By Lee Haye-ah
SEOUL, Aug. 8 (Yonhap) -- July 9 is not a day their South Korean friends mark on their calendars unless it happens to be their birthday or some other anniversary. But for two South Sudanese students here, it became the greatest day of celebrations this year, because their country gained independence that day.
John Mayen, 24, and Santino Deng, 26, both from South Sudan, are in South Korea to study on a scholarship program set up by the late South Korean Catholic priest John Lee Tae-seok, who died last year at the age of 47 after years of philanthropic activities in the war-ravaged African country.
A doctor and musician himself, the priest, nicknamed the "Schweitzer of Sudan," built a school and a hospital and launched a youth brass band, showing loving care to everyone in the country, which lost 2 million lives in two decades of war against Muslim-led north Sudan.
Mayen and Deng arrived in South Korea separately in 2009 and 2010 after studying at the Don Bosco School that Father Lee set up in the poverty-stricken village, Tonj. They have been friends since they started attending Don Bosco's primary school.
"(It was) really a good day," Mayen said in a recent interview, talking about the July 9 celebrations that included competitive bowling matches with his Korean and South Sudanese friends. "We couldn't really celebrate with other Sudanese, but celebrating with Koreans was really, you know, a kind of a different mood."
Deng said he first met Lee in 2003, two years after the priest moved to Tonj, thanks to his own father who fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital that Lee built. It was the only available facility near Deng's hometown of Warrap, and his father soon sent him a letter, saying he should come and study at Father Lee's school.
Father Lee's dedication to the poorest and sickest people of Tonj was documented in a film released last year following his death. The movie, titled "Don't Cry for Me, Sudan," set a box office record for its genre in South Korea.
Every mention of Father Lee softened the voices of his two former students. It was in part the memory of his sacrifices and sincerity that had helped them through tough times spent adjusting to South Korean culture, language, weather and even food.
Mayen is now only months away from studying medicine at South Korea's Inje University, based in the southeastern city of Gimhae, where Father Lee earned his medical degree.
"After that, I will probably go back to Tonj and try to do some voluntary work," he said. "I want to help. That's what I've been aiming at since I was a kid -- helping other people, helping my country to develop, treating other people because there are still so many people suffering from different kinds of diseases, such as malaria, cholera, tuberculosis."
Deng said he hopes to help his fledgling country in a different way -- by studying civil engineering and applying it to build infrastructure.
"My hometown, it's not so much developed, so if I see some structures being raised, I say 'wow,'" he said.
"When we were together with Father Lee, I told him about development -- our hometown is getting developed -- but he was just laughing at me. He could make jokes like that: 'You still don't know what a developed country is, so you will see.' When I came, I realized," Deng said, recalling his arrival at Incheon International Airport, South Korea's main gateway.
Whether it's about treating sick people or building roads, Mayen and Deng both knew that none of their plans could be possible without education, which is something they learned not to take for granted.
Deng spent two years of his childhood without school after it was shut down in the war. In "Don't Cry for Me, Sudan," he was filmed as a high school student at Don Bosco, saying he had to "try by all means to study" and to be like Father Lee.
That kind of determination brought Deng and Mayen here, and Mayen said he believes his people have something to learn from the education fervor of South Koreans.
"They take education seriously. So what I tell (my friends) is, 'Please, you should be serious about your studies. You study hard. You do all that you can,'" he said.
The two said they are uneasy about fighting that still persists along the poorly defined border with north Sudan.
"We still have our brothers suffering there. If you know your brother is still suffering, though you are eating well and you're staying well, you can't enjoy that life," Deng said, adding that he had lost an uncle in the war.
Mayen said that during his stay in South Korea, he has learned how to end the tragedy in his country.
"If our people can unite, if they stop all the violence and conflicts and cooperate together, whatever they aim at, at last, for sure they can achieve it," he said.
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