Michael Mariak Jok was born Feb. 12, 1992, in Kapoeta, in southern Sudan. He was the third child of Elizabeth Mach and Jok Tuil, both rebel soldiers who met in Ethiopia, where they trained with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Mariak is the Dinka word for “disaster”; Michael, as he was later known, was born amidst the country’s recent civil war, which pitted the northern Muslim government against the mostly Christian south, and ultimately claimed two million lives, one of the last century’s most brutal wars.
Kapoeta, the crowded, de facto capital of the rebel-controlled south, was a shell of a town. The hospital, school and many buildings had been flattened by bombs. Food was scarce: most people survived on three kilograms of corn per week. Disease and malnourishment were rampant. Queuing for water could take six hours. Elizabeth and Jok, who stood seven feet tall, lived in a mud-walled hut (according to custom, Jok’s children took his first name as their surname).
Shortly after Mariak was born, Jok was shot by government forces. Tuil, his eldest, watched him die. They barely had time to mourn; on May 28, 1992, Kapoeta was taken in a surprise attack. The chaotic evacuation took place amid indiscriminate shelling and gunfire. “You couldn’t locate your kids, your husband, your wife,” says July Ayuen, now a priest at Emmanuel Mission, Winnipeg’s Sudanese Christian church, who was then living in Kapoeta. “People just ran.” With Mariak on her back, Elizabeth, her daughter Nyanthiek and Tuil walked south to Kenya, a three-week trip.
They landed at the notorious Kakuma refugee camp: a dusty collection of white tents awash in arms and surrounded by bandits. At night, gunshots would ring out. “Some locals rob people, sometimes they rape people, sometimes they kill people,” says July. There were “many, many people, and not enough food,” adds Matiek Mark, Mariak’s uncle. Elizabeth, a fiercely protective mother, knew they had to leave. When Mariak was three, they transferred to Ifo, a Somali refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, a move Elizabeth hoped would be temporary. They stayed eight years. On Ifo’s bone-dry soccer pitch, Mariak earned a reputation as a joker, and led the songs at Sunday services in a makeshift church. By then, Jok’s cousin, James Nak, was living with Elizabeth, according to custom (they would add five more children to the family). Yet life at the squalid Muslim-majority camp wasn’t much easier. In the pecking order for meagre rations, the tiny Sudanese minority was near the bottom.
They left all that behind when, on Dec. 2, 2003, they flew to Canada; they’d been selected by the UN for resettlement as refugees. In Dadaab, the temperature hovers around 38° C. It dropped to -15 the day the family arrived in Winnipeg. Kate Kehler, a friend, remembers meeting the Joks, “these big, tall young men stuck in a tiny apartment,” she says. “They were so warm, so appreciative of the smallest thing”—including their “quite scary” apartment complex in Winnipeg’s crime-ridden North End.
Mariak, who was shy, but with a big, crooked smile, soon began Grade 7. He spoke Dinka, Arabic and Swahili, but his English was limited and his schooling had been haphazard. It was a struggle. He coped with humour and an open personality—which “doesn’t translate necessarily into reading,” family friend Gaylene Dempsey adds with a grim chuckle. But he quickly learned to communicate. “He was sharp as a tack.”
Two years ago the family moved to a duplex in the working-class suburb of Transcona, a major step up. Mariak, already six foot two, was a fixture at the downtown YMCA, where he played basketball. At home he was the quiet diplomat, adept at diffusing the little fights that inevitably flare up among siblings (as for Mariak, the only thing he ever fought for was his spot on the couch). Bus 47 took him downtown to Miles Macdonell Collegiate, which offers the city’s top program in English as an additional language. Two of his younger siblings, meanwhile, had won bursaries to a private Catholic school. Finally, Elizabeth could relax: she no longer worried about “what her kids would eat or where they would sleep,” says July. The violence of Sudan and the camps could fade to memory.
On Sept. 6, two days before he was to begin Grade 12, Mariak and four friends—three girls and another boy—were walking in the city’s West End when a car pulled up beside them. Someone yelled at the girls. In an act of teen bravado, Mariak tossed a bottle at the car. The doors flew open and the two boys were attacked and stabbed. Mariak, who was left bleeding against a Young Street building, later died of his injuries. He was 17.