, Salem, MA

December 12, 2013

A reunion in Africa

Native of war-ravaged South Sudan sees sister after 30 years

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — DANVERS — Anyang Bior went to visit his sister this past October. It was no ordinary visit, as a bloody war had kept them apart for 30 years.

A native of South Sudan, Bior was 14 and attending school in 1983 when Arab Muslims from North Sudan attacked.

“It was a racial thing, a religious issue,” he says. “They wanted to control the country and for the country to be an Arab country. That’s why the war broke out. ... They wanted to kill every Christian.”

Modern aircraft dropped bombs on simple villages and homes of mud and grass. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Bior’s father, a farmer, and his brothers were killed in the clash.

“You don’t know what you’re going to do,” he says. “You run for your life.” For him, it was the beginning of a remarkable odyssey.

Ironically, Bior ran north to the capital of Khartoum where his uncle, a Christian, too, still had a position on the City Council.

“My uncle also was in a tough situation,” he says.

By 1992, Bior had learned of his father’s death but knew little of the fate of his siblings. And it became impossible to stay in Khartoum, as the government had taken note of him.

“They wanted to put me in the army to fight against my family,” he says.

Thus, his efforts to survive now took him farther from home. Bribes helped get him into Egypt where he lived with fellow Dinka tribesmen and studied accounting at Cairo University. In 1998, he was accepted as a refugee by the United States and found himself in Fort Worth, Texas. And if life in a cowboy town wasn’t enough of an adjustment, in six months he moved to the home of a distant cousin in chilly Boston.

“I’m getting used to it now,” he says of the cold.

Bior’s American rescue would not have been possible without the help of Christian organizations, including Gordon College graduates working with Catholic Charities in Boston, the Missions Committee of Christ Church in Hamilton and Christ the Redeemer in Danvers. That’s a debt he is quick to acknowledge.

“The people of my church, they supported me day and night,” he says. “They took me in as part of the family, the Christian family.”

Showing gratitude to the country that gave him citizenship, Bior accepted a job with the State Department from 2007 to 2010. As a fluent Arabic speaker, he translated for U.S. forces in Iraq.

“It was like I was back in South Sudan,” he says. “The bombings. The land mines.”

It wasn’t lost on him that this was a war involving the same sort of people who had savaged his homeland.

“We got shot at every day. Every day. But I thank God. God brought me home,” he says.

By 2001, he had finally made contact with his family. At that time, his mom was still alive, which had a startling impact on Bior. She promptly selected his wife.

“My mother’s bride,” he says, laughing at the idea of marriage to a woman he’d never met living thousands of miles away. “I called myself the invisible husband.”

He paid a dowry of 150 cows. In 2006, fellow parishioner Caleb Loring helped bring Akur Mawut to America. The couple now has three children: Caleb, Dean and Deng, and one on the way.

The Rev. Malcolm Reid of Christ the Redeemer, meanwhile, has made frequent trips to Africa, supporting the church’s missions, including one in Kampala, Uganda. It occurred to him he could bring his friend Anyang to see his sister, his lone surviving sibling, in nearby Sudan.

Bior was keen to go. The pair arrived first in Nairobi, Kenya, on the heels of September’s mall massacre. They traveled next to Kampala and then to a reunion in Juba with sister Deborah Nyanwut, who arrived from a refugee camp in northern Kenya.

“She immediately began to cry. The tears just streamed down her face,” Reid said. “And Anyang, a guy who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he started to tear up, too.”

They embraced for a long moment.

For his part, Bior was startled by this evidence of so many lost years, startled that his elder sister had grown so old in 30 years. Neither was South Sudan as he remembered.

“The roads that were built at that time. There is no road. The school built by the British. It was blown up by both sides.” It made him weep “that so much was blown up by the war.” Clashes between North Sudan and the recently independent South Sudan continue over a disputed oil-rich region.

Following his time in Iraq, Bior has had trouble finding a full-time job. He works now and then as a security officer. What strikes Reid is his lack of anger.

“He’s a very gentle, lovely man. Some people would be bitter. But he’s not. ... Part of that has to do, I believe, with his Christian faith.”

Bior ticks off a list of friends he is grateful to, even including his landlord Karen O’Keefe. More than once he declares, “The people in my church. I want to thank them with all my heart.”

Alan Burke can be reached at