he walked to join them. But as he did, a soldier told him to go back with the others, “You are not a man yet. Don’t be in such a hurry!” he said. But the next morning, Salva found that they had left him and he was alone. Here he was, just a boy, scared, alone, and faced with more responsibility than a kid should have. So maybe he really was a man, or at least becoming one.

        I may not be alone in Sudan or in the middle of a civil war, but I can learn from Salva’s situation. I, in theory, am starting my journey toward adulthood today, so I must take up new responsibilities. But I am still seen as a child in the modern world. I’m stuck between childhood and manhood, just like Salva. And what makes him my role model is how he handled that situation and grew from it.

        Salva kept facing disappointment on his journey. He joined another group hopeful that he would find members of his family, and eventually did find his uncle. They continued to walk east until they reached the Nile river. There Salva learned where they were headed: Ethiopia.

Now the group had to begin the hardest part of their journey: crossing the Akabo desert. Soon the blistering sun, the barren terrain, the constant hunger and thirst all wore Salva down. He was exhausted, and even breathing was painful.

One day it all almost became too much. Salva stubbed his toe and his toenail fell off, putting him in almost unbearable pain. He started to slow down. He didn’t think he could go any further. But then his uncle came up to him. His Uncle pointed at a bush and told him that all he needed to do was get to that bush and he would be done. That seemed easy enough, so Salva did it. When he got there, his uncle told him to walk to a clump of rocks a little bit ahead. Then to a tree, to more rocks, to an empty spot in the desert. And so Salva made it through that day, one step at a time.

        They got to the refugee camp in Itang, Ethiopia, in 1985. Salva decided he would get though life at the crowded, disease-ridden refugee camp by using what his uncle had taught him. He took it one day at a time. But no one told him he would have to do that 2,190 times, the equivalent of six years.

And after his six years in the refugee camp, in July, 1991, the government forced all the refugees out. And to get out, they had to cross the Gilo River with bullets raining down on them.

        Salva bravely dove in and began to swim and, as he did, a young boy grabbed onto his neck and pulled him down. Salva began to run out of air until finally the boy let go. When Salva looked back to see why, he saw the boy floating with his head down and a bullet hole in his neck. Salva realized that the boy had probably saved his life, but Salva had to keep moving, he couldn’t stop to think.

        When Salva got to the riverbank, he collapsed. He had made it, but he learned that at least a thousand people hadn’t. And once he collected himself, the walking began again. Salva realized that the only place to go was Kenya, where there were more refugee camps. So he decided that was where he would go. And 1,500 boys followed him.

Salva led the boys for a year and a half until they reached the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Many died or had to be left behind when they couldn’t continue, and the people who continued walking had needed something to keep them going. So Salva had told himself and many of the other boys just what his uncle told him, “One step at a time… one day at a time. Just today-just this day to get through…”

        After getting 1,200 boys to safety, Salva spent six more years in refugee camps. Hunger and sickness were constants at the camps but Salva found a way to stay healthy even though he couldn’t find a job to get extra food.  Then Salva learned that some boys at the camp were being chosen to go to America to live with American families. Salva checked the list of boys chosen for a life in America again and again, but his name was never on it. Then one day he saw his name: “Salva Dut – Rochester, New York.”

        Salva came to America and met his new family. After adapting to his new life, Salva earned a two-year associate’s degree. In 2002, Salva found out that his father was still alive, but very ill, at a U.N. clinic. He had never thought that he would see anyone from his family again, but that, to his luck, did not come true.

Salva went to visit his father and found that his illness was caused by a water-borne disease. When he returned to America, Salva decided he had to do something to help his father and the many others like him, who had to walk hundreds of miles to get medical care because of a lack of clean water available to him.  So, he founded a non-profit foundation called Water for South Sudan in 2003 to drill wells in villages desperate for clean water.

Today Salva still is a part of that organization and spends most of his time in South Sudan. He had to persevere through so much, and as soon as he got through it all, he decided to help others. He is selfless, determined, and kind, all values I hope and try to have. I feel he exemplifies the values I think are important and he shows that what you think is impossible can be accomplished with determination.

And I, for one, have learned a lot from him. I have learned about determination, and that in the future when I face a tough problem, I can take it one step at a time and see it through to the end. That works for almost anything, including this bar mitzvah! Salva did not quit, so neither did I.