NEW PORT RICHEY — Life has taken David Ghai from a burning village to a refugee camp, from war-torn Sudan to the United States, and now, after four years of study, across the graduation stage at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
It was a slow climb for Ghai, who was in his early 20s when he arrived in 2003 with the second wave of Sudanese Lost Boys brought to the Tampa Bay area by the humanitarian aid group World Relief. He came with the English he had picked up in classes taught under the trees in Ethiopia and in a school in Kenya.
It took him a year to get a driver's license and line up a car loan. He juggled several jobs along the way, including one in aluminum products manufacturing in Hudson to which he walked from his New Port Richey apartment.
Something as simple as getting a used car — he bought a 2000 Nissan Xterra in 2004 — felt like a dream come true.
"I never think of even riding a bicycle when I was back home," said Ghai, now 27. "I said, 'Oh, is there a home where people can achieve a thing that they didn't even dream of?' "
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Ghai's father was a doctor in Juba in south Sudan, where Christian rebels resisted the rule of Islamic militants from the north. He had disobeyed orders to not treat everyone wounded in the bloody civil war.
One night 22 years ago, Ghai's mother, a teacher, gathered him and his brother and told them: "Boys, it's time. Your dad's gone."
"Where did he go?" Ghai and his older brother, Majur, wanted to know.
"They killed him," his mother said.
"We started to cry," Ghai said. Then they left their metal-roofed house with their sister, Yar, and ran.
The last words he heard his mother say were, "Go, go, go, go."
They joined the tens of thousands of children fleeing to Ethiopia. He remembers the Red Cross dropping supplies from airplanes a mile ahead of them. The bigger kids ate the food first, passing it along to the smaller ones they liked.
It was a treacherous journey through the bush: Some of the children were abducted into slavery. Others died from thirst, starvation or attacks by wild animals, militias or villagers coveting the girls or someone's jeans.
Ghai doesn't know what became of his sister Yar, who couldn't keep up with her brothers the night they fled Juba. Most of the children who made it to the Panyondo refugee camp were boys.
In Ethiopia, Ghai's brother joined the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the rebel group fighting for southern Sudanese secession, because it had more food. Ghai remembers his brother bringing him food at the refugee camp. They later lost touch, and Ghai heard that his brother had died.
He looks at child soldiers this way:
"They can defend themselves, is the main thing. They can defend their family, is another thing," he said. "They can go to their neighbors and rob them of food. But if there is a gun in the house, nobody is coming to rape their sister, rape their mother."
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About four years after arriving at the refugee camp, Ghai and a long column of boys were on the move again as rebels toppled the Ethiopian government. About 17,000 boys made it to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, surviving currents and crocodiles as they crossed the Gilo River in western Ethiopia.
"Most of the people who live here," Ghai said of his fellow Lost Boys in America, "most of them know how to swim."
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Ghai picked up what schooling he could at the refugee camps, knowing an education was the best route toward a better future. Once he settled in America, Ghai signed up for classes at PHCC.
"They have this insatiable thirst for knowledge," said Raul da Silva, refugee employment program manager in Pasco and Pinellas counties for Lutheran Services, which works with the Lost Boys. "They took with them this inherent thirst to learn."
Daniel Agau, a Lost Boy who lives in the same New Port Richey apartment complex as Ghai, is studying nursing at St. Petersburg College. Work and lack of English have held back some of the Lost Boys, Agau said.
"Some people are trying to get their (high school general equivalency degree). They are working two jobs. There's no way they have time," said Agau, 35.
English as a second language is also "causing a lot of problems," Agau said. "You have to learn it so you can understand everything, and that's taking a while."
Ghai is adept at languages. Besides English, he speaks Arabic and his tribal Dinka, and loves Swahili. "When I meet Kenyans," he said, "I want to speak to them all day."
For a time he balanced his PHCC classes with jobs as a translator and a counselor in a juvenile group home, and his grade-point average dipped from 3.3 to 3.0. Then, during Ghai's final exam in statistics, his calculator broke, and the thought of giving up crossed his mind.
But he doesn't believe in quitting: " You can give up and sit by the side of road and ask for 50 cents. You can give up and depend on someone else, which is impossible. … I've seen people give up, and they don't survive."
He is a "most determined individual," said Ghai's girlfriend, Iris Sullivan, 37. Watching Ghai graduate last month "kind of took me back there for a moment," she said. "I was so proud of him."
Ghai hopes to continue his studies if he can cobble together enough financial aid. He wants to become a pharmacist or a science teacher.
He would like to go back to the Sudan to see a woman who says she is his mother. Last year, a Tampa Lost Boy who was in touch with his own mother told Ghai a woman was asking about him. Ghai has spoken to the woman several times. He hopes she is his mother. But he wonders if she is just a woman missing her own Lost Boy.
In the meantime, Ghai celebrates the latest milestone in a journey that began with a 1,000 mile trek in Africa.
"I was so excited," Ghai said, still beaming about the evening he received his associate of arts degree. "It was a moment I didn't expect."