All the time I have spent traveling the world, never once had I met someone abroad who was currently from Nebraska.
I have always jokingly told people there's only two of us, and the other one is back watching the cows.
But now, as I walk through the hot brown dirt roads of Gambella, I encounter three Nebraskans in one day. Two of them were back visiting family members in the refugee camps, the other decided to move back and find a way to help his people.
Large smiles are expressed when I share with them I am from Nebraska. We talk about where they are from, a little of Nebraska football, of course, and what they are doing in Gambella.
It is a small world, or maybe, our world in the Midwest has larger connections than what we understand.
I walked through the Sudanese refugee villages to see what life is like here. It is more accurate to call them villages, because when people call them camps, I picture in my mind large tent cities. I see large round tan grass roof huts with walls made of earth, often surrounded by a fence or wall made of sticks, these compounds are family units. There are smiling children running and playing in the dirt walkways that connect all the compounds. People smile and wave at me in a friendly and welcoming way. When I say hello (mali) to them in the Nuer language, the smiles grow even larger.
“Brother, you are most welcome here,” says a man after I say hello. I respond with a thank you, (“cha loid a tes”) in Nuer, and he laughs, not because it's funny, but because he's so happy.
He asks, “Why are you here?”
I respond, “I've come to try and understand the journey that many Sudanese who now live in Nebraska endured.”
“You are our honored guest,” he says with a smile, and walks away.
It becomes clear to me what I was told earlier is true; the Nuer people are a very welcoming and dignified people.
This is a true testament to the character of the Nuer and all whom I've ever met from south Sudan, especially when you consider what they have endured: A complex civil war that dates back to 1955, and conflicts that forced many of these out of their homeland for 20 years. Maybe the true test of character is not when things go right, but when they go wrong.
Sitting on a concrete step that leads into a restaurant, I meet a young man named Surafel Asfaw. Surafel is a driver for Chinese oil company. We chat for a bit over a Coke and I ask him what he thinks about the U.S.
“Americans have good feelings for Africa,” he says. “When I see other nations, like the Chinese, they come only for themselves, while America comes to help feed us.
“When the Chinese smile, it is not a real smile; there is something behind that smile I don't trust. America needs to continue to work hard on its dream of Democracy.”