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An Education Beneath the Trees

Samuel Jok Awan Chiengkuach has found refuge in Canada. The 36-year-old has lived in Canada since 2000, after fleeing the continent of Africa and civil war, which displaced him and his family when he was only a young boy.

Chiengkuach was born in South Sudan. From his earliest days, he yearned to be educated, and learned lessons beneath large, billowing trees in his native country. “We were often interrupted when the blackboard was occasional[ly] blown away by a strong wind,” he tells the Class of 2016 at this year’s Algoma U at Brampton Convocation ceremony.

From Grades One – Three, Chiengkuach learned beneath the trees. However, his education was interrupted in 1983 when the Khartoum Government began carrying out aerial bombardment in the region, causing the eruption of the Second Sudanese Civil War, one of the longest civil wars in history.

Fearing for his life, Chiengkuach fled to a neighbouring Ethiopian refugee camp in 1987. But civil unrest followed him. “There were no facilities in term[s] of shelters, we had to build our grass-thatch houses ourselves. I lived with a large group of unaccompanied minors until 1991 when… Ethiopia went to war which also cut our studying short … and then we fled back to Pochalla town in South Sudan. We began to regroup ourselves and started education again in this Internal Displaced Refugee Camp (IDP).”

However, war erupted in Pochalla and the town was captured by the Khartoum Government, forcing Chiengkuach to a new town called Narus. The journey to Narus was more than a 400-kilometre walk.

In 1992, the war intensified and aerial bombardment was constant in Narus, forcing Chiengkuach to relocate to Kenya, where he began his Grade Five education.

Unable to cope with the constant danger, Chiengkuach finally left Africa for Canada.

“The amount of suffering for me and so many people was unthinkable and hard to explain, especially [because] war got many of us separated from our immediate families in our early age and so many lives [were] lost in just 21 years of conflict,” he recalls via e-mail.

On 9 January 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, known as the CPA, was signed. Years later, on 9 July 2011, Sudan split into two separate countries, North Sudan and South Sudan, ending the civil war.

Upon arriving in Canada, Chiengkauch looked to earn a professional education, different than the one he had become accustomed to. “I never had the opportunity to actually go to a regular classroom just like a normal child would in Canada. Learning under these difficult conditions, meant that students had to struggle to achieve academic results.”

Chiengkuach attended Humber College in Toronto to earn his Accounting Certificate and then later his Accounting Business Systems Diploma, before enrolling in university.

He first put his sights on a larger Southern Ontario university, but just days prior to the start of classes, Chiengkauch felt uneasy about the size of the university and his class schedule, which would interfere with his parental duties to his three children, Chiengkuach, Yom, and Aleer, and his wife, Viola. He instead enrolled at Algoma U at Brampton. He cites the “small classes, flexible schedule, and a small community of students, and above all the ‘Big Education’” as his reasons for choosing the smaller institution.

Within just two years’ time, Chiengkuach earned his Honours Bachelor of Business Administration degree with specialization in Accounting and Human Resources Management. He built solid relationships while studying and was characterized as being a “people’s person”, always offering help to others and helping build a solid community at the post-secondary institution. He was also given the honour of delivering the Convocation Address at his graduation in the fall of 2016.

Chiengkuach is currently employed with 3M Canada Head-Quarter in London, Ontario as a Vendor Payment Coordinator. He has worked as a Management Accountant, Community Accountant, and Chief Accountant with various employers in Ontario.

He encourages others to always seek further education and to never stop learning. “The challenges under these circumstances, which [I] learned, and unfortunately under which some children are still learning in our world today, has engrained in me a strong belief in the value of education. I value every opportunity to learn and this goes beyond [w]hat is obtained in a regular classroom setting, to seeking mentorship, as well as listening and sharing with everyone I associate with.”

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