Background on the South Sudan conflict.
Just six years old at the time, Jok remembers looking on with horror as his father’s body was carried into the house, his face covered by a bed sheet atop a makeshift stretcher. Enraged by what he saw, Jok ran to the corner of the room and picked up an AK-47, ready to take revenge.
At that moment, there was only one thing on Jok’s mind — kill the Arab soldiers who had killed his father.
Today, however, the boy who once knew nothing but violence is working to become a man who will bring peace to his home of Southern Sudan, which has suffered decades of civil war.
Last week, Jok — a guard on Penn’s basketball team — was named a winner of the Davis Projects for Peace award for founding the Dut Jok Youth Foundation.
The organization, named in memory of Jok’s father, aims to help children in Southern Sudan fight poverty and violence by combining sports and academics.
The award — created in 2007 by philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis — is a national prize given yearly to 100 college students who have plans to promote peace through grassroots efforts.
“Getting this award is going to be an important jump start for me,” said Jok, who will receive a $10,000 grant to work with the foundation this summer. “If I don’t do this, I’m not sure who else will.”
In early February, Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships director Harriet Joseph met with Jok and informed him of the Davis Projects for Peace program. After some initial research, Jok described the award application process as “pretty easy overall.”
The long road to Penn
For Jok, though, the road to Penn has been anything but easy.
When Jok was a young child, his father, Dut, was a top commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Jok described his father as “someone who everybody respected and looked up to” in the Gok Dinka tribe.
Dut was also a well-established figure in Gok Dinka politics, responsible for day-to-day tribal affairs. When his father was killed, Jok said it felt like “the entire world had turned upside down.”
“It hit me right away. I was telling myself that it can’t be true, that it had to be a dream,” Jok said.
Even before that moment, Jok’s childhood had been unlike anything most Penn students will ever know. Jok attended school under the cover of trees, learning how to write with sticks in the dirt and how to add with pieces of broken branches.
Whenever he answered a question incorrectly, Jok said he would be promptly whipped by his teacher.
The threat of violence was never far from Jok’s mind. Once, after finishing a game of soccer with friends, Jok said a bomb exploded in the spot he had been just 15 minutes earlier.
Jok’s mother decided to bring Dau, his two brothers and his sister to Des Moines, Iowa, in 2003. Eleven years old at the time, Jok said he was made fun of “because of the way I dressed, spoke and acted.”
“In Africa, you were able to solve everything through violence,” he said. “In America, I had to learn how to take care of my problems in other ways.”
When Jok entered high school, he began to find a new home on a local Amateur Athletic Union basketball team.
On top of his hours spent practicing, Jok was determined to get up to par academically. He said he would stay up studying until 3 a.m. most days. When he finished high school, he had a 3.9 GPA.
“I could’ve had a 4.0, but I caught some senioritis at the end,” he added with a smile.
In 2009, Jok received an offer to play basketball for Penn. He hadn’t heard of the school before, but after some initial research online, he “jumped at the chance” to attend.
Wharton junior Zack Rosen, a fellow guard on the basketball team, called Jok “mature, wise and knowledgeable beyond his years.”
“Dau is the kind of person we should all try to be,” Rosen said. “He’s trying to do the right thing, which should be each of our goals in life.”
Back at Penn, Joseph said it is rare for CURF to see a freshman even submit an application for a national award like the Davis prize. But if one thing is clear, it is that Jok is no ordinary freshman.
This summer, Jok plans to travel back to Africa to begin work on the Dut Jok Youth Foundation. While abroad, he will distribute sports equipment, start building a basketball court and coordinate plans for a secondary school.
For Jok, the $10,000 from the Davis award will be “great seed money” to get things going.
“Dau’s motivation and dedication put things into perspective for me … because [my story] doesn’t even compare to what he’s been through,” said College freshman Cameron Gunter, a forward on the basketball team and close friend of Jok’s.
CURF Associate Director for Fellowships Cheryl Shipman said Jok was selected as the University’s candidate for the national award from a pool of about 10 finalists. For Shipman, Jok’s project stood out because it was “extremely well anchored.”
“He has that mix of idealism, energy and tenacity that looks like it will be effective for years to come,” she said.
Joseph — a self-proclaimed “Penn basketball junkie” — agreed, adding that Jok has enough connections in Southern Sudan to hit the ground running with the organization.
By 2016, Jok said he hopes to set up a fully funded secondary school with a capacity to serve more than 750 Sudanese students. Jok also wants to build a sports complex where “every major Western sport other than padded football” can be played.
“My father lived his life for others, and that’s what I want to do,” he said. “My success isn’t about money — it’s about whether I can make my father proud.”
Jok is currently working on gaining nonprofit status for the foundation. In the meantime, he is looking to recruit some Penn students to help with the project.
“If anyone out there at Penn would like to help, it would be great,” he said.
Some of Jok’s teammates like Gunter and Rosen have already expressed a desire to contribute in any way they can.
“Dau’s already trying to get me to commit 5 percent of my salary [to the foundation],” Rosen joked.
Though Jok knows that returning home this summer will be dangerous, he is encouraged by a recent decrease in violence. An area that has seen civil war between Africans and Arabs for years, Southern Sudan may soon gain independence as a result of a national referendum, he said.
Now, however, Jok is concerned about one thing — how his efforts may impact future generations of Sudanese youth.
“By changing the lives of 500 kids, you can change the lives of millions.” he said. “You can change a whole country.”