Walking through a mass of middle- and high-school students dishing out high fives, shaking his short dreadlocks and rapping, “We can change the way people act … Let’s scream and shout that we want peace,” Emmanuel Jal looks like he was born with a mic in his hand.
That could not be further from the truth.
Jal, a musician, actor, public speaker and entrepreneur, was born in a mud hut in rural South Sudan. At age 7, he was pressed into service in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. At age 8, in a barracks disguised as a school, he was taught how to be a soldier.
A dose of good fortune spared Jal from disease, starvation or murder, and he has made it his mission to spread a message of peace, education and giving. Jal delivered that message to students at Charlottesville High School, Murray High School, Buford Middle School and Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center.
At 12 years old, Jal and 400 others fled for a refugee camp. Only 16 survived the three-month trek. As starvation, disease and wild animals took their toll on the soldiers, Jal reached his lowest point.
“My friends started to smell like food,” he said Tuesday at an assembly at Murray High School. “My friend was dying, and I said, ‘I am going to eat you tomorrow.’”
Jal was only spared from eating his friend, he said, when another boy shot a crow.
After his ordeal, Jal was taken to Kenya by British aid worker Emma McCune, who enrolled him in school. McCune’s generosity was the catalyst that changed his life.
“One of the greatest gifts I have ever received was from this woman,” Jal said. “She smuggled me to Kenya and put me in school. This was the greatest gift I have ever received.”
After his ordeal, Jal said, education helped him to forgive those who had pressed him into the army.
“When you are bitter and you have hatred in your heart, you are a prisoner in your mind,” Jal said. “And the light that could have shined to help illuminate darkness on our planet begins to go off, and people begin to experience the terrible things that you can give.”
That message resonated with Murray High junior Tristan Johnson.
“I was surprised how someone with such a terrible, just awful, history can be that happy,” Johnson said. “A lot of people don’t know this guy and he just met us for the first time and now he is wanting to help us.”
Jal said the message resonates for a simple reason.
“I am a human being and I made it here,” he said. “All human beings are inspired by anyone who has suffered and made it through their struggle and they want to learn how did that person do it.”
University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce professor Jeff Boichuk organized Jal’s visit as part of the Impact Gala, a fundraiser and networking event held Tuesday at the Boar’s Head Inn.
Each of Boichuk’s students was asked to invite a businessperson who inspired them. By inviting Jal, Boichuk said, he hopes to highlight how investing in a person can change a life.
“When he grew up he had so much hate. … But through education, he learned that we are all one, and he preaches that education is the key to peace,” he said. “What it is going to show the business leaders in the room is it … that they can change a student’s life if you invest in them.”
The gala also will serve as a fundraiser for Gua Africa, a charity Jal set up to educate former child soldiers. The organization was founded in 2006 and has worked to build schools, sponsor students and pay teacher salaries in South Sudan.
Since founding the charity, Jal said, he has been able to help other former child soldiers move forward.
“We have positive stories where child soldiers went through this charity and got their degrees, and some have gotten Ph.Ds,” he said. “There is that aspect of vindication being made possible through the work that I do.”