One of the so-called "Lost Boys of Sudan" is living in Storm Lake, but his heart remains in his homeland. He is dedicated to drawing attention to and raising money for children orphaned by civil war.
Stephen Chambang has experienced war and disruption from an early age. His father, a village chief in Sudan long before it was split into north and south, was killed when Stephen was just three. In 1983, Chambang was uprooted from his home country, driven across the Nile River to Ethiopia by unrelenting violence.
"I was 14 years old at that time," he says. "I spent almost 10 years of my life in a refugee camp in Ethiopia."
Many teenage Sudanese boys at that time were forced to pick up arms and join the fighting between Muslim factions in the north and Christian forces to the south. Chambang was one of the lucky ones, escaping decades of turmoil to the U.S. with the help of Church World Services. He has just returned to Storm Lake after 90 days in the war-ravaged region of East Africa, where thousands upon thousands of children have been orphaned by civil conflict. Thirty-eight hundred of these kids are at the Roaring Lion Orphanage operated by Chambang's mother, who the locals call Saint Elizabeth, and his sisters.
"Ninety percent of those children have no clothes or food," he says.
It is to help feed, clothe and medically treat these orphans that Chambang has established a nonprofit in Ethiopia, the Roaring Lion Mission.
"Right now, we're looking for humanitarian aid to save the lives of those young children," he says.
Chambang estimates some 400,000 refugees have crossed the border from South Sudan to Ethiopia since 2013. It was late in that year when civil war broke out in the world's youngest nation, which had broken away from Sudan just two years earlier. A power struggle quickly erupted between the president and his chief deputy, who he had sacked. The result has been chaos and starvation.
"We've never seen the good life," Chambang says.
Chambang is turning to Iowans for support to relieve the dire situation in his native country. He says as many as 10,000 South Sudanese refugees have settled in Iowa. Many of them have agricultural backgrounds, largely as cattle ranchers. Chambang would like to tap into the state's farming wisdom to develop a 240-acre plot of land he owns adjacent to the Roaring Lion Orphanage.
"I have 25 cows," he says. "So I'm providing some milk to those children."
Chambang paints a dark picture of modern-day life in South Sudan. Crumbling roads and bridges make it impossible to transport goods. Almost everyone on the street carries a weapon. On the bright side, he says, the country is rich in oil and minerals. International pressure is mounting to reach a peace deal in South Sudan. Recent negotiations resulted in a draft agreement signed by the rebel leader. But the president snubbed the deal, saying he needed 15 days to study it. Chambang says a cease fire may bring South Sudanese migrants home.
"We'd love to bring peace to the country," he says. "And then the people can move back to South Sudan."
In the meantime, Chambang says, South Sudan is no place to travel. Hostilities have killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than two million and forced Stephen Chambang and his family into the mission of saving the lives of children at the Roaring Lion Orphanage.