“They referred to me as the boy who was shorter than his AK-47”
Whoever walks around on this campus hears more and more English. That’s not weird given these global times. How do exchange students experience Brussels and the VUB?
By Katrijn Devlaminck and Cynthia Bombil
Koat Gach is studying for a Master’s degree in Management at the VUB through the CARIBU Erasmus Mundus Action 2 project. As a child, he fled Sudan and sought refuge in Ethiopia where he stayed in a refugee camp.
Where are you from?
Gach: “I am from South Sudan, which was once part of Sudan until it split from today’s North Sudan in 2011. These are currently the youngest nations of Africa. I have been a refugee for over twenty years now. I came a long way before I arrived in Brussels. I lived in a refugee camp, situated right at the border with Ethiopia, for years. I was born in the middle of a war and I have never known anything other than conflicts. First there was a war between Muslims and Christians, then came the war between different tribes in South Sudan. I still remember that there were so many bombings in my city that my family and I fled to Ethiopia. After walking a long distance by foot, we arrived at the refugee camp where we were protected by the United Nations. Six months later, a conflict arose in Ethiopia and we had to return to Sudan. I lost my family on my way back. I was nine years old at the time. I found a military base and they took care of me. My job was easy: I cooked for soldiers and cleaned their guns. I stayed at the camp for a year. I received a training course which I chose myself; it wasn’t obligatory. I lost two of my brothers in the war and my aunts were abused by Muslim soldiers. The only thing I wanted back then was to avenge my family and participate in the conflict by killing as many Muslims as I could. I stayed at the base for three years and learned how to fight. The people who knew me back then referred to me as the kid who was shorter than his AK-47. After training for three years, I went to the frontline at the age of twelve. It’s amazing how conflicted I felt during that time. I saw people die and had to bury our dead. The months I fought at the frontline were very tough for me.”
“Only by distancing myself from my country do I learn more about my own culture.”
“At the frontline, I got to know a UN-soldier who took me back to Ethiopia where I went to school for the first time. I finished secondary school and got good grades which allowed me to get a scholarship from the government and study geology in Ethiopia at university. After my studies, I chose to return to Sudan. The war between Muslims and Christians was over at that point. However a new conflict arose in South Sudan soon after I arrived and I had to flee back to Ethiopia once again. That’s when a friend told me about the CARIBU Erasmus Mundus project for the first time. I didn’t want to try to enter the program because I wanted to go back to the frontline to fight for my people. My friends and my mother are the people who convinced me to sign up for it. After I did sign up, I went back fighting at the frontline for a few months until I heard that I could start studying at the VUB, which happened in May of last year. Now I’m studying Management at the VUB. I’m hoping to go back to South Sudan with my degree in order to help rebuild the country.”
What do you think of the VUB?
“The educational system here is very good. Students receive proper support when they ask for help. I live here on the campus and it’s alright. It feels good to have your own room. I never had my own room back in my country because of the lack of housing. It was also a very noisy environment there, whereas it’s calm here.”
How did your exams go?
“I used a specific strategy. I did a few of my exams and left the rest for later because we had ten exams and that was too much. I didn’t even know that it was possible to do that. My original plan was to do all my exams because this system of redoing exams doesn’t exist in Ethiopia. If you fail your exam, you can only retake it the following year. But when I asked people here how I should approach the exams, they answer that you have to be strategic about it; there are exams you should take and others that you shouldn’t.”
What do you think of Belgian culture?
“One of the problems in Sudan is that people there believe that they’re the only ones who have been shaped by God. That feeling of superiority keeps them from accepting other cultures and adjusting their own.. That’s a shame. It’s only now that I live abroad that I’m actually learning about my own culture. Living in Belgium made me understand that Muslims aren’t bad people and I shouldn’t hate them. I have friends who are Muslims here at the VUB. In Sudan, I was constantly told that Muslims were bad and I believed it. But now that I have a broader perspective, I can see how senseless a notion like that is.”
What other remarkable differences are there between Belgian and Sudanese culture?
“Some men have more than thirty wives in my culture. I don’t understand how they manage that. I know someone who needs to conduct an interrogation to identify which wife he is talking to when one of his wives calls him on the phone. “What is the name of your child?” he asks. His wives have to give him a description of who they are, because he doesn’t remember all of them.”
He has to give them a number instead of names. That is also a Master in Management.
“Yes. I don’t partake in this kind of behavior. One woman is more than enough.”
What do you think of Brussels?
“It’s such a big city. I get lost in it sometimes. The capital of South Sudan is not like this. They also have very advanced technology here. A lot of things here are new to me. The traffic here is also interesting to me, because it’s very organized. For example, there are a lot of car accidents in South Sudan because the traffic has no strict rules so everyone just drives freely in every direction. But here, when you find a parking space, other people calmly let you have it. That sort of kindness isn’t very common in my country. The reason for that is that people are stressed by the war situation.”
What are your plans for the future?
“I don’t know what I will do when I’m done studying at the VUB. The way I see it, there are two options: seeking asylum or going back to South Sudan. Seeking asylum doesn’t sound very appealing to me because it feels like abandoning my country. However on the other hand, South Sudan is currently a very dangerous place for people from my tribe. I don’t want to go back to the refugee camp in Ethiopia because I don’t have a future there. My friends at the frontline still send me messages sometimes asking: “When are you coming back? Your AK-47 is waiting for you…”
Do you have a message for all the VUB students?
“I believe I can help other people by sharing my story. The message that I want to get out there, is to never give up. I would never have believed that I would be in Belgium now, a year ago. I hope that my story will inspire people to be strong. Nothing is impossible.”