David Ayual Mayom, originally from South Sudan, holds a photo of his family in a Kenyan refugee camp. The picture was taken the day before Mayom flew to the U.S. in 2000 as a refugee. (Laura Klivans/KQED)
As a child, David Ayual Mayom had a lot of responsibility and autonomy. He grew up in what's now South Sudan and is a member of the Dinka tribe. People in his village subsisted on raising cattle and farming mostly grains.
He'd spend half the year taking his family's cattle out to graze and find water with other boys his age. Sometimes they'd spend the night in what they call the bush -- the forest.
He loved it.
While out in the bush, the boys would play games and hunt. They honed their spearing skills, pursuing small gazelles or birds and then dividing up the meat. Mayom loved bringing the food home to his mother in their adobe house.
He remembered her praising him, saying, "You're going to be a leader: You are strong, you are dominant."
His family and culture held up these values, but they were particularly relevant at the time. Mayom -- who is 39 now and lives in San Jose -- was raised in the 1980s, when what was then Sudan was in the midst of its second civil war.
For most of his childhood, Mayom's father was away from home fighting with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) against the government's Sudanese Armed Forces.
Mayom was largely sheltered from the civil war in his youth, until one day in 1987, when he would have to make a painful choice: stay at home with his mother and almost surely be killed, or set out on foot with thousands of other young boys in search of safety.
That day was the first Mayom could hear fighting in a nearby village.
"The sound of the gun. We’re seeing the smoke, houses were being set on fire," David said.
Mayom was 8 years old and his brother was 10. They were preparing to take their cattle out when a group of soldiers approached them. They were from the SPLA, the army for which Mayom's father fought. The men wore camouflaged clothes and carried AK-47s.
"They definitely looked stressed and said that the enemy is coming. 'If you don’t come with us now, you will be killed,'" Mayom recalled them saying.
The Sudanese Armed Forces had a strategy of killing Dinka boys who they believed would later become rebel soldiers. Mayom said the government's army largely targeted boys between 6 and 14 years old.
Mayom could hear women wailing in the nearby village, crying out for what he assumed were their young sons — already killed.
David and his brother knew they could be next and decided to leave with the SPLA soldiers, who said they would help them flee to safety. Before leaving their village, the brothers sped home to say goodbye to their mother.
"My mom said, 'OK.' There was no arguing because my mom already knew the situation," Mayom said.
He hugged her tightly and quickly. He didn't know if he would ever see her again.
"My mom did not want to let go," he said. "My mom was shedding tears and looking down. She didn’t know what would happen to us, where we are being taken."
Mayom and his brother were being taken to Ethiopia. They hurried out of their village on foot. Mayom had nothing but the yellow shorts he was wearing, and his brother carried a small backpack. They were two of about 5,000 young boys who would later become known as The Lost Boys of Sudan.
Eventually, that number would swell to more than 20,000.
"It was scary because you were going to an unknown place. And it started getting really tough from the beginning," Mayom said.
The group walked longer distances than the boys had ever traveled with their cattle. They trekked in two parallel lines on a journey that would end up taking a month and a half.
Again and again, Mayom would have the same desire to go back home, but he didn’t know if that home still existed, or how his family back in the village was even doing. He wondered if they were alive. He wondered if he would survive long enough to see them again.
"You start getting terrified like, am I going to die? Will we all die?" David said. "You start living hoping to see the next day."
The hardships mounted. There was no water and the group drank from muddy puddles. Sometimes they even drank their own urine. There was no food so they foraged in the forest. They faced hungry, wild animals.
Mayom says the younger boys like him were most likely to die. He thinks 15 percent of boys perished on just this part of their journey. He was determined not to be one of them.
"The only thing that kept us going is just when you see other boys," he said. "You don’t feel like you’re going through this by yourself. You stay determined. 'If that guy can do it, why not me?'"
Finally, the group crossed the border into Ethiopia and found themselves in a forest. There were no tents, no homes and no international aid workers.
"It was a bush," David said. "They told us: 'Now you need to make your shelter out of this place.' "
Over time, that forest became a refugee camp where Mayom spent three years. When Ethiopia fell into its own civil strife, the refugees who'd gathered in the camp were kicked out. The group walked again, this time to a Kenyan refugee camp. The journey was longer, but this time they had support from the United Nations.
As time passed, Mayom and his brother spent more years living as refugees than in their home village. He often wondered what happened to the rest of their family.
When David was 17 years old, a rumor spread through the camp that new people had arrived from villages near where he grew up.
"I was excited," he said. "I was hoping that my mom would be one of the people."
He searched among the camp newcomers. After a few months, he met a woman who said she knew his mother and could take him to her.
He followed her until she disappeared into a thatch-roofed home. Moments later, his mother — wearing a colorful dress, her hair in braids — hurried out.
"She came running. Then when she got close to me, she stood still," he recalled.
Mayom watched as his mother searched his features for traces of the 8-year-old boy she said goodbye to nearly a decade before, the boy she named Ayual, who took the name David in the camp.
The woman who brought Mayom to his mother told her that this young man was in fact her son.
"Really?" Mayom's mother asked.
He replied, "This is me, Ayual."
They embraced tightly, like they had years ago when Mayom and his brother fled their village. Mayom's mother had tears in her eyes once again. Both Mayom and his brother, now 17 and 19, quickly moved in with their mother in the refugee camp.
"It took time for me to get used to that moment of being together again," Mayom said. He was afraid it was all temporary.
"You feel that you have to maximize that opportunity," he said. "Or maybe she will not be there the next day."
But she was.
Amazingly, Mayom's entire family ended up in the refugee camp together: Mayom, his brother, and their five younger siblings. His father, who fought with the SPLA for years, also survived and had made his way to the camp as well.
Ultimately, Mayom and his younger brother came to the U.S. in 2000 as refugees to study. His older brother stayed in Kenya to help care for the family. This time, the family separation was by choice, and they bridged it with phone calls and visits.
As Mayom delved into his studies, he initially struggled to concentrate. He’d have flashbacks of relentless thirst, and of being a child wandering for years without his mother. Slowly, though, he learned to focus.
He shares his place in San Jose with three other men from South Sudan — they were all Lost Boys, too.
Mayom sees parallels between his experience and the separations that have happened at the U.S.-Mexico border recently. He worries that children who experience prolonged separations may struggle to focus due to flashbacks, or have other side effects. And he's mad.
"I feel really angry that something like this can be done to kids," he said. "Regardless of how you see this, it should never happen. There's a better way to do it."
Despite the trauma Mayom endured, he thinks his past made him resilient.
"I tend to think the life that I had makes me stronger now," he said.
Like the strong man his mother always knew he’d become.