PORTLAND – Aruna Kenyi returns today to the native country he fled 16 years ago, for a reunion with parents he hasn’t seen since he was 7 years old.

He carries with him haunting memories of war-torn Sudan: seeing dead bodies strewn along a road, swimming across a swift river in the rain, crying for the people and the village he left behind.

He also carries a dream: to return to that village in southern Sudan and establish a lunch program at the Kansuk Primary School, so children will have the nutrition they need to learn.

It’s a project that sprang from his studies as a community health education major at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he is a senior. He will be gone for three months, at a time when Sudan’s political future is of global concern, but he is undaunted.

“One of the things I’ve learned is the association between academic success and good nutrition,” Kenyi, 21, said before his departure. “Many kids in Kansuk, they go to school and don’t eat all day. They have the opportunity to go home for lunch, but some students, they walk two hours to get to school, so it’s not possible. For that reason, many kids decide not to go to school.”

One of nine children, Kenyi left Kansuk when he was 5 years old, just before Arab militias from northern Sudan destroyed the village where he was born.

In January, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north this coming July, but northern leaders are refusing to give up the oil-rich region of Abyei. Despite ongoing political tensions, Kenyi said he feels safe returning to Sudan because his village is far from Abyei.

His parents, William and Madelena Yobo, now live in Yei, a few hours from Kansuk. His father, a rebel soldier in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, lost a leg during the war and walks with crutches.

Kenyi is rarely able to speak with his parents because cellphone coverage in southern Sudan is weak and costly. Some family members there know he’s coming, but he hasn’t told his parents.

“I’m going to try to surprise them,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting them and trying to catch up.”

The last time Kenyi saw his parents, the family was living in a refugee camp on the Sudan-Uganda border. When he was 7, his parents sent him and two other brothers to live with an older brother, Yugu Yobo, then 17 and living at another refugee camp in Uganda. Yugu Yobo had applied to come to the United States as a refugee, and his parents wanted all of the boys to have a chance at a better life.

They finally came to the United States when Kenyi was nearly 14. They settled in Newport News, Va., then moved to Portland, where they knew other Sudanese families. Kenyi enrolled at Portland High School as a sophomore when he was 15 and graduated in 2007.

After attending Southern Maine Community College, he transferred to UMF. When Kenyi isn’t in school, he lives with his family in Portland and works in food services at Maine Medical Center.

Last year, Kenyi published a memoir, “Between Two Rivers,” which he started writing in high school and completed with help from The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center in Portland that promotes young authors.

Since Kenyi developed the idea of starting a school lunch program in Kansuk, he has raised $2,600 to support his effort, with donations coming from individuals, student groups at UMF and Trinity United Methodist Church in Farmington.

He will arrive in Kansuk with little more than an idea, because he has only vague memories and limited knowledge of the school, which he believes serves about 200 students. He hopes he can persuade school officials to support the need to feed students and to help him establish a lunch program.

“I’m looking forward to the project,” Kenyi said. “I want to give back. This is a good chance to exercise our leadership and show that we can do more together than just working by ourselves.”

If he is unable to establish a lunch program before returning to Maine in late August, Kenyi said he will make it a long-term goal and will use the money he has collected to buy textbooks for the school. But he is committed to the cause.

“At college, we are referred to as change agents,” Kenyi said. “I look forward to the challenges that come my way. What I cannot overcome, I just push out of my way.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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