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Hope is My Treasure

by Ater Malath
USA

Mr. Tanno at workAter Malath

When I attended my first SGI-USA meeting in early 2011, I thought, "If the world looked like this, we'd be fine." It was the most diverse group of people I’d ever seen--Asian, black, white, Indian, young and not-so-young--and the discussion was all about peace. I knew immediately that I wanted to practice Nichiren Buddhism.

My journey to that meeting was long and lined with suffering. I was born in 1976 in the town of Rumbek--now part of South Sudan--in the wake of a major civil war. By the time I was about seven, civil war once again sucked the life from our country. When it ended in 2005, two million people had been killed, and more than four million refugees had fled the country.

At age nine, I became one of those refugees when, in May 1985, government troops attacked and burned our neighborhood. I escaped with my uncle, Mangar Chol, and never saw my parents again.

Chol and I joined a swelling tide of refugees. We walked for two months, crossing the Nile River and the Sahara Akobo desert before finally reaching a United Nations refugee camp in Ethiopia. For the next 10 years, my life was about surviving refugee camps and slums, moving from place to place.

During that time, I was devastated to learn that my father had died. He was the first to give me the dream of getting an education, and I clung to that, attending make-shift classes whenever I could. I also learned that my mother was in a village in Sudan with my brother, Peter, and two sisters, Mary and Martha. I was filled with hope to reunite with my family.

In the early 1990s, I made my way to the huge slums of Kibera, Kenya, where I nearly starved to death. I began the complicated and difficult process of applying to move to the United States, which took years. More than once, I thought of giving up, but each time I thought of my family and the chance that I might receive an education, and I pressed on.

Finally, in September 1995, I landed in Fargo, North Dakota, where I worked hard to learn English and get a High School General Equivalency Diploma (GED). In 2000, I moved to Seattle and enrolled in college.

The next year brought the crushing news that my mother, still trapped by civil war, had died. My three siblings were on their own in a refugee camp in Uganda. I quit school to work two jobs so I could send them money to get an apartment and to attend school in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Five years later, we finally reunited in Seattle.

By early 2011, I had begun attending classes at Western Washington University in Bellingham and was injured in a bike accident, suffered a head injury that left me with bleeding in the brain and severe headaches. That spring, I encountered Nichiren Buddhism.

I had never heard of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, but everything about the philosophy felt like home. For example, I was taught that human beings and the environment are inextricably interconnected, and that each of us has the ability to transform our difficulties into impetus for positive change. I attended every SGI activity I could. I also chanted to find out the reason my head injury was lingering and for it to heal quickly.

Two days before I was scheduled for surgery to relieve the pressure on my brain, the headaches stopped and never returned. The operation was cancelled and, a month later, another PET scan showed that everything was fine. I was so excited; I felt there was no limit to what I could accomplish.

Since that experience, chanting has changed the way I think. Before, I was mostly motivated by personal goals related to my own welfare. Now I think about others and about what is good for everyone, not just me. Without contributing to the happiness of others, my own happiness loses meaning.

SGI President Ikeda has said repeatedly that hope can never die. I share his dream of "elevating all humanity to a vast life state of peace and happiness."

I know that if I follow his guidance, I will definitely become truly happy.

My dream now, fueled by my Buddhist practice, is to someday return to South Sudan to form a nonprofit organization that will bring together tribal leaders to talk about what is good for the country. With that in mind, I am writing my life story to tell others about the horrors of war and the power of hope.

Today, my siblings and I are all pursuing higher education. I am so proud of each of them. I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments to have helped bring us all together. Mr. Ikeda writes: "Difficulties are benefits. By challenging and overcoming them, we can forge a character of pure and immutable 'gold'." When I look back, the years of suffering are no longer a source of pain, because I know they made me grow and become strong. I see no obstacles in life anymore. Hope, cemented by my Buddhist practice, is my most powerful weapon to fight hardship and contribute to peace.

[Adapted from the February 17, 2012, issue of the World Tribune, SGI-USA; photo courtesy of Rachel Bayne Photography] 

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