South Sudanese “Lost Boy” Speaks To SGI Middle Schoolers

School for middle school students may sometimes feel like a chore and less like a privilege. But, for seventh- and eighth-grade students at Springville Middle School, that mindset may have changed following a recent presentation.

Students at SMS heard firsthand experiences from a South Sudanese “Lost Boy” who now works to provide children in his homeland a chance at a better life than the one he fled from during a presentation on Oct. 29.

Mathon Noi speaks to students at Springville Middle School on Oct. 29, 2021. Noi was born in a village in South Sudan and fled to Ethiopia and Kenya before being relocated to Rochester, N.Y. due to the Second Sudanese Civil War. (Photo by Cameron Hurst)

Mathon Noi, a Western New York resident, is the co-founder of Building Minds in South Sudan, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing education opportunities to children in east/central Africa and was nine years old when war broke out in his home village of Mayen-Abun. Coinciding with his visit and presentation, students are currently reading A Long Walk To Water by Linda Sue Park, based on the impact of the Second Sudanese Civil War, a conflict which took place from 1983 to 2005.

The war chased an estimated 20,000 young boys, including Noi, from their families and homes. Those who survived together after their loved ones were killed have been referred to as “Lost Boys.”

“Some of these boys were on the run for 18 years,” said Christiane Canfield, a seventh grade English teacher at SMS. “Eventually some of them relocated and, fortunate for us, some of them, like Mathon, relocated as close as Rochester where they started new lives.” 

Noi and his cousin Sebastian fled to Ethiopia at the outset of the war before spending a year walking over 1,000 miles across the hot desert to a refugee camp in Kenya. After nine years in Kenya, both emigrated to the United States and settled in Rochester. A visit back to Mayen-Abun inspired the cousins to dedicate their lives to providing educational opportunities in South Sudan and thus far have helped develop and build two primary schools and one secondary school in the village, with another secondary school slated to open in early 2022. 

“I had gone through so much as a child but having an opportunity to come to the United States changed my life,” Noi said. “My cousin and I were able to come up with an idea of helping people back home. We’ve built this organization with the objective of raising money in the United States and building schools in our village.”

Noi shared stories of tragedy and triumph, not only in his own life, but in the life that still exists today for students in his homeland. 

“We heard the story of a little girl who does not have her legs and who had to walk six miles a day to attend school,” Canfield said. “I hope this opportunity allowed students at SGI to really understand how fortunate we are here to have free public education, bus rides to school, and so many other opportunities that simply aren’t available to kids their age in other countries.”

Noi agreed. 

“What I hope kids have learned today is that they are so fortunate,” he said. “They are lucky to have been born in the United States, especially here at Springville. They have an opportunity that other children wish to have. Other children, where I come from, have no buildings, they study under a tree, no school bus, and in most cases they do not have breakfast or lunch provided to them.”

He added, “ I think the kids here have learned that they are the most lucky children and I think they will not take what they have for granted.”