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An Ethiopian Dinner with a Sudanese Activist

Posted on February 12, 2011

Freedom in Southern Sudan

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Feb. 7 accepted the request of an astounding 98.83 percent of nearly 4 million registered voters in Southern Sudan. While this news might mean next to nothing for Chicago residents not familiar with Sudan, it means a whole lot to Rogers Park resident Magai (Peter) Bul. 

“We have a new republic in Southern Sudan,” Bul proudly declared at a dinner interview Feb. 10. 

On July 9, Southern Sudan, after years of endless fighting, will formally gain independence from northern Sudan.

Egypt and Southern Sudan

One day after sitting down for a meal, I called Bul again to talk about a breaking story: President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down as president of Egypt. Since Sudan is on the cusp of being a part of what people refer to as the Arab World, I figured Bul would have a comment on the resignation.

“Behind the scenes Mubarak has been a huge supporter of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir,” Bul said. “Everybody knows that in the continent of Africa.”

Hassan al-Bashir said before the southern Sudanese vote to separate that, if secession materializes, northern Sudan will implement sharia law and make Islam the state religion of Sudan, with Arabic its official language. He also vowed to strengthen Islamic law with slavery.

Al-Bashir faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court on charges of crime against humanity in relation to violence in the Darfur region.

But despite understanding the reality that violence will not magically evaporate come July 9, Bul puts his hope and strength behind the future government in southern Sudan.

“We in Southern Sudan are going to have a democratic country where citizens are free,” he said.

And now with the news that Egypt is head toward democracy this September, Bul is optimistic about future relations between Southern Sudan and Egypt.

“We will have our own independence and they will be welcome to do business with us,” Bul said. 

What would be interesting about that: Egypt is primarily composed of practicing Muslims. It would be a progressive step if the countries found serious common ground in commerce.

Bul said that southern Sudanese refugees who moved to Egypt are sometimes demeaned, or worse. But for the time being, Bul’s happy Mubarak is out.

“This is good for us, good for Sudan to see him going.”

Bul’s Role in Southern Sudanese Independence Push

Bul was hired by the International Organization for Immigration and worked in Nebraska and Chicago to help register Southern Sudanese voters before the January vote on whether to secede from the north. Thousands of Sudanese refugees live here in the states after they fled civil war. There has been significant tension between northern and southern Sudan for a number of reasons, some ethnic other religious. Northern Sudan is primarily Islamic, while the highest concentration of Christians in the country live in southern Sudan. Also, southern Sudanese are generally much darker skinned than northerners. The country is roughly 60 percent black and 30 percent Arab. 

Bul had to flee his country in 1988 at the age of six because of civil war and now lives near Devon and Western while attending classes at Northeastern Illinois University. 

Bul works tirelessly to raise money to send back home; He is raising money to develop a primary school in Southern Sudan; In 2003, he co-founded a Philadelphia based non profit group with other Sudanese refugees, the Ayual Community Development Association; He helped start an alliance of nonprofits based in the U.S doing work in Sudan. The towering 6 foot 6 inch Bul, who sometimes get asked if he plays basketball, matches his larger-than-life figure with figuratively larger-than-life humanitarian efforts. And he has yet to reach the age of 30.

No Longer ‘Lost’

What sometimes bother him, he admits: the name Westerners gave him and 27,000 friends who escaped Sudan during the country’s two-decade long civil war. He’s part of a band of brothers popularly referred to as the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ – members of southern Sudanese ethnic groups orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Some 2 million Sudanese were killed during that constant battle.

“Some of the Lost Boys of Sudan are only four years younger than President Obama,” Bul said, acknowledging that they’ve become respected doctors, activists and other professionals. 

Nevertheless, Bul understands why the name developed and realizes the respect and legacy it brings with it. But he is ready to be known as a man who has found his way.

Once he finishes his degree at Northeastern Illinois—- he is a double major in economics and political science—- he plans to study international law. College was a monumental step for him and his family. He is the first person from his family to attend university.

When he came to the United States, Bul says he did not expect the amount of violence persistent in parts of the city.  He had a view of this country as a place void of the brutality he escaped.

Still, he sees this country and, more locally, Rogers Park, as a place to call temporary home, especially when he eats at one of the northern African restaurants in the neighborhood. 
“Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant is like home to me,” Bul said.

He would know authentic Ethiopian food—- he spent four years in a refugee camp there from 1988 to 1991. At the age of 10, he moved to Kenya and spent nine years there before being selected to come to the states in 2001. When he first arrived in the states he was 19-years-old—- or around that age; he doesn’t know his exact birth date because many people in southern Sudan lack the education it takes to keep a calendar.

Nevertheless, Bul posts his ‘birthday’ on Facebook, the same date that other Lost Boys use. He laughs about, yet is grateful for, the hundreds of ‘Happy Birthday’ wishes he gets from donors and supporters of his cause on a date he technically wasn’t born on.

But it’s the thought that counts and he knows the goodwill and donations from people here in the states are what allows his Sudanese peers and him to develop programs that will bring stability to his economically depressed home country. 

The Face of Southern Sudan in America

Bul sees his role in the United States as that of an ambassador. The metaphor comes from a Sudanese leader who addressed Bul and other Southern Sudanese who were selected to immigrate to the states. He’s an impressive man with influence in two continents: his political wingspan reaches from Chicago to northern Africa. Bul considers himself an activist and community organizer, as well as a full-time student. And he works a day job. 

“If I were in Sudan there’s no way I could raise the money I do,” Bul said. 

He’s talked with the mayor and governor; he’s a friend of a Chicago Bulls executive. He’s chatted with Oprah on her show. But it’s the youth he wants to most inspire because he says that’s where you can most affect change.

Bul speaks to students all around Chicago, sometimes at suburban schools and other times at schools in the city and in underprivileged communities. 


Official results of the Referendum of Southern Sudan:

Guardian article on what will happen once Southern Sudan gains Independence

Christian Science Monitor recaps the five newest countries:

Peter Bul’s Links:

Pongborong Primary School

Immigrant Connect

Hope of Sudan – he’s co-founder and Executive Director:


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