South Charlotte nonprofit helps man’s dreams
Lubo Mijak has known a hard life.
In 1987, he was 8 years old when he saw enemy tribesmen kill his parents and older brother. He was forced to flee from Southern Sudan for his safety, and in the following three months, he walked along the Nile River, hiding from the enemy tribe during the day and hungry lions at night. He has known starvation and watched friends killed.
He and others like him who survived are known internationally as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
But Mijak persevered, and the comfort, joy and support he missed growing up changed forever when Catholic Social Services brought him to Charlotte. In recent weeks, he experienced another miracle, when he and other Lost Boys traveled to Atlanta and Nashville to cast their votes for independence for his native land, Southern Sudan.
Mijak is determined to use his good fortune to help family, friends and others in Southern Sudan. He has a vision to create a school in his hometown of Nyarweng, so boys and girls will be educated and no child will experience what he has. He believes the fighting in Sudan is caused by lack of education, by not understanding diversity is richness. He believes education can break the cycle of violence between Muslim and Christian tribes.
With the help of Phillips Bragg, vice president of Bragg Financial Advisors in south Charlotte, Mijak founded a nonprofit, Mothering Across Continents, to raise $150,000 to build a four-room schoolhouse. The office for the registered nonprofit is in Ballantyne.
In December, in one of his first attempts to share his dream with the public, he attended the annual Christmas in Davidson celebration. He brought a sign challenging: “Can Davidson Build A School In Three Days?”
Mijak used Legos to represent a model of his Nyarweng school and asked for donations in exchange for adding Legos to the school. Kirby Bragg, 11, and his brother, Claud, 9, sons of Phillips Bragg, Mijak’s longtime mentor, was in charge of recruiting people passing by on Main Street to check out their stand.
In the end, Lake Norman-area residents raised $4,500 for Mijak’s future school.
The Lost Boys is that group of Sudanese boys orphaned when their parents were murdered in the Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted for 21 years and killed 2 million. The boys, in the tradition of the Dinka culture, were tending to the cattle, and were three hours away from their village when Muslim tribesmen killed everyone there.
Mijak and the survivors of his village had to walk to a United Nations refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia, surviving on leaves along the way. He lived in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for 11 years, where rations of corn, wheat and beans often “dropped from the sky” from United Nations airplanes.
Finally, the United Nations granted him refugee status and he learned he was coming to Charlotte. He remembers looking at a map of the United States, knowing nothing about his new city. Someone told him the weather is nice.
Catholic Social Services brought him to the Queen City in 2001, where he met refugees from many other nations and lived in an apartment off Central Avenue. He became quickly integrated to the community with the help of St. John Baptist Church, at 300 Hawthorne Lane.
And here began the hard life of the refugee. He first worked for TJ Maxx, loading trucks and stamping on prices. Driving was another complexity. The winters proved to be tougher than he thought. But the staff of Catholic Social Services and members of St. John Baptist helped, and through the church he met Bragg, who helped to build his dreams of education and giving back. Mijak kept his sights set upon one dream: education.
In 2007, after earning American citizenship and getting a passport, Mijak returned for his first visit to Sudan, a mission he had dreamed about for six long winters. In Sudan, he reunited with his family, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. He was struck most by his cousin’s daughter, a beautiful, physically-disabled child who was told to rise and walk to greet her uncle from America, which she did proudly on one leg.
“If only medical attention were available,” he said to himself, “she would not suffer like that.”
Mijak said he could not cure medically, but he could help their children in another way: He could teach. His vision was born that day, when the mothers of Nyarweng made him promise to be an ambassador for his country, to bring education and a school to them.
“America gave so much to me,” he said recently. “I don’t want to just sit back and say, ‘Well, someone helped me. I’m happy now.’ No, I want to continue to help others because it is my duty as others have helped me.”
Nowadays, Mijak travels with Bragg, lunching with different organizations to talk with interested philanthropists about his vision. The meal they serve is pinto beans and Dinka bread, as a reminder of the meals refugees eat every day in Ethiopia.
Mijak, with Bragg’s help, has raised more than $100,000 of the $150,000 he needs for his school. He stays busy, working for Bragg as a financial analyst part-time in the mornings, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; returning to his home in central Charlotte to eat quickly; and then working a full evening shift, from 3 to 11 p.m., at Presbyterian Hospital. There he sterilizes utensils and other equipment.
The 12-hour days help Mijak pay his college loan and also save for a dowry of 100 cows – the price of a Dinka bride – if he chooses to marry in Sudan.
Where does Mijak want to live someday? “I want to live where I can give back,” he said, “where I can make the most difference to people. I would like to go to law school and study international law, so that I can teach the people in my country of their own human rights. It feels so good to take care of people. … It is only your duty.”