The Boy Who Carried Books: Part II
February 5, 2023
James Magok Achuli
Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Tali Payam, South Sudan
“I think in the middle of adversity you have to surround yourself with positivity. It could be surrounding yourself with the right people, and if you’re like me—someone who went through the horrors of war—then you have to be hopeful. But also like me, you have to endlessly fight for your goals.”
In the first part of this series, James shared his upbringing amidst violence and civil war in South Sudan. Next, learn how James used education to break free from years living in a refugee camp. We have respectfully borrowed the title of this story from James’ in-progress book, The Boy Who Carried Books.
“I’M ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO LOOKS FOR OPPORTUNITIES IN THE DARKEST MOMENTS,” says undergraduate student James Magok Achuli, a refugee and former child soldier from South Sudan. “I think in the middle of adversity you have to surround yourself with positivity. It could be surrounding yourself with the right people, and if you’re like me—someone who went through the horrors of war—then you have to be hopeful. But also like me, you have to endlessly fight for your goals, because it’s really important.”
Growing up, one of Achuli’s most steadfast goals was to get an education. From the time his father told him that if he “learned how to use the book and the pen, he would one day fly a helicopter in the air,” Achuli understood the power of education to change lives. During the three years he lived in a Ugandan refugee camp, Achuli was known as the boy who carried books, and was an advocate for those around him; he educated his peers in the camp about gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS, and the importance of peace and education. Knowing seven languages, he also acted as an English and Arabic interpreter.
“Back home, women would be sexually assaulted and beaten—beating women is on a different level there—and because people aren’t educated they don’t have the courage to speak up,” explains Achuli. “I couldn’t just watch someone harass a girl in a refugee camp and keep quiet about it. That’s one thing that education has helped me with; speaking up and thinking more critically about things. As Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.’”
To achieve his dream of a formal education, every day Achuli ran kilometres from the refugee camp to an internet café, where he searched for scholarships online. Then one day, he came across an article from the UN Refugee Agency about South Sudanese high school students who received scholarships to study around the world through United World Colleges (UWC). Achuli was mesmerized by the opportunity and spent a week learning about these colleges that had a shared mission of making education a force to unite people for a peaceful and sustainable future. When he applied and was invited for an interview in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, Achuli’s reaction “was crazy.”
“I was punching the air and screaming; I was really excited. I went for the interview and two days later I got a call from the head of the national committee, and he said, ‘Congratulations James, you’re going to Armenia on a full-ride scholarship for their baccalaureate program.’
“I couldn’t stop crying. I cried and cried and cried. It was a huge relief. From the articles I read, I knew my life was going to change forever. But I was also crying because I was going to leave a lot of people behind. The pain will not go away because I always think of them.”
In addition to leaving behind the friends he made in the refugee camp, Achuli was further separated from his parents, who did not have access to letters or emails in South Sudan. The last time Achuli physically saw his mother was in 2014; his father was sadly killed in 2015 by unknown armed men. To this day, he struggles with the hurdles of speaking with his mother from abroad; “I’ve been able to Zoom with my mother once in over five years. It’s been very hard.”
But Achuli gained a sense of family when he arrived at UWC Dilijan, his new school in Armenia and more than 200 students and staff lined up from the entrance gate to the kitchen to greet him. “They were clapping and said, ‘Welcome James!’ and I said, ‘How do you know my name?!?’ I felt like this was home; everyone was so happy to welcome me and were giving me hugs, which are new to me but were good. The cooks were waiting with cakes and muffins—something I never had in South Sudan or Uganda.”
Achuli flourished at school, and when it was time to explore post-secondary options, UBC was his first choice. His school nominated him for UBC’s Karen McKellin International Leader of Tomorrow Award, a full scholarship covering all program and living costs for undergraduates demonstrating superior academic achievement, leadership skills, involvement in student affairs and community service. Achuli competed against more than 1,500 students from across the globe before receiving the award and an acceptance letter to UBC Okanagan.
“It’s incredible. I love Canada, and UBC is one of the top universities in the world. I knew from my geography studies that BC is an incredibly beautiful province,” he says. “Coming to the Okanagan, it’s a smaller campus than Vancouver and it’s still growing, so maybe we will grow together. It’s such a close-knit community where you get to know people quicker.”
Since joining UBCO, Achuli has immersed himself in the university experience. In addition to joining the Afro-Caribbean Club and the Students’ Union, he is also a member of the Heat Cross Country Team, under the guidance of Olympian Malindi Elmore. “I’m a long-distance runner. From my life in the refugee camp, I was always running to search for scholarships online. I’m so thankful to my Heat teammates and coaches, who have been so kind and supportive.”
Currently a student in the International Relations program, Achuli hopes to one day work with children to help them realize their goals and needs. “No one should go through what I went through,” he says. “I can’t predict the future but through my education I want to help people displaced by war, whether they are refugees, immigrants or asylum seekers. These people aren’t criminals or villains, and they’re much more than victims. They are human beings just trying to survive.
“Helping them survive is very important to me.”