As told to Susan McClelland
When I was seven years old, the army came to my house and captured my father. We lived in southern Sudan in an area called Bor County. My father was a chief. The Sudanese army forces asked my dad: “Why are people against the government?” My father replied: “I don’t know. You should ask them.” They raped my 16-year-old sister in front of us all and then tortured and killed my father. The last words my father said to my mother were: “Don’t take the girls out of school.” There were 10 of us children — five boys and five girls. And she honoured my father’s last wishes.
I grew up bitter. When I was about 17, my father came to me in a dream. He said: “Do you know who killed me?” I replied, “No father. I wish I did, for I would like to kill them with my bare hands.” In the dream, my father looked at me with kind, gentle eyes. “Since you don’t know these people, why are you killing yourself with hatred? Why don’t you forgive? If you don’t, you’ve let them win.”
Slowly I began to grow less fearful and more confident in who I was and what I could achieve.
I received a scholarship to study medicine in Egypt. I met my future husband, Steve, also from southern Sudan, there. After finishing my medical degree, I returned to Sudan, first working in the capital city, Khartoum, and then at a clinic in the south. I was one month pregnant in 1985 when a man wanted by the army became a patient at the clinic. Soldiers came to the front door. “We know you have this man inside,” they said. “Give him to us.”
I told the soldiers: “No matter how good or bad this man is, he is my patient. I am obligated to treat him.” I eventually let the patient slip out the back door. The soldiers were mad, but because I was a doctor, they needed permission to take me prisoner. They left, but one man returned and warned me to run.
I wasn’t afraid of the army killing me. But in prison, I would be raped repeatedly, and forced to abort my baby. I said goodbye to no one. I left through the same back door of the clinic as the patient, and walked for two months to the Kenyan border.
I made my way to Greece where Steve was now studying medicine on a scholarship. I had my son, John*, in Athens. I worked there for many years as a night-shift doctor in a retirement home.
When my son was nine, I went to renew my work permit. I had overstayed it and Greece was going to send us back to Sudan. Someone from the United Nations told me to go to Canada with my son and apply as a refugee on humanitarian grounds. My husband would follow later. We arrived in Toronto on June 24, 1995.
Life in Toronto was very difficult. When I was told I had to come up with thousands of dollars just to pay for the exam to requalify as a doctor, I cried. I had lost my country, my home, my culture, my husband and now my identity. I did whatever I could, including cleaning toilets, to survive.
Because I could not find a good job here, I could not sponsor Steve who couldn’t find work as a doctor in Europe, at least not full-time, because of his refugee status. We had very little money, but in 2001 I saved enough for John, then 14, to see his dad. A year later, Steve died of a heart attack.
One day when John was a teenager, I told him a story about my father. In Sudan, we ate outside and anyone who wanted to join, joined. I was about six, and my dad motioned for this man who had open sores to sit with us. I got up and left. My dad asked me later why. I replied: “How can you eat with this man? He’s sick.” My dad was cross. “Who are you to say he is not a good person? I’m ashamed of you,” he said. “You will never look down on anybody again.”
I have tried to instill these same values in my son and encouraged him to do his best at school. “One day Sudan will need you,” I would tell him. John received a basketball scholarship last year to the University of Florida. He’s studying science.
I co-founded CASTS — Canadians Against Slavery and Torture in the Sudan (geocities.com/castsudan) — in 2000. If I can save one child through my work with CASTS, I feel I have made a difference.
I am still not working as a doctor in Canada, but I go on missions with various non-governmental organizations to Africa as a volunteer. I hope in my lifetime, I can take my son back to a peaceful Sudan and help rebuild my country.
* name has been changed
“My son is scared when I go public, scared when I return to Sudan that I might be killed. He calls me Mother World and, when he was younger, he felt jealous. He wanted me all to himself. Now he understands that I want to protect all children and need to speak for all children.” - Dr. Acol Dor