Former Sudanese refugees find peace at Richmond Virginia Temple dedication

John Dau and his wife, Martha Akech, were children when their villages were attacked. They were among thousands of boys and girls who survived starvation, dehydration, disease and violence

For John Bul Dau and his wife, Martha Arual Akech, the Richmond Virginia Temple open house and dedication were their first experiences inside a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The 6-foot-8 Dau, a former refugee from South Sudan, found it difficult to explain how he felt.

“I don’t know how I can explain my feelings today,” Dau said. “I feel very blessed to participate in the dedication of the house of the Lord.”

Akech, also a former refugee from Sudan, said it was a “wonderful, wonderful experience.”

John Bul Dau and his wife, Martha Arual Akech, from Sudan, sit on a bench outside the Richmond Virginia Temple following the dedication
John Bul Dau and his wife, Martha Arual Akech, from Sudan, sit on a bench outside the Richmond Virginia Temple following the dedication on May 7, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I felt the peace immediately as soon as I walked in. It was this calming and it made me tear up,” she said. “I’m so grateful for this opportunity to be able to participate in the opening of the Richmond temple. It is such a blessing and something we will cherish forever.”

One part of the Richmond temple dedicatory prayer offered by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, resonated deeply with Dau and Akech.

“We pray for the millions of Thy children who contend for freedom and those who have been displaced from their homes by the ravages of war to become refugees in other nations and places. Please bless them and all who seek to relieve their suffering and give them hope.”

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John Dau’s story

Dau grew up in a village in what is now South Sudan. He was 12 years old in 1987 when his village was attacked during a Sudanese civil war that claimed 2 million lives. Dau escaped but was separated from his family.

Lacking clothing and food, Dau and others managed to avoid armed gangs and wild animals as they fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He and thousands more — who became known as the “Lost Boys” — lived there for four years until forced to leave.

John Dau, his wife Martha and their children outside the Richmond Virginia Temple during the open house.
John Dau, his wife Martha and their children outside the Richmond Virginia Temple during the open house. | Provided by John Dau

Once again facing starvation, dehydration, disease and violence, Dau was among hundreds who escaped the war and survived a six-month trek across African wilderness to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. While living in Kenya from 1992 to 2001, Dau learned to read, write and speak English.

In 2001, Dau was selected to emigrate to the United States and found a new home in Syracuse, New York. In the years that followed, he found work and earned a college degree at Syracuse University.

Dau’s refugee experience was featured in the 2006 documentary film, “God Grew Tired of Us.” He also wrote a memoir by the same title.

With a new life and resources, Dau wanted to give back. He founded the John Dau Foundation and South Sudan Nation Builders to provide health care, nutrition, education, employment and hope to people of South Sudan. He has also become a motivational speaker. He told parts of his life story in a TEDx Talk in 2016.

Dau eventually found his mother and sister and brought them to the U.S.

“The reason I survived was not because I was so smart,” Dau said in his talk. “The reason is because of Almighty God. God helped me. The second reason is I did not give up.”

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Martha Akech’s story

Akech’s refugee experience was similar to her husband’s. One day in 1989, her Sudanese village was attacked. She and her little sister ran for their lives. Facing the same dangers and hardships described by Dau, the girls first made their way to Ethiopia and eventually reached safety in Kenya.

Each night they washed what few items of clothing they had, then said their nightly prayers and went to bed, hoping for a better day tomorrow. They also found peace in attending church worship services in the refugee camps.

Martha Akech and her husband John Dau in their home.
Martha Akech and her husband John Dau in their home. | Provided by John Dau

“We felt the presence of God with us. It carried us through, and it was our only hope,” she said. “Each day when bombs fell from the sky, you go hide, then you come out and hope that tomorrow is going to better. You just have hope and faith and trust that God will change your situation.”

She spent almost a decade at the camp in Kenya, where there were fewer educational opportunities for girls than boys. Most girls were sent to live with families who treated them as unpaid servants who could be sold into marriage. Fortunately, she avoided that.

“Getting married at a young age would mean more suffering because you have no way of providing for your children,” she said. “It was my biggest fear and concern, and I prayed every day that it doesn’t happen to me. I was already raising my little sister.”

Akech met Dau in Kakuma. They dated for a few months before she moved to Seattle, Washington. He settled in Syracuse later the same year, and they remained in touch to continue the long-distance relationship.

The couple married in 2007 and today have five children. Akech became a nurse’s assistant but was unable to finish her nursing degree when they started a family.

She found her parents and siblings living in Sydney, Australia, the same year.

Dau and Akech moved their family to Richmond, Virginia, in 2016.

The lesson Akech often shares from her story is “Whatever your suffering, whatever is happening in your life, if Christ is at the center of your life, you can overcome.”

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‘They recognize our past suffering’

In 2019, Dau had a spiritual dream one night that inspired him to want to learn more about Jesus Christ.

Around the same time, Dau’s foundation received a donation from Latter-day Saint Charities, the Church’s humanitarian arm. The contribution caught his attention and he wanted to know more about the Church.

The more Dau learned about the Church and its charitable work, the more impressed he was with the global faith.

A team of ophthalmologists from Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah spent a week in South Sudan restoring the vision of about 200 blind people.
John Dau, left; Dr. Roger Furlong;, Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, co-director of international ophthalmology at Moran Eye Center; and Dr. Alan Crandall, co-director of international ophthalmology at Moran Eye Center, help patients. A team of ophthalmologists from Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah spent a week in South Sudan restoring the vision of about 200 people. The team had to abort two previous attempts to work in the area due to violent conflicts. | Provided by Alan Crandall

“They are all over the world, helping others,” he said. “These guys have a strong faith in the Lord. If not, why would they actually help strangers, those far away who they never see, and even those of different faiths? ... The more I learned the more I just fell in love with the Church.”

They began meeting with missionaries and reading the Book of Mormon. Not surprisingly, Dau identified closely with the story of Lehi and his family leaving their home and journeying to a new land with religious liberty. He loved the story of Joseph Smith praying to God to learn the truth about which church to join. He and his family were baptized in September 2020.

“Like Lehi and Nephi, we have learned through our ordeals and experiences in the wilderness, and our faith has grown,” he said.

Hearing President Oaks in the temple dedicatory prayer pray for the relief of suffering refugees touched Dau’s heart and reminded him why he was drawn to the Church — its worldwide effort to care for all the poor and needy.

“That was a statement of inclusion,” Dau said. “It meant so much to me because of my personal experience as a refugee. It brings a sense of comfort to people like us and others who have been in a tough time. They recognize our past suffering.”

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