From refugee to Airman: A journey like no other

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Grace Thomson
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

For some the reason to joining the military is very simple, whether it be tuition help, family legacy, honor, or for the love of their country. For others the reason they join the military goes much deeper. Something in their past makes them itch to give back and help others. For one 911th Airlift Wing member, the reason goes even deeper still.

Airman 1st Class Nyarauch Chuol, passenger operations representative with the 32nd Aerial Port Squadron, was a South Sudanese refugee born in an Ethiopian camp. She and her family moved to the U.S in 1999 after getting a family-based visa. Her story is filled with hardships she has overcome and triumphs which she rejoiced in, but she said she wouldn’t change it for the world and that she is “a better person for it.”

Some of her earliest memories include U.S. military members helping her and her family. There were other military units where she was from, but they often scared her, she said. It was not until the U.S showed consistency in their helpfulness that she began to admire them and the work that they did.

“When I was in Ethiopia living in a refugee camp, you'd see a lot of military members who would come in and help,” said Chuol. “A lot of medical members would come in and give vaccines, and I would see them walking around with their military uniforms and they were all very nice and it made me want to help. I just looked at them like, ‘oh man like that would be so cool to be able to do that one day.’”

Growing up in a refugee camp was not ideal for her and her family. She lost a brother to an unknown sickness before the military arrived with vaccines. She recalls the details of the day she found out her brother was gone.

“I remember one day I'd walked to school, and it was around a five-mile walk and it was hot,” said Chuol. “I went home, and my mother was sitting on a mat and she wouldn't say anything to me. She was just staring at the ground I didn't know what was going on. I looked around the house and I didn't see my brother and I figured he had passed.”

At the time, Chuol had been sick too, but she was one of the lucky ones. Military members came to the refugee camp and started giving vaccines to the children, and Chuol was one of those fortunate few. She said that she remembers wishing her brother would have been able to get the vaccine as well but that she believes she had been chosen for reason.

Her decision to join the military could have come from this event, she said. It informed her view of the American military and gave her the drive to do something good with the life she was given.

“We all have different motivations in life that make us want to serve and there are many different paths that lead us there,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Scott, superintendent with the 32nd APS. Scott is one of Chuol’s supervisors, and he was impressed by her journey to the Air Force Reserve. When he heard her story for the first time, he was amazed.

“When new members first arrive to our unit, we ask that they stand up in front of the unit and introduce themselves, say where they’re from, what made them join the Air Force Reserve and a unique item about them that others may not know.” said Scott. “This is when I first learned of her story and thought ‘Wow, more people need to hear this.’”

Chuol didn’t just jump from an Ethiopian Refugee camp into the Air Force Reserve. There were years in between that helped her get to where she is today.

First Chuol had to immigrate, and that was not an easy feat for her family. Thankfully for Chuol, getting to the U.S. was a goal her father had for the family in order to give them a better life, and he would not be easily discouraged.

He entered them into a lottery system where a family could have the opportunity to get a family-based immigration visa based on certain criteria such as family reunification, job-based immigration or diversity.

They immigrated to the U.S. as a part of the Immigration Act of 1990, which was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush and was enacted to diversify the visa program and to create a lottery to help immigrants from countries whose citizenry was underrepresented in the U.S.

Even after they got their visa approved, getting to the U.S. was still a challenge.

“There are people who did not want you to leave the country or they wanted to hold you for ransom,” said Chuol. “Because they can say ‘hey, I'm going to keep this person unless you can give me this much money.’ Oftentimes we were stopped by government officials or the bus sometimes would get stuck in weird terrain.”

Finally, in December 1999, they made it onto the plane and began their long journey to the U.S. The experience was a new one for her family but Chuol remembers that it was slightly frightening and embarrassing as well.

“It was the first time I ever flew on a plane, and it was so scary,” said Chuol. “I went into the bathroom and I got stuck in the door. That was kind of scary and when I finally left the bathroom, I was distraught and thinking ‘oh my god I cannot believe this.’”

When they made it to America, they were introduced to their new home and were amazed by the size and luxury of the house. They now had so much more that they had even dreamed of, and when everything is a new experience it can be an enchanted time.

“I've never walked into a home like that because I was used to living in a straw hut,” she said. “They said, ‘this can be your room, and this is a master bedroom, and this is a light switch and a faucet.’ I thought, ‘this is heaven.’ It was magical at the time, you could say.”

That magic eventually wore off as they settled into their new life. They moved to different cities over the years to figure out where they liked it best. First, it was New York City, then they moved to Memphis, Tennessee, then finally Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was in Minneapolis that her parents received their citizenship and since Chuol and her brothers were underage, they did as well.

While her family still lives in Minnesota, Chuol had one more place to go before she found a place she called home. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was her final stop and it’s where she and her husband decided to set up shop – literally.

“My husband and I are starting a company right now,” said Chuol. “It's called Jiopy Design. It's a cosmetic health and wellness company for skincare, haircare, nails, whatever you can think of.”

The company is named after her youngest brother, and though the COVID-19 pandemic is making it hard to start a business, they are doing their best to get it off the ground. Though living through the pandemic is difficult, Chuol is no stranger to adversity.

“Being an immigrant child was very hard, especially with my parents,” said Chuol. “They relied on me a lot to help them with paperwork and bills. When someone came to the house, and they didn't know who it was, it was up to me to speak the little English that I knew and ask ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’”

Chuol is the oldest child for her mother and father. It was up to her to learn English very quickly so that she could translate for them and help them assimilate, get jobs, and even study for their Citizenship test. She also took part in raising her younger siblings and became a parental figure for them in their early life.

All of these responsibilities were put on her at age eight and it was a lot of pressure, she said. Between that and the pressure of trying to fit in at school, she had trouble finding the right balance.

“I never really fit in with most folks,” she said. “I moved around a lot, so I never was able to establish friendships or a home base. I was always trying to figure out who I was in different scenarios or different situations and groups of people.”

The uncertainty of not knowing who she was or where she belonged gave her some difficulty growing up.

“I would find myself getting in trouble because I would try to be funny,” she said. “But I had some counseling, I got involved in sports where I actually made friends. And I would do a lot of self-reflection, trying to figure out who I was and where am I going.”

Once she figured out her direction and interests, she began to flourish. She said that she became proud of herself and her newfound independence.

“If I needed something, I could find it and I wouldn't stop until I did,” Chuol said. “I became a really good caregiver. I was the hardest working person in the room. I was really proud of my motivation, just knowing that I can't go back to that [her refugee life]. I'm here [in America] and this is my home. I'm going to do well.”

Chuol’s determination and drive helped get her to where she is today. Her dream growing up was to become a doctor; she thought that would do the most good in the world, but the schooling took longer than she wanted.

“So, I decided to join the military,” she said. “Then I figured later on if I choose to go that [medical] path, at least I'll have a military background that can help me get into those countries to help.”

Her main goal in life is to give back anywhere she can. From helping her family settle into America when she was just learning how to speak English, to volunteering at soup kitchens and going on mission trips with her church, to finally making the decision to join the Air Force Reserve. She embodies the core value of “service before self.”

“I enjoy being in the military. I feel like I'm living my life, and I'm able to give back,” said Chuol. “I hope that one day one of my brothers will follow into my footsteps, or even my future children. I hope that I can lead the way, that I can be a good example.”

Her military career so far exemplifies her willingness to volunteer and her inherent need to do more in her community.

“She was inquiring about things that she can do before she was even back from tech school,” said Tech Sgt. Gregory Gaussa, program coordinator with the 911th Airlift Wing Development and Training Flight. “What can she do to further her training, what can she do to try to get a job out here full time.”

Though she has not been in the unit for very long, she has already left quite the impression on her fellow Airmen and supervisors.

“She seems to be very open to getting to know others as well as allowing others to get to know her,” said Scott.

This chapter of her life is just beginning, but her story is already packed full of incredible experiences. Though her story is one full of hardships, triumphs and sacrifices, she says that she is just trying to live her life.

“I want people to know I am a normal person, just like everyone else,” said Chuol. “I look different, and I'm okay with that. But I'm just the same as everyone else just with different experiences.”