“As a refugee who came to this country, one of my main goals was to be involved in human rights because of the things I have seen,” explained Gabriel Solomon. Solomon, originally from Sudan, came to the United States as a refugee in 1994. He was one of 20,000 youth brought to this country as part of a State Department program to aid victims of the ongoing civil war in Sudan, a war considered one of the worst human rights crises facing today’s world. These young refugees now live, work, and study in the United States and have become known as the “Lost Boys” of Sudan.
The terrible hardships and human rights abuses that Solomon observed during his young life have driven him to find a career educating others about the importance of human rights and advocating for the protection of those rights. Part of that work for Solomon was his 2003 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At Minnesota Advocates Solomon coordinated a project interviewing teenage refugees from around the world currently living in Minnesota. The interviews were filmed and will be released as a documentary video through Minnesota Advocates. Solomon feels that his ability to relate to the young refugees was a great benefit to the project, “When I came and interviewed the kids, many were quiet at first. I would tell them about myself, and then there would be a lot of stories.”
Solomon’s own story would indeed be comforting and inspirational to a young refugee adjusting to life in the United States. Solomon was born in southern Sudan, where he lived with his family. In 1983 Sudan was divided by its second civil war since gaining independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956. As in the first Sudanese civil war, the conflict was between northern Muslim factions in control of the Sudanese government and southern Christian rebels.
Solomon, only a child at the time, lived in a region heavily effected by the conflict and was sent across the Sahara Desert with many other Sudanese children to escape the dangers of the war: “When I left my homeland I was 6 years old and I walked in my bare feet with almost no food or water to another country. The trip took three months and most of the group died of disease, starvation and thirst. I saw a lot as a child. I saw people dying, I saw executions right in my face.”
Conditions in the Ethiopian refugee camp were nearly as brutal as life had been in Solomon’s Sudanese home. “In the refugee camps we were trained as soldiers. You talk to people about children soldiers. Well, I was one. I was carrying a gun at the age of 10. Those memories still come back to me, and as I reflect, I hate it. And that makes me feel that I want to carry this kind of attitude from my country to bring other people to respect human beings,” explained Solomon. He continued, “I don’t talk much about it, it used to be too personal to me to try to share my life, to share what I have seen. It’s not that I’m scared to share it, but it’s a little bit hard to go through. I lost a mother in the war, and I lost a brother in the war. I was young. I went to the camp until I was capable of coming to the U.S.”
In 1994 Solomon arrived in the U. S. as a refugee through a program coordinated by the United Nations and the U. S. State Department. The U.S. was the fifth country Solomon had called home in his young life, and the fourth he had arrived in as a refugee. Solomon lived in a foster home in Washington D.C. before moving in with an adoptive family in North Dakota, where he attended high school. “They’re like real parents to me. I also have two sisters from that family, each of whom went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison,” said Solomon.
After graduating from high school, Solomon also chose to attend UW Madison where his major is international studies with a focus in international security. He began looking for an opportunity to apply his international studies to hands-on human rights advocacy. In 2003, he was approached by a friend who eventually led him to Barbara Frey, director of the Human Rights Program in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, “I told a lawyer I knew in Madison that one of my goals was to share my life story. She put me in touch with Barbara Frey, who suggested I contact Minnesota Advocates. I was looking for human rights work overseas, but when this opportunity opened up, I applied for a fellowship.”
Solomon spent the summer of 2003 as a Fellow working at Minnesota Advocates in Minneapolis. He considers his work with the organization an opportunity to put his personal background and international issues education to use: “I had experiences as a Fellow that I will carry on with me. I attended a conference on international human rights and policy and studied asylum issues, but mostly I was collecting stories from immigrants and refugees for a video through Minnesota Advocates.”
The video allowed Solomon to share his experience with others while learning about refugee issues in other parts of the world. “I was very touched by the stories I collected about these kids. I was happy to find that they were willing to share. Many went through the same things I had gone through, and I could share with them what we had in common.”
He went on to explain the project’s relevance in the local community, “Not many people know what these kids have been through. When I first came here, I did well in school, but I didn’t want to share what had happened to me. This process could teach the school districts how to understand where these kids have come from.”
Solomon’s work with Minnesota Advocates introduced him to the issues of other refugees living in Minnesota and reinforced his commitment to human rights advocacy. It also gave him his first opportunity to incorporate experience and education into local and global human rights promotion: “My fellowship hasn’t changed my goals. It reinforced what I want to do. I want to be an activist. You can teach human rights, but you also need to be out in the field. I haven’t seen my dad since I was six years old, and he was committed to me getting an education, getting some opportunity. I’m trying to carry on what my dad suffered for.”
Solomon is committed to pursuing a career in human rights advocacy and hopes that his work might someday affect the political climate of Sudan, “I hope everyday that something will work out. I don’t have a land that I can claim. My people are spread all over the world. I have family in Australia, Canada, and Europe. We have to develop a universal language for human rights and you have to speak from what you know to cause any change.”