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A call from Mom: After 15 years of separation, young Sudanese man hears her voice

A phone call at 2 in the morning jolted Simon Jok from his deep slumber. "Wake up. Wake up," his roommates shouted as he tried to shake the cobwebs from his head. "It's your mother." Simon, 18, cradled the phone to his ear. Al...

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A phone call at 2 in the morning jolted Simon Jok from his deep slumber.

"Wake up. Wake up," his roommates shouted as he tried to shake the cobwebs from his head. "It's your mother."

Simon, 18, cradled the phone to his ear. All he heard was his name repeated over and over. But the female voice touched something deep inside him.

"She had my voice," he says. "I knew it was her."

And so he summed up the last 15 years of his life: "Mom, I'm a strong man now. Anything is possible."

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Simon is one of 25,000 southern Sudanese children who fled their homes in 1987 because of fighting in Sudan's civil war.

Simon, who was 3 years old then, remembers crying when he was separated from his family after an attack.

He lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for four years. Then conflict forced him and the other boys to move back to Sudan and then again, this time south to Kenya.

Simon covered thousands of miles by foot and on the backs of older boys. He does not remember exactly where the journey began.

He moved to the United States in 2001. At first he was resettled in Vermont, but a cousin encouraged him to move to Fargo.

"My cousin was the one who told me how old I was. He told me where I was born. He remembered," Simon says.

For 15 years, he wondered what happened to the rest of his family.

While in Kenya, Simon met a U.S. citizen who was Sudanese. The man, Daniel Gau, who lived in San Diego, offered to search for the boys' families in Sudan.

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Since 2000, the man has returned to Africa twice a year armed with a list of names and a stack of photos. Last month he found Simon's mother.

"It's kind of unique," says Aguet Abraham, Simon's case manager at the Center for New Americans in Fargo. "That's never happened before."

None of the other young men who are in the center's unaccompanied refugee minor program has found family members yet, Abraham says.

Gau drove Simon's mom to Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. From there she called her son.

"The best present ever is to hear your voice," she told him when she reached him a month ago.

Simon doesn't remember what his mother looks like. Of his three older sisters, only one's face remains etched in his mind. He has three brothers who were born after his family was separated. His father, too, is alive but left the family to find cattle, the symbol of wealth for the Dinka tribe.

Simon carefully wrote down the names of his brothers and the names of his sisters' children. He's an uncle now.

"Mom, I'm now a strong man," he told his mother. "I am going to school. I can do anything to help you."

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He sent her some money from his part-time job at Wendy's. Someday he wants to bring her to the United States.

But he finally has an answer to a question that's haunted him for years: Why did his mother let him go?

"She said they couldn't protect me," Simon says. "If I left with the other boys, I might live or die. If I died, it was better that she didn't have to watch it."

After Christmas Simon's foster parent, who is a U.S. citizen from Sudan, will travel to Uganda. He will bring photos of Simon to show his mother. He will take photos of her to bring back to Simon.

"And we will see," Simon says, giddy with joy. "We will see that we belong together."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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