Two continents, one family
Nearly six years later, 17-year-old James Dhieu Smith relaxes on the sofa at his home in this Texas suburb, just west of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.
His brother, Paul Nyok Smith, 20, is completing his sophomore year at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Paul wants to be a doctor. So does James. The family spends their Sundays at the Legacy church in nearby North Richland Hills.
A soccer and cross-country standout at Trinity High School, James sports a low-cropped mohawk — not exactly a traditional hairstyle of the Dinka Ngok tribe, his people back in southern Sudan.
The Dinka prize individuality and would come to respect his new look, James says, with just a touch of teenage swagger. But his close friends would likely give him a hard time about it, he says with a chuckle.
He misses some aspects of his former life — “some stuff back home,” as he calls it. But he doesn’t miss the uncertainty.
In Sudan “you wake up every morning and, if you’re still alive …” The teenager pauses, tossing his hands in a gesture that seems to say, “So be it.”
“Here, it’s a little safer, and you have the freedom to do what you want,” he says.
After a quick glance at his adopted mom and dad, he adds, “if your parents allow it.”
FINDING FAMILY IN SUDAN
Paul and James don’t remember much about their father, a respected Dinka and field commander in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA, fighting against the northern militias.
The bloody conflict between Sudan’s Muslim north and Christian south lasted more than 20 years and claimed thousands of lives, including the boys’ father, who died just after James was born.
Fleeing the heavily armed militias, the boys’ grandmother, Rebecca, took them from their home along the Sobat River into neighboring Ethiopia. Eventually, they settled in Nimule, a southern Sudanese town a few miles north of the Ugandan border.
Mike Smith, a physician’s assistant and retired commander with the U.S. Navy Medical Department, traveled to Nimule to help rebuild a hospital, treat patients and build a Bible school. He examined Rebecca, suffering from a large goiter. She told him about her two grandsons — and the uncertain future they faced.
Soon after, James and a group of friends started following Smith to work every day. Some were hoping for money. Others were fascinated by his white face.
As Smith approached the hospital, most of the boys lost interest, but “James stuck with me,” he said. “Here was this 11-year-old boy … who didn’t want anything. Then one day he said, ‘Dr. Mike, I’m going to teach you Arabic and Dinka.’”
Smith became fast friends with James and his brother, who had a job making mud bricks. Smith also earned the respect of the Dinka people, and in December 2001 the local governor, also an SPLA field commander, approached him about the boys.
“Take Paul into your camp now,” the governor said. Soldiers were going through the villages that night, forcing all boys age 15 and up to join the army, but “Paul will be safe in your compound.” Smith, used to following military orders, complied.
Originally the Smiths planned only to pay for the boys’ education. They had raised two daughters, now in their mid-30s, and their two grandsons were about the same ages as Paul and James. As time passed, the couple realized that God was forging them into a family.
“We had an empty nest for a long time, and I was very set in my ways,” Susan Smith said. But after that staticky phone call, “I think God began preparing my heart for them.”
In Sudan and the United States, the couple began the adoption process.
Rebecca was thrilled for her grandsons. She hosted an elaborate adoption ceremony under the mango trees outside her home. Soldiers and government officials attended and listened to Rebecca make a long speech in the Dinka language.
One of the boys’ uncles, Bol Malou Gak Kiir, asked Smith if he understood what she said. It was something about adoption, he guessed.
Kiir smiled and explained that it was not customary for Dinka to allow outsiders to raise their children. So Rebecca had “adopted” the Smiths.
“You just became Dinka,” Kiir said.
LIVING IN TWO WORLDS
Since he was little, Paul had prayed that God would send him a new dad.
“I just didn’t think he’d be white,” Paul said during a school assembly in Mbale, Uganda, where he and James spent about a year studying before moving to Texas. The comment brought down the house, his father said.
Susan Smith said she was surprised how quickly her new sons adapted to life in the U.S. “When they got here, they just kind of slid right in,” she said.
When asked about the massive cultural transition he’s had to make, James shrugged. “I kind of look at the way things go and I find a way to adjust,” he said. “I don’t know how it happens. I just try to go with the flow.”
He returned to Sudan recently and said the experience was “like a parade.” Surrounded by his friends, he fielded question after question about the United States. (“I don’t think I walk on streets of gold every day,” he assured them.)
The boys may have additional chances to visit home — and perhaps travel the globe — with their father. Michael Smith is a volunteer partner in Body and Soul Ministries, a medical mission founded by dentist John Bailey that provides free medical, dental and optical care in countries such as Mexico and Indonesia.
The family also works with John Gak, a Sudanese church member who oversees Brothers Organization for Relief, sponsored by the Swope Parkway church in Kansas City, Mo. Paul plans to accompany Gak this summer to Kongor, Sudan, where the ministry is building a Bible school.
“Paul and James are wonderful, spiritually rich additions to our family,” their father said. “God alone knows how they will serve his kingdom in the years ahead — probably both in America and in Sudan.”
“I did not go to Sudan seeking children,” he added, “but God is sometimes full of surprises.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, see www.bandsministries.org.