Q&A with Dau Jok

For College freshman Dau Jok, violence used to be a way of life. In his native Southern Sudan, it was the way conflicts were resolved.

After the brutal murder of his father, when Jok was just 6 years old, his first response was to pick up an AK-47 to avenge his father’s death. When Jok first arrived in the United States at age 11, it was how he wanted to react to the kids who teased him because his English was poor. And when he learned that his paternal grandfather was killed about a year ago after more violence in Southern Sudan, Jok got angry again.

But Jok never picked up a weapon to get revenge. Instead, he’s learned to be a man of peace—and is taking a message of hope back to Southern Sudan, back to the place where he was first exposed to war and violence like so many other children of conflict.

Last month, Jok, 18, was named Penn’s winner of the Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace award. The annual competition is open to college students across the country who design projects that contribute to peace around the world. The award comes with a $10,000 grant, which Jok will use to get a foundation he has created off the ground. Named for his father, the Dut Jok Youth Foundation aims to fight poverty and violence through sports and academics in post-conflict Southern Sudan and, eventually, sub-Saharan Africa and the world.

“Through sports, we teach things like teamwork, work ethic, all these things that make [a child] a better individual,” Jok says. “The goal is to have them compete academically, socially, economically versus the rest of the world, versus the rest of Africa… We’re coming in and saying, ‘There’s a community here. There’s a family outside your own family.’”

It’s a lofty goal, but Jok is hopeful.

“I am optimistic because I think I am blessed with some of the resources at my disposal, whether it be human connection, people willing to help or having the solid foundation of people supporting me,” he says. “I think motivation, passion, [is] contagious. … I have 1,000 reasons to smile rather than 100 reasons to be angry, so I have to keep that in perspective.”

I’m a voice for the kids who don’t have a voice."

Sports help adults reach young people on a personal level, Jok says. Sure, it would be nice to find the next Kobe Bryant among the youth of Southern Sudan, but that’s not the overarching goal of his foundation. Instead, it is about cultivating the region’s next generation by teaching them about character, respect and integrity. “There’s talent there, but my goal is not to nourish that [sports] talent,” says Jok. “My goal is to use sports to nourish the people they are.”

Q. How do you plan to use the $10,000 prize that comes with the award?
A. The main objective is to bring sports to Southern Sudan for kids and to build a secondary school. Sports is just a part of bringing the kids in, but starting a leadership program [is the overarching goal], where we teach the pillars of character—respect, responsibility, an HIV/AIDS prevention program, social issues, [prevention of] violence against women.
To be more specific, an afterschool program to get kids to come in and play sports for a hour-and-a-half or so and use 30 minutes to talk to them about different things in life, getting them to converse, getting them to feel comfortable about themselves. I feel sports are an integral part of development in the sense that they develop the proper ingredients that make the transition from childhood to adulthood a lot easier. ...
To me, without sports and without education, I wouldn’t be where I am. And without people who took chances on me, whether it was with their time, advice, resources, whatever, my family, all that—without that I wouldn’t be here. By doing the sports you’re providing another family for the kids.

Q. Do you have plans to go back to Southern Sudan this summer?
A. Originally I was going to see my family because [before] my grandfather died [about a year ago] I was supposed to go see him and I [didn’t go]. I couldn’t live with myself if I let that happen again with my grandmother. I’m going to be able to go there, see family. But one of the things I hope to do now is establish the foundation from the connections on the ground, so I know when I send stuff [to Southern Sudan], I know who it’s going to, when, where, all of that.
I would also like to do a basketball camp when I go. There’s a project now that’s trying to build 25 basketball courts by July and they want to have a national championship. … Now that somebody is [building courts], I can just focus on implementing the programs.
Q. And your foundation is named in memory of your father?
A. He was a big part of my family lineage and tribe, and after his passing things became difficult not only for us, but for people around us. For example, when he was alive our house was always packed with people, visitors, and people were optimistic. But after he died, there was this doomed feeling, hatred started kicking in a little bit. To me, honoring him that way, as a way to help people. … He would have been doing that if he was alive.
Part of it, I feel, is my obligation, and I would like to say I will spend the rest of my life doing it, because to me, that’s how I measure my success. If you change one kid’s life, you change 100 more, because of their family, the people around them. ...
I’m a voice for the kids who don’t have a voice. I’m a voice for a kid who doesn’t have a parent. I’m a voice for a kid who’s told he cannot do anything. I’m a voice for that kid who wants to turn to violence. I’m a voice for that kid who knows nothing but stealing, drugs and all that. I’m a voice for the kid who wants to go somewhere but has no opportunities.

Jok, a guard on Penn’s basketball team, knows that nourishing the person behind the player is a formula that works, because it worked for him.

When his mom brought Jok, his two brothers and sister to Des Moines, Iowa, in December of 2003, basketball wasn’t on his radar. In Southern Sudan, Jok and his friends played soccer, sometimes for eight hours a day using, instead of a ball, a balloon or hospital glove filled with air and wrapped with soft cloth and bandages. As an 11-year-old in Iowa, Jok says he remembers trying to play soccer in the snow, kicking the soccer ball into a basketball hoop. He was good at soccer, but he was teased for being so bad at basketball—so he decided to do something about it.

He joined the YMCA and spent up to seven hours there after school watching others play basketball, and teaching himself how to play.

“What I would do is watch people shoot, and I would imitate it,” says Jok. “Then the next person comes in, I would imitate that. I would shoot 1,000 shots or so in 100 different ways. So I started getting better, so to speak, and I was able to beat those kids.”

Chris Carson, a coach for the Maroon Athletic Club in West Des Moines, saw Jok play and put him on his team. Jok says Carson did his best to teach the novice the game. Then, in the summer of 2008, Jok got serious about basketball, attending Iowa Hall of Fame Coach Bill Fleming’s Point Guard Academy. There, players don’t just practice the game, but they also learn values and how to address sensitive issues off the court. After that, Jok concentrated on learning how to shoot more precisely, and began training and conditioning to improve his game. He also learned that basketball could help pay for college—a definite possibility in his case, considering that he maintained a 3.9 high school grade point average.

Jok’s path to Penn began when former basketball coaches Glen Miller and John Gallagher saw him play. As Jok remembers it, “They called me, said: ‘We’re from the University of Pennsylvania, you want to come?’”
“Ivy League?” Jok asked.

“Yes it is,” they replied.

“So I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m going,’” Jok recalls. “That was the whole point of coming to the U.S.—a better education, better life; there’s no better way than to get an Ivy League education.”

Q. Your mom moved you to Iowa at age 11. What was your life like once you came to this country? It must have been a real culture shock.
A. Well, my family was in the middle of the war, my father was a general in the army. He passed when I was little and then we moved with my uncle to another town, Rumbek, a much bigger town. We stayed there for about two years and then we migrated to Uganda. We lived in Mbarara, which is [in the] southwest of Uganda. Then we moved to Kampala. December 9th of ’03, we came to Iowa and were able to do that because my grandmother came in ‘98, ‘99 and she was able to find a sponsor—Saint Ambrose Cathedral in downtown Des Moines. They agreed to help [Sudanese refugees] out during their first three months [in the U.S.A] to get adjusted to the culture, whether it was grocery shopping, orientation, school, all these little things, housing. We were really blessed to have as our host, Sister Pat at the church and she’s been great. She does a lot of stuff for the Sudanese community in Des Moines.

Q. So what were your first impressions of Iowa?
A. The first day we touched down, it was snowing outside. We were driving to my grandma’s house and we rolled down the windows and tried to catch the snow and taste it. It was very cold. The first year was very hard for me from the standpoint that kids would constantly verbally abuse me [saying], ‘You can’t speak English’ and all this stuff. But the ironic thing about it is, most of them were Sudanese kids who came to the [United] States earlier. I had a hard time with that, because in Africa you solve everything with violence. In America, you can’t do that, and most of them [teasing me] were girls. I would stay up until 2 [or] 3 o’clock to study whatever books I had, especially English books, and soon I started adapting.
The hardest thing I had to deal with was anger management. I was so used to violence. But I met [a man named] Bruce Koepple, and he mentored me and he helped me transform from this kid who when somebody stares at him, confronts him, to my senior year [when] I was able to laugh at things. If people tell me an insult, I laugh at it—which was a big transformation for me. He really helped me understand what it is to be considerate of others. Through him, I understood the importance of putting others before you. My father exemplified that when I was younger. ...
My mother, she’s one of the strongest women because she managed to raise us in a male-dominated society. As hard as it is in America to raise kids as a single mom, imagine in a male-dominated society where men are the top of the hierarchy, whatever they say goes. A woman cannot stand for herself, a woman is not expected to raise kids by herself and be successful. By the grace of God, she was able to do that, but also with the help of her family—her sisters, her mom.

Jok remembers a particular moment when the stark difference between his life now and his childhood hit him particularly hard. The Penn basketball team was at an out-of-town tournament, and they stepped into the lobby of the fancy hotel where they’d be staying for the night. The lobby was so opulent, Jok says, it seemed like it was out of a movie.

“I look at myself and say, ‘My story is not unique.’ Sure, there are a lot of people who lost their parents. I’m lucky I still have my mom. There are people who lived through the war. There are people who came from the war playing college athletics. There are people who graduated from college despite going through all those atrocities. But I think the unique thing about it is, from where I was as a kid, when I look at that picture, to where I am now ... at an Ivy League institution, one of the best schools in the world, playing for one of the best programs in the world—you can’t beat that.”

Q. It sounds like you’ve had a really good first year at Penn.
A. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a pretty good year. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve met some incredible people. There’s always that bond with your teammates. What I really appreciate about it is, we all come from different backgrounds, from different perspectives, different upbringings. With this group, you learn a lot about each other. I think I could take a lot away from each individual to make myself a better individual. But above all else, I really enjoy our coaching staff, especially Coach [Jerome] Allen because of the people they are. … I have a lot of admiration for the way [Coach Allen] carries himself off the court, the foundation he has, the stuff he does for us as players as far as advice.
Coach Allen has a quotation that [paraphrased] is: ‘You will only be able to coach the kids if they know you care.’ I think the world is full of people passionate to help. But the missing part is, how do you show that you care about the kids enough so that they trust you to carry out whatever it is you want to do?

Dau Jok, College freshman