Wai Jon Wai ’07 escaped civil-war-torn Sudan with his family and today runs a Sudanese American Youth Center in San Diego to help kids like him succeed in the U.S.
Wai came to the U.S. in August 1995 with the help of a re-settlement program.
“I was ten years old and we had a lot of hopes and dreams to go to school and live a good life,” Wai says. “I wanted to be somebody big, so when I got to America I wanted to study hard.”
He lived with his aunt and cousins in an apartment provided by Catholic Charities. Then the Wohlfiel family, whose son was on his school basketball team, helped him find his path.
“They started asking questions and then started supporting me personally,” Wai says.
The Wohlfiels became his second family, taking Wai to and from school and buying him clothes and other necessities. Rachel Wohlfiel, who attended CUI briefly, encouraged Wai to consider the university because it provided a Christian environment and a good place to run track.
Wai was accepted and he ran track and cross country and worked on campus. He studied history and political science and is grateful to professors Jacqueline Brown, Dan Van Voorhis and Ken Ebel.
“My time at Concordia went by really fast,” Wai says.
In 2009, Wai helped found the Sudanese American Youth Center in San Diego to help recent immigrants who needed job and cultural training to get along in the U.S.
“There were people within the community that realized that even though we live in the United States, many of our youth do not succeed in life,” Wai says. “We all volunteer to help Sudanese to succeed academically and go to college, or get a job. The youth center teaches them how to be successful in the United States.”
Community members pooled their money and rented a space from 2009-14. Forty people a day visited the center to relax or seek assistance, often with translating or filling out paperwork.
“We would invite people to teach families on financial literacy, educate families about the American education system and how to communicate with their child’s teachers,” Wai says.
“We believe education is the only way for our community to move forward as new Americans.”
The Sudanese community in San Diego is dispersing into other areas of the country and the Sudanese Center is now housed at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, offering activities mostly on weekends. Wai works at NCR, repairing point-of-sale machines at places like Target, Wal-Mart and banks.
“I am absolutely grateful for my time at Concordia,” he says. “I came to where I am because someone was always helping me. I’m just passing on what was given to me.”