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Society & Culture

Drexel Professor Writes the Incredible True Story of the Life of a Sudanese Refugee

October 24, 2016

"How Fast Can You Run"
The cover of "How Fast Can You Run," which was written by Drexel professor Harriet Levin Millan, about Michael Majok Kuch.

When Harriet Levin Millan, director of the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and associate teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, officially completed her first novel, she knew the perfect location for the book’s launch party: right here on Drexel’s campus, just a few blocks away from the classroom where the idea of the book originated. On Oct. 28, she and the book’s real-life protagonist, Michael Majok Kuch, will share the story of their unique collaboration during a special discussion and celebration at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery from 4–6 p.m. 

Millan’s novel, “How Fast Can You Run,” tells the true story of Kuch, a Lost Boy of Sudan who was separated from his family in 1988 when his village in South Sudan was destroyed during the country’s long Civil War. Kuch, just 5 years old at the time, escaped and trekked barefoot across Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya to seek shelter at the various refugee camps where he would live for the next 10 years. He was reunited with three of his brothers and sisters, but his mother’s whereabouts were unknown.

Everything changed in 2000, when the U.S. State Department arranged for 4,000 of these unaccompanied and displaced “Lost Boys,” which actually also included girls, to live in America. Kuch made the decision to leave Africa and move to Philadelphia, where he studied and graduated from high school, college and graduate school. He regularly spoke about his story and his country at lectures and also in a 2005 PBS documentary, called “Dinka Diaries,” about the “Lost Boys.”

The story of Millan and Kuch begins in 2009, when they first met through the Free Library of Philadelphia’s One Book One Philadelphia program. The book chosen to promote that year, Dave Eggers' “What is the What,” was written about Kuch’s friend and a fellow Sudanenese child refugee. Millan, who was then the director of Drexel’s Writing Program, was invited by the program’s organizers to pair Drexel students with Sudanese refugees to write and publish their stories in a series of Philadelphia City Paper articles.

Harriet Levin Millan.
Harriet Levin Millan. Photo courtesy of Harriet Levin Millan.

“I had been teaching the peer tutors about Paulo Freire and his pedagogy of the oppressed, which is about achieving empowerment through working with and talking to people about what they really need,” said Millan. “I felt they would be up to this task of interviewing people who were so different from themselves. And they were.”

As it just so happened, Millan was paired with Kuch and they immediately hit it off.

“When I met Harriet, we started talking and eventually it became clear that she could not only write the article, but she could write the book,” said Kuch.

For the next three years, Millan and Kuch met as often as a few times a week to discuss Kuch’s story. Millan recorded and then transcribed those interviews to use as the basis for her novel, which is a retelling of Kuch’s story labeled as a work of fiction. 

“I think fiction is more interesting and more compelling,” said Millan. “And I wanted to protect the privacy of the people and families involved.”

During that time, members of the Drexel community, from over 60 peer tutors to students to administrators, organized events to help reunite some of the South Sudanese immigrants with family members separated by the war.

Michael Majok Kuch. Photo courtesy of Harriet Levin Millan.
Michael Majok Kuch. Photo courtesy of Harriet Levin Millan.

Eventually, Kuch was reunited with his mother, who had been displaced and living in refugee camps, in Australia, where she had moved with two of his brothers and his sister.

For this momentous occasion, he invited Harriet and her family along, which they accepted. “I wanted them to see what it meant firsthand by coming with me to Australia,” he said.

“I was overwhelmed by his generosity,” said Millan.

The reunion, as well as his mother’s story of her experiences since leaving Sudan, concludes “How Fast Can You Run.”

“We always saw the book as a simple story of a boy looking for his mother,”
explained Millan.

That’s why the book spans 20 years, a handful of countries and continents, war, loss, reunion and — most of all — survival. Kuch’s story will be discussed at the book launch, as well as the current situation in South Sudan and an update on Kuch’s current life (he works as a research and policy adviser in the Office of the President of the Republic of South Sudan and lives in Juba, the capital, with his wife and daughter).

Afterwards, Millan will embark on a book tour and discussion series around the East Coast, with Kuch accompanying her when he can. The pair will also participate in the Charter for Compassion’s global read book club, which chose “How Fast Can You Run” as one of the books to be read by those around the world who want to lead a more compassionate life. Kuch’s story, which already crossed three continents, will now reach people around the world during the global event on Feb. 22, which is free and available for anyone who wishes to participate.

“I have to give big kudos to Harriet for all of the hard work she put in to write this story,” said Kuch. “It is quite the big achievement because I had all of these stories to tell and it is another thing entirely to put them in a book.”