Child Refugee Faced Horrors of War Until Snake Bite Saved Him

"It was a sad reality. You get one meal a day from the U.N. There's no hygiene, there's no healthcare, there's no education. There's no care. You lose it all"
Andrew Thomas August 18, 2018

The Second Sudanese Civil War took approximately 2 million lives, and displaced about 4 million people. This man made an incredible journey, barely escaping with his life, but years later he returned in very different circumstances.

Manyang Reath Kher grew up in southern Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War that devastated the northeast African country between 1983 to 2005. He and his family lived far enough south that they didn’t think the war would reach them.

However, one day when Kher was only 3 years old, the war came to his village.

Sudanese government soldiers had come looking for rebels.

One of Kher’s first memories is being separated from his mother. She told him to go stay with his uncle, but he still wasn’t safe there.

Rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). (SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Government soldiers came through the village while Kher and his uncle fled.

Kher’s uncle carried him across a river to relative safety, but was shot before they reached the other side. However, his uncle was able to push him to other side of the river.

“He died in that Sudan war. That’s the last time I saw him,” Kher told Humanity.

There were family friends waiting on the other side of the river to help him once he got there.

Unfortunately, Kher was far from safe.

Soldiers continued to pursue the villagers across the river, and the families urged the children to flee to safety.

“There’s a group of children that was pushed out from the village because their parents feel like they don’t want them to get killed,” Kher recalled.

Kher had become one of “The Lost Boys,” a collective group of around 27,000 children fleeing the civil war.

He and other child refugees began a month-long journey to the first refugee camp that would take them.

Kher was so young he can’t remember precisely, but he estimates it took his group at least month, traveling nearly 1,000 miles on foot to reach the first camp in neighboring Ethiopia.

“Where are we going?” Kher remembered thinking.

Government soldiers continued to shoot at and kill them along the way. Some refugees starved to death. Others were killed by wild animals. Some simply couldn’t continue to walk.

Only about 20,000 refugees made it to the camps.

Kher and the other refugees were far from salvation. Even though they had made it to a refugee camp, conditions were not luxurious.

“It was a sad reality. You get one meal a day from the U.N. There’s no hygiene, there’s no healthcare, there’s no education. There’s no care. You lose it all,” Kher recalled of the first camp.

For the next 13 years, Kher would travel to and live in two more refugee camps along the Ethiopian–Sudanese border.

A lot of refugees died in the camps. One day, Kher almost died too.

In the middle of the night, while he slept, a venomous snake bit his hand. It turned out to be a mixed blessing.

“The snake almost killed me but it helped me at the same time,” he recalled.

The World Health Organization took him to a U.N. hospital where the conditions were much better than in the camp.

Kher stayed in the hospital for nearly a year.

“Is my life going to be a refugee camp life forever? Am I going to be staying here my whole life?” Kher recalled thinking to himself.

Fortunately, Kher would have an opportunity to leave.

The U.N. admits South Sudan in 2011. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.N. asked him to come in for an interview to see how they could help him. The U.N. was trying to get particularly vulnerable children out of the camp and resettled in the United States, and they had heard about Kher’s snakebite experience.

He was understandably apprehensive.

“I was scared because I spent my whole life alone. And then I’m going to be shipped to another continent that is far away,” Kher explained. “I was scared to death.”

Kher left the refugee camp in 2005 at age 16. When he arrived in the U.S. he was put in a group home for the next two years in Richmond, Virginia.

While living in a group home was less than ideal, it was a big improvement from the refugee camp where he had spent most of his life.

“You have a warm shower. You have a bed to go to. You can see a nice place when you go outside. You can walk to the mall. You have education to go to. You’re glad that you actually see different things than what you normally see,” Kher explained.

Kher earned a scholarship to go to the University of Richmond. He enjoyed college, and also did very well academically while he was there.

In 2015, he graduated with a degree in political science and international business.

Kher with a bag of 734 coffee. (Courtesy of Cindy Hamilton)

In 2016, Kher started his own coffee company called 734 Coffee. Not only is he a savvy businessman, he is an advocate for refugees as well.

Kher’s fair-trade coffee is sourced from the area in Ethiopia where he spent most of his childhood as a refugee, and 80 percent of the profits go toward educational scholarships for Sudanese refugees.

Thankful for his success, he wants to inspire other refugees to pursue entrepreneurship too.

“Refugees can do it. They can open a company. They can be successful,” he said.