Gabriel Kou Solomon is a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Minnesota, but two decades ago he became known as one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan." The Lost Boys are thousands of young men who trekked across Sudan to flee civil war. Like Solomon, many of them had been taken from their families and forced to be soldiers.
Solomon says news of his nieces' abduction in mid-October brought flashbacks of his own past.
"Since I heard about my nieces, I've been very depressed," he said. "I barely sleep. I've been stressed about it. But I haven't given up hope."
In fact, the abduction of the 3-year-old and 18-month old has pushed Solomon into action. Solomon says the girls were kidnapped by a militia group as part of ongoing ethnic strife in southern Sudan. He and fellow University of Minnesota students have begun a campaign to free the girls and to end all child abductions in Sudan.
"It's a matter of someone coming forward saying it's now in my family," he said. "I need this to stop, not just for my nieces, but to address the situation in other regions."
When Solomon shared the news of the abductions with classmates in his Human Rights Advocacy class, they took on the issue as a class project. They contacted U.S. and Sudanese government officials, as well as U.N. officials and humanitarian agencies in Sudan. They began a letter-writing campaign and started an online petition.
Now they're preparing for a two-day trip to Washington, D.C. They timed the trip to coincide with the president of Southern Sudan's visit to Washington, in hopes of meeting with him.
“I barely sleep. I've been stressed about it. But I haven't given up hope.”Gabriel Kou Solomon
Solomon and about a half-dozen other students met in a small conference room at the U this week to finalize details for their trip to D.C.
Robyn Skrebes, one of three students joining Solomon on the trip to Washington, said the group has two specific goals. Only one is to find Solomon's nieces.
"Ultimately, what we really want to accomplish in these meetings is to have our representatives put pressure on the government of South Sudan, and on the president of Sudan, to end these kidnappings, but end them in a peaceful manner," she said. "We're not for military intervention, because we worry about the safety of the girls and other children that have been taken from their families."
Skrebes is one of the students in Barbara Frey's Human Rights Advocacy class. Frey is also the director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Minnesota. She said the students' trip can shine a light on the issue of child abductions in Sudan.
"It actually is a symbol of the potential of unraveling the peace accord," she said. "I think that they can bring renewed focus on this issue that might help the entire process."
It's not clear if Solomon's nieces will ever return home or how long their return may take. But his classmates say they'll keep working on the issue after they return from Washington, and even after the semester ends. They say they're already trying to line up funding to send a study group to Sudan next summer.