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For Canadians From South Sudan, War Is A Constant Presence

The world's newest country is once again facing conflict and drought that are producing a new generation of internally displaced people and refugees.

07/25/2017 16:41 EDT | Updated 07/25/2017 17:04 EDT
Philip Gai
Philip Gai holds a South Sudanese flag in January, 2011 after the referendum vote to become a separate state from Sudan.

Recently, South Sudan marked six years since its Independence on July 9 of 2011. There were no celebrations. No fireworks, no state dinners, no picnics with family.

For those of us in Canada, not marking the date of your country's birth seems unthinkable. Our own government has celebrated its 150th birthday for an entire year.

But in South Sudan, there was little to celebrate this month. The world's newest country is once again facing conflict and drought that are producing a new generation of internally displaced people and refugees.

Sometimes it can feel like these conflicts are a world away -- or an ocean and the entire continent of Africa away, to be precise. But for many Canadians, the reality of South Sudan is a daily presence. Philip is one of those Canadians. This is his story, in his own words.

A Refugee Story

I came to Canada in 2000 as a refugee. I went to Kitchener, Waterloo, stayed there for a few months, then came to Toronto and looked for a job.

Coming to this country as a refugee hasn't been easy. You are in a new country, you have to learn a new language, look for new friends, and look for a job that is suitable for you. I went to college and obtained a community service diploma so I was able to work, and in 2003 my family joined me.

When I left my country and my family in 1998 because of war and persecution, my son was eight months old. When he came to Canada in 2003 he was six years old.

I went to Pearson airport to pick them up, and I was calling him, "Andrew, come, I'm your dad," and he was standing there looking at me. I went to him and hugged him but he was in a state of shock. He didn't know me. Then he asked, "Why did you leave us?"

That is what many South Sudanese women, children and elderly people are facing today.

This is a photo of my family now.

Philip Gai

My wife Rachel, my son Andrew, who is 21 years old, my daughter Nyalieb, 14, David, 12, Jacob, nine, and Nyamal, six.

Nyalieb was the first one to be born in Canada. Her name means waiting, or patient. We named her patient, because my wife and I had waited for each other for almost six years. When we were reunited again, God gave us this daughter.

I think one thing that most people do not understand is life in a refugee camp. There's no light, there's no electricity. It's just dust. Life is measured by the cup of beans they give you to live on for two or three weeks. There is no school. You are living in constant stress.

So when you come to Canada, you are bringing with you all these stresses. If you don't have a mechanism to deal with it, the stress will still be there. But if you have support, people who will talk to you, that would help.

Refugee Homecoming

I am blessed because I was able to go back and see my family in 2012, when a group of us visited from Canada and the United States for a peace-building mission.

Philip Gai

Here I am with my father, Pastor Moses. When he saw me after I had been away for 17 years, the first thing he asked me to do was to kneel down. I knelt down, and he put his hand on my head, and he blessed me. He told me to stand again and hugged me. To feel my father's touch after 17 years was powerful.

Philip Gai

Then I went around my hometown, shaking people's hands, people who I had left almost 20 years ago. It was a great time.

Philip Gai

This is another photo from the trip. Our group was assigned this Canadian peacekeeper to keep us safe during the journey, as there was still intermittent violence. Here, he's handing out little Canadian flags. My brother Teny can be seen in the white short-sleeve shirt behind the little boy.

Philip Gai

I was also able to meet my other brother, Dr. Peter Nahial, during the trip, pictured above in the dark red shirt. In 2013, he was executed because of his ethnicity.

In our family, there were eight siblings. Now there are only four of us.

This year, my wife lost her sister to the conflict.

Many people who come to this country are facing this as they help those who did not have the opportunity back home. The South Sudanese who are here may still take care of their cousins who are in a refugee camp in Kenya, their mother who is in Khartoum, their brothers who are in Uganda.

So every month they have to provide for them, otherwise their family could die. You may have a good life, but mentally, you are constantly thinking about their safety.

How Canadians can help

Canadians are generous. They really stand up for people. When you need help, they lend a hand.

There are many ways that Canadians can welcome their refugee or new immigrant neighbours. If you see a neighbour who is a newcomer, say hello to them. Ask them if they need any help.

Try to figure out where people congregate. Invite them to your functions so they can learn from your culture, and go and learn from them. Let your kids play with their kids. That way there will be mutual understanding, two-way communication.

One example is a gentleman from my church. One day, he took all of us (immigrants) from the church to his house. We were really pleased.

Holding out for peace

I've been here now for 15 years and I am a Canadian citizen. But I still miss South Sudan.

I miss Malakal, my hometown.

I miss my good friends, who are not here with us today.

I miss my parents, who are now running between countries.

Philip Gai

I miss cousins and friends. In this photo, I'm with my youngest brother and one of our cousins in the city of Khartoum.

I miss my brother who is in a refugee camp in Juba.

I miss all these things, but the question is, do I have hope? Yes, I do. We love South Sudan, even though we are at war now. One day, peace will come.

For more information on how Canadians can help people in South Sudan who have been forced from their homes, visit World Vision's Raw Hope page.

Philip Gai

Philip and his wife Rachel, who wears a dress bearing the seal of South Sudan.

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