One Man’s Journey From a Refugee Camp in Ethiopia to UN Headquarters in NYC
Two decades after fleeing a brutal war, a former child refugee from South Sudan realizes a lifelong dream.
Gatluak Ramdiet was 9 years old when he was separated from his parents. One morning they went out looking for food and never returned.
His family was living in Sudan at a time when violence in the country had turned to genocide. Government forces and militias were bombing and raiding villages, causing thousands of orphaned children to flee the country on foot. Gatluak — who goes by “Gat” for short — was one of those children. He and his brother walked for nearly a week before reaching a refugee camp in western Ethiopia. It was only then that he stopped scanning the skies for bombs overheard.
Today, nearly 20 years later, Gat is studying at the University of Nebraska College of Law and finishing up a summer internship at the United Nations headquarters in New York. I recently spoke with Gat about his incredible journey and why interning at the UN fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams.
Tell me about your childhood. Where were you born?
I was born in what is now South Sudan, but back then it was Sudan. When I was about 9 years old, the civil war that has displaced many Sudanese sent me to a refugee camp in western Ethiopia. I spent six years at the camp, mostly living on what aid agencies provided. I was cared for by the UN and all of the organizations that were operating with the UN.
The first time I ever attended school was because UNICEF was there, providing school materials. Before then, I didn’t know the UN existed. I was seeing UN flags and emblems, staff members that were representing the UN, either helping distribute food or talking to kids or coming in through some sort of medical team. But I really didn’t understand why there was a need for the UN beyond my own experience, that there were other children like me who had fled war in other countries.
“The first time I ever attended school was because UNICEF was there, providing school materials. Before then, I didn’t know the UN existed.”
In 2006, six years after I got to the refugee camp, I was resettled to the United States and came here with my two brothers. We’ve lived in Omaha, Nebraska ever since. For the first time, I attended a real school in a real classroom. I was 15 years old in the 9th grade in Omaha, and that’s where I learned to read, write, and speak English.
Twelve years later, I’m in my last year of law school. I couldn’t have done it without some super amazing teachers who were as dedicated to teach as I was to learn. That’s a kudos to teachers everywhere. It wouldn’t have happened without their dedication. I’m sure they were frustrated at times, but they never gave up on me obviously.
Why did you decide to intern at the UN?
As s a kid, I wanted to be a UN staffer because of the great work they were doing at the camp. They were literally changing lives and helping others in what seemed like a hopeless situation. All the people on the ground at these refugee camps are true heroes: WFP staff, UNICEF staff. I know this firsthand from my own experience. I admired them greatly. They were there to clothe and feed my brothers and I and all the other refugees. They made me want to join the UN when I grew up. To me, at the time and even now, it seems like there is no more noble a cause.
I also knew that for a kid in my situation, working for the UN was an unlikely wish, but I must have wished real hard. When I was resettled to Omaha, I took the opportunity to chase that dream.
“All the people on the ground at these refugee camps are true heroes: WFP staff, UNICEF staff. I know this firsthand from my own experience.”
How did you react when you first found out that you got the UN internship?
When I found out, I started having flashbacks of my days at the refugee camp and wishing that I would work at the UN one day, realizing this childhood dream of mine is coming true. It was one of the happiest days of my life, only comparable to being accepted into law school. My older brother thought I was joking because he knew this is something I’ve always wanted. But then I showed him the official letter, and he was super happy for me. It doesn’t happen very often that a childhood dream comes true. At least not for many refugees, unfortunately.
Tell me about your internship at the UN. What has it been like?
It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I work at the Office of Legal Affairs, which is a great and important part of the UN. Everybody here is a professional and they expect you to be on top of your game every day. I’m doing legal research for the attorneys in the office. It’s been a great learning opportunity. I had the chance to attend several UN Security Council meetings, which were very exciting because a guy living in Nebraska doesn’t often get a chance to attend such high-level meetings. And it doesn’t get any better from a law student’s perspective.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet ambassadors from all kinds of countries. I’ve attended meetings about South Sudan and watched the Security Council pass resolutions on South Sudan. Those were interesting experiences and obviously hit home because I knew what they were talking about. It’s also been quite an experience to see how these decisions are made. Watching all of these leaders come together to discuss world problems and coming up with solutions about the general good that you don’t get to see very often.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many interns and enjoyed myself hanging out with young people from all over the world. It’s the most diverse group of professionals you’ll ever meet. It’s been such a privilege. I met a guy here from the Central African Republic who went through a very similar experience as I did. That crazy encounter reminded me that there are still people going through what I went through as a kid. That was a touching moment for me. They’re here to do their part to make the world a better place, and that’s so inspiring.
Why do you think perspectives like yours are so important to be heard at the UN?
I think it’s critical that we have people who’ve actually gone through these kinds of experiences to be able to come to the UN and contribute in a way that will make the UN a better organization. If you look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the #1 goal is no poverty. And if you don’t have people who have experienced real poverty at the UN, you can’t measure what progress really looks like or to really understand the reality of what living in poverty is like.
I didn’t know about the SDGs until I attended law school. I knew about the sustainable goals after I started carefully reading the UN charter and I was doing research. It just puts the whole thing together. This is what collectively we want the world to look like, but we need everyone to make it real.
I think it’s too easy for people not to pay attention to what the UN is doing because life in the U.S. is very different from life in a refugee camp. The work of the UN is often the only stability that most refugees know.
“The work of the UN is often the only stability that most refugees know.”
What would you say to someone who doesn’t understand the UN’s impact or importance?
As long as there are still conflicts in the world, the UN is an absolute necessity. If the UN didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m a product of the work the UN does. I’m the product of these collective efforts for humanity to come together in times of chaos. How do you feed families that are running for their lives? How do you help two conflicting parties find agreement? We need the UN to be there to ensure that we are living up to our part of the deal when we say we need to save our planet. To stop global warming, we need treaties. We need global commitments. I think it’s absolutely necessary, especially when we’re facing something like war or climate change.
“If the UN didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here today.”
What does the future hold for you?
I’m studying international law and interested in criminal and civil law. In August I start my last year of law school at the University of Nebraska College of Law. We’ll see what happens in a year or so and after I pass the bar. But generally, I’m trying to contribute to my community and do good when and where I can. Maybe it’s because I missed a lot of school as a child, but I’m starved for knowledge. I just want to continue learning. That’s one of the reasons I chose to go to law school. I want to keep learning everything.
Wherever I end up at the end of the day, my overall goal hasn’t changed: I want to contribute to my community any way I can and leave the world a better place than I found it.