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Running toward education: A former child soldier’s path to UBC Okanagan student athlete

James Achuli’s journey from refugee and child soldier to university student and cross country athlete

A South Sudanese refugee who ran towards education after being taken as a child soldier is now a University of British Columbia student and athlete, and he is just getting started.

“Where I was born, if you don’t know how to run, you won’t make it,” said James Magok Achuli, who is now studying international relations at UBCO while running on the cross-country team.

At 13 years old, rebels stormed Achuli’s school in South Sudan killing his classmates. When the shooting subsided, the survivors were told “we’re taking you to safety,” but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Achuli said that he was taken to a rebel base where he trained to fight in the civil war with guns so big his small 13-year-old body could hardly lift them.

There, he quickly learned that his most valuable assets were not his legs, which he had relied on as a boy to run to get food and water as well as herd cattle with his Mundari tribe, but his brain. Achuli’s family prioritized education, which was not common within the Mundari community, who are traditionally farmers and cattle herders. As a boy, Achuli could already read, write, interpret maps and spoke several languages. His knowledge and intelligence were quickly recognized and Achuli became the rebel leader’s closest assistant and confidant.

While many of his friends died in the war, Achuli’s role kept him away from the bloody front lines.

One day, Achuli saw his opportunity to escape a life of war. He kept a go-bag packed with his precious books, a journal and his few possessions at all times, in hopes that one day he would have the opportunity to run away. On an otherwise normal day, the rebel leader asked Achuli to fetch him some cigarettes.

James Magok Achuli, a refugee now studying international relations at UBCO while running on the varsity cross-country team. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)
James Magok Achuli, a refugee now studying international relations at UBCO while running on the varsity cross-country team. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)

Out of sight, he ran

He ran far and fast with his book bag, crossing a raging river and eventually making it to a church. At the church, a group of people were preparing to make the dangerous trek from South Sudan to Uganda, where they could claim refugee status and hopefully find peace.

With the group of strangers and only his books for comfort, Achuli began the voyage through the jungle toward the possibility of safety.

He said that they would travel at night to avoid the patrolling rebel troops. During the day, Achuli and the other kids would sleep in trees, away from the scavenging hyenas that claimed a child in the group. There were many dangers on their journey, explained Achuli. He said that he was lucky to only be stung by scorpions as his friend died after being bitten by a venomous snake.

At one point, the group was ambushed by rebels. Without official documents and identification to prove their innocence, the group of refugees narrowly escaped capture and death by using Achuli’s detailed journals, kept in his book bag, to show that they were not involved in the war, they were simply escaping it.

The group travelled for approximately 500 kilometres through dense jungle before reaching Uganda.

“When I crossed the border, I remember going down on my knees and tears just pouring down… I don’t know if I was crying or laughing… I can’t describe it.”

After reaching the refugee camp, Achuli was taken in by UNICEF which has a program for vulnerable children.

While at the UNICEF camp, Achuli became known as the boy who carried books and acted as an interpreter and informal educator. He worked to break down gender-based barriers after witnessing the trauma of girls being married off at a young age and not having equal access to education. He has made it his mission to work as an activist and help those without a voice. Achuli continues the advocacy work to this day and hopes to help refugees and protect children’s rights around the world.

“Life (at the camp) was better than the one I had in South Sudan but I still had memories of what had happened, and I missed my parents and my family.”

It was there that for the first time in years, Achuli could wake up knowing he would eat that day instead of worrying about sustenance, which meant he could focus his energy on education.

“School was probably one of the best things that I enjoyed in the camp, I really loved reading.”

He excelled in academics, and spent his free time reading and writing in his journals and playing soccer with the other children.

The World Wide Web of opportunity

“At the end of my Grade 10, I had this friend who had an idea of what the internet was.”

His friend said that ‘the internet has a lot of opportunities and scholarships that you could apply for,’ and Achuli was determined to use the elusive internet as a tool to secure a better future.

Almost every day, Achuli would run to the closest computer in an internet cafe located 10 km from the refugee camp. There, the cafe owner helped him learn how to use a computer and search for opportunities to further his education.

In 2019, Achuli received an email that changed his life. Sitting in the usually quiet internet cafe, he read out the news that he had been awarded a full scholarship to attend the United World College (UWC) in Armenia. The cafe erupted into cheers. The cafe owner, who had helped him learn to use a computer, jumped up and down with him, knowing that this was Achuli’s ticket out of the refugee camp.

Cross-country Canada

He graduated with his diploma from UWC in 2021 and was then awarded the University of British Columbia’s Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow (KMILOT) scholarship to study at the UBCO, a place he had always dreamed of visiting.

Shortly after arriving in Kelowna, Achuli was exploring campus on foot when he was stopped by the UBCO cross country and track coach, and two-time Canadian Olympian Malindi Elmore. She noted his speed and asked him how far he had run before offering Achuli the opportunity to train with the team.

“Running is therapy for me,” said Achuli.

He now balances varsity athletics with a full course load in his bachelor’s degree. He is working towards a double major in International Relations and Political Science. Achuli is also writing a novel titled “The Boy Who Carried Books,” and plans to further his education with a masters in his quest to help defend the rights of vulnerable people around the world.

READ MORE: 1 million children refugees from South Sudan’s civil war


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Jacqueline Gelineau

About the Author: Jacqueline Gelineau

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