Former refugee wins international peace prize

JACKSON — If Bul Mabil is anything, it’s resilient.
He was five when he and his brother fled civil war in his home country of Sudan. The boys walked to Ethiopia where they lived in a refugee camp until another conflict drove them to Kenya.
After many years he was joyfully reunited with his mother — only to discover he had been selected for resettlement in America as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Fourteen years later the soft-spoken 31-year-old is starting a new adventure in yet another country with hopes of having a positive impact on the lives of other refugees. Mabil is one of only 50 people worldwide to be selected for a Rotary Peace Fellowship to pursue a master’s of Conflict, Security and Development at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
In 2000, Mabil came into the care of the Catholic Charities’ Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program (URM). The program works with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and has been assisting refugees since the 1980s. The history of the URM program reads like a history of disaster and conflict around the globe. Waves of refugees have come from Vietnam followed by Haitians, Liberians, Congolese, Burmese, Sudanese, Eritreans and more. Program director Dr. Debra West said the most recent clients hail from countries in Central America including Guatamala and El Salvador who came in through the 2008 Human Trafficking Act.
“Most of them are fleeing war,” explained Greg Patin, executive director of Catholic Charities. “Some are victims of religious persecution or ethnic persecution and we have had some who were victims of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking,” he added.
All the clients in the program must apply for entry into the U.S. in their home countries. They are screened and only those eligible for refugee status can join. West said the Jackson program has helped 500-600 kids start new lives in America.
Clients must not yet be 18 and will be emancipated when 21-years-old. Younger children live with foster families, older ones live in a group home or in independent living situations. Everyone is screened for mental and physical wellness and URM therapists and cultural specialists supervise their assimilation and provide therapy as needed. Everyone gets vaccinations and case workers make sure they are placed in schools at the appropriate grade level. “Everyone is mandated to be in some academic setting,” said West. The kids get academic help from tutors provided by the URM office.
Mabil holds a BA in political science and a master’s of Public Administration. On the same day after college he was offered two jobs. One was a lucrative position as a financial analyst. The other was a job as a case manager for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He opted to help people on the coast.
“I took this job because of what was done to me. I was brought to this country and given an opportunity. I decided I will give back to others,” he explained.
His next job was as an advocate for children with mental and physical disabilities for the Mississippi Department of Public Health.
Mabil’s most recent position was at the Department of Transportation as a Principal Transit Specialist helping people without cars find transportation. “When I go back to the coast, I can see the difference I made, a house I helped build or people I helped. When I go back to the health department, I can see the difference I made,” he said.
He and his wife also fostered a pair of refugees who came through the URM program. The first was from Haiti.
“We were not interested in fostering. My wife had just given birth to our daughter, but then the earthquake happened. That broke our heart,” he explained.
“Then Catholic Charities called and said they had a young lady from Haiti who needed a foster family. It was a way we could help Haiti,” he said. The family later fostered a young woman from Congo.
A member of his church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, told him about the Rotary award.
“This is a chance to make a difference globally, not just locally,” he said. “This program is to train young leaders who can be catalysts for peace and conflict resolution nationally and internationally,” he added.
There is no doubt his own history with the URM program played into his decision to take on the fellowship. “The value of this program is that they are able to help children have an opportunity here in the U.S. Wherever they come from – there was a reason they came. They did not just decide to go,” he said. “None of us (the Lost Boys) wanted to leave the country where we were born. We had to leave because of war,” he said.
Patin said the work of the URM program has its roots in the gospel itself. “Jesus and his family were refugees. We are following that tradition in reaching out to these children,” Patin said.
“Refugee issues have become big issues nowadays. The situations affecting these people are not well understood. I would like to highlight them,” Mabil said. “It is different coming from a war-torn country. These things (his success) did not come easily. It took struggle and I would not have overcome the struggles without a program like URM,” he said.
Mabil is a naturalized American citizen and hopes to come back with his new degree in a little more than a year. He would like eventually to work for the State Department or some other national agency.