IOWA CITY — Thousands of miles and millions of tears from war-torn South Sudan, two refugees from a conflict generations in the making will embrace warmly Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
University of Iowa freshman Peter Jok and his older brother Dau Jok, a University of Pennsylvania senior, were exposed to war before they could crawl. They felt the sting of their father’s death before they could read. But Friday they will celebrate their triumphs with sport and laughter.
“It will mean a lot,” Dau Jok said. “It will be a symbol for how far we have come.”
The game was set by happenstance last January, and Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, a Penn graduate, played no role. Peter Jok didn’t know he’d face his brother until late summer when Dau told him. Peter then called McCaffery to verify.
“I thought he was playing around,” Peter said. “Then I said, ‘You better bring you’re ‘A’ game.”
The boys, along with younger siblings Jo Jo and Alek, emigrated to Des Moines from South Sudan about 11 years ago with their mother and grandmother. Their father, Dat Jok, commanded troops in the bloody region but was brought home lifeless on a stretcher when Dau was 6 and Peter was 3. Dau gripped a machine gun and wanted to avenge his father’s death with the same violence he had witnessed since birth. Instead, more than 15 years later, Dau’s revenge is through the pen, not a sword.
His goal is simple. The method is profound.
“To change the world,” Dau Jok said. “I think you do that by reaching one kid at a time.”
Peter Jok was his brother’s first pupil. They fought like normal brothers but without their father, Dau provided the discipline that Peter craved. Dau called it tough love.
“He was a dad, because my dad died,” Peter said. “He was the oldest so we had to look up to him and listen to him. He’s pretty much the dad of the house.”
They moved to Des Moines because of the area’s large Sudanese population. It took time for the family to adjust to the culture, the weather and the language but they had plenty of help. Mike Nixon, whose son Peter Nixon befriended Peter Jok in the fourth grade, helped the children adapt. Mike Nixon and his friend, Bruce Koeppl, led the children through their turbulent youth and coached Dau and Peter into exceptional basketball players.
Nixon and Koeppl also saw the boys’ personalities blossom. Peter, admittedly, has a “goofy side “ to Dau’s “serious side.” Peter was named a Parade All-American basketball player this spring. Dau always saw life globally. He enjoyed basketball but chose Penn because of the Ivy League education. His life is committed to his future and that of his people.
At age 18 Dau was awarded a $10,000 grant to empower the people of South Sudan through education and athletics. His foundation, the Dat Jok Youth Foundation, sponsored two years of education for two Sudanese children and sent 1,000 soccer balls and 10 bags filled with school supplies. UI student Ryan Frost has started a local chapter, which includes students from UI and St. Ambrose University.
“His commitment is just unbelievable,” Frost said. “I am confident that someday the entire world will know Dau’s name.”
Dau participated in a summer trip to Nigeria as part of the “We Play To Win” organization, which provided leadership groups and sports camps for more than 100 girls. He plans to conduct leadership workshops and sports camps in South Sudan next June and hold a youth summit in the United States in July. He calls his visions for the foundation “ambitious.” He wants to curb violence, educate about HIV and generate respect for women.
“A girl born in South Sudan is twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as she is to complete the eighth grade,” Dau said. “I find that problematic. I would like to change all that and I have a way to do that, namely educate young kids.”
Dau focuses on leadership, from reading speeches and books to boosting morale of those around him. Despite playing only eight minutes this season, he was named a team captain.
Dau calls leadership “a soft science” but he uses it effectively. He wants to bring people to his foundation. Peter sees the leadership Dau exudes. He’s drawn to it.
“I think one day he’s going to be president in Sudan,” Peter said.
Dau laughs at that prospect but only because he has more work in life. He has applied to graduate school at Newcastle University in England, where he’ll study international development and education. He’ll then seek a Ph.D. and hopes to gain connections through the United Nations and U.S. State Department to help South Sudan.
“It’s who I am. It’s what I am,” Dau said. “In every aspect of life, in terms of everything I do. I have to help my family. I have to solve the problems of South Sudan. I put that responsibility on me, in part because I know if my father was alive, he would be trying to do the same thing. He would be successful at it. Who am I to deny people of that?”
Dau’s focus wasn’t always so clear. His grandfather, a tribal leader, was killed when Dau was 17 at Des Moines Roosevelt High School. Both Nixon and Koeppl had to talk Dau through his anger and to direct it toward a positive outcome.
“His grandfather was shot, and a number of people in the village were killed, mainly men and young boys,” Nixon said. “It was at that point where I really understood that he needs to channel it because it was a horrific thing.”
Rage still burns within him, but Dau resists. Violence is rampant in South Sudan where each day consisted of fights, shootings and atrocities. His mother, Amelia Ring, is a legislator in South Sudan and lives 10 months a year in Africa. So do uncles, aunts, cousins and others he does not know.
Someday, the brothers may realize their potential. For Peter, it might come as a pro athlete. Dau’s legacy could boast global merits.
“If I’ve made it this far, this place, somehow God wants me to give back to something,” Dau said. “I’m here for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is, but I’d like to think that reason is to use the resources I’ve been blessed with to help other people.”
Maybe the reason is simple. To change the world. But Friday, it’s about basketball.