A great new look
Dr. Tom Balshi of Fort Washington explains how he will install a permanent set of artificial teeth in John Maluk Yak’s mouth. Six of Yak’s teeth were pulled when he was a boy in the Sudan. There, the absence of bottom teeth is a tribal identifier and a precursor to marriage and manhood.
One of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” has a new set of teeth to help him on his way to a diplomatic career.
By Marion Callahan
Staff photos by Rich Kennedy
John Maluk Yak was only 8 when elders of his Sudanese tribe pulled six teeth from his lower jaw. He didn’t cry.
No anesthesia was given to numb the pain. Still, he kept silent.
“I wanted to make my family proud” said Yak, recalling the Dinka tribal ritual that marked his journey from childhood to adulthood. “This was an initiation ceremony, something you had to do.”
In the Sudan, the absence of bottom teeth is a tribal identifier, a precursor to marriage and manhood.
In America, it was a nuisance, a gap that magnified the already glaring differences he had to sort through to fit in.
His mouth drew stares and ridicule at high school, along with questions that Yak became tired of answering. Certain foods, like apples, were hard to chew. But the eating setbacks mattered less than losing the ability to speak articulately and smile proudly.
When I first arrived here, I tried to speak, but couldn’t pronounce certain words,” said Yak, who stumbled through words with “th” and “s” in them. “Also, teeth make you look good. And you don’t have to worry about smiling if you have good teeth.”
Tuesday, morning, a Fort Washington doctor gave Yak something to smile about — a permanent set of artificial teeth.”
Yak, 20, was prepped for them last week, when Dr. Tom Balshi surgically attached titanium implants to his jaw. Also Tuesday, 21-year-old Joseph “Malual” Thuc, another Sudanese refugee who lives with Yak, underwent the first stage surgery to get his teeth.
After the procedure, Yak stared raptly into a mirror, his mind drifting to another place, a world removed from the dental chair and the sterile room surrounding him.
“All I could think about was home,” Yak said. “That was where I was the last time I had teeth like this in my mouth. They are just great. Now, I’m back.”
Yak and Thuc were among the Lost Boys of Sudan, a roaming band of orphaned boys fleeing East Africa’s wars over the past decade. They were driven from their villages and embarked on a month-long trek across the country. Yak and Thuc both remember the day their harrowing journey began.
Yak was watching over the family’s cattle when he heard gunfire and fled. Thuc was playing with other children when he saw soldiers, tanks and warplanes torch his village.
They both began to run, joining thousands of other children heading in the same direction.
“When we saw adults, they told us to run. They said they had to die on ‘our soil,’ ” Thuc said. Soon after the encounter, Thuc learned his father had been killed. He had to keep walking.
Along the way, they saw many children die either from hunger, drowning and/or wild animal attacks.
They tried to bury them all. The crossing of the Gilo River “took the most lives,” Yak said. He trudged through the crocodile-infested river with a small boy on his shoulders.
“I had to walk straight and keep moving forward,” he said. Yak saw many heads go beneath the water, never to come up.
More than a month later, they reached a refugee camp in Ethiopia, just east of Sudan. Once they had reached the crowded camp, food was scarce. They were given one serving of corn or wheat a day.
The conditions, they thought, were temporary.
The small mud huts they erected to protect them from the rain and the sun became their homes for several years.
Eight years into their stay, an opportunity beckoned. American immigration authorities offered them new homes, new lives.
“They said we would go to the U.S.A.,” recalled Thuc, who remembered his peers warning him about America’s history of slavery. “I didn’t know what to think. I just knew I had to trust what I was told. I would get education. That is what mattered most to me.”
Yak and Thuc’s journey to America ended in Philadelphia, where Louise Shoemaker, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, opened her arms and her home to the boys.
Their first shock after exiting the plane, was snow.
“It was so cold,” said Thuc. “I never thought I would get warm again.”
The winter jackets Louise brought to the airport were too short for Thuc, who stood 6 feet 4 inches, and especially for Yak, who towered at 6 feet 8 inches.
Over the next few months, Yak and Thuc learned to navigate through the snow and the American culture.
“At first they ate with only spoons and would bring napkins with them to restaurants,” Shoemaker said. “But they were very keen observing and would pick up on everything — especially how to dress — very quickly.”
It didn’t take long for them to fit in. They found jobs, and began sending money home to their families. Last year, Yak and Thuc graduated from high school.
Now they are students at Wagner College in New York.
Thuc, who is studying political science, hopes to become a diplomat. He knows that in this profession he will do a great deal of talking. Satisfied with his good education, he only had one more wish — new teeth.
“Right now I can’t speak the way I’m supposed to, and I have good ideas to share,” said Thuc, minutes before his surgery. “But I’m embarrased to smile and open my mouth. Soon, I know, I’ll feel good about smiling and talking.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be in America, away from home.” said Yak, who has been separated from his partents nearly 16 years. “Drawing is how I remember my country. One day, I hope to return and see the same image again.”