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Former child of war getting a chance to make a dream come true

Sunday - 2/23/2014, 6:35pm  ET

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Medical students from South Sudan study at their kitchen table in Grenada. They are receiving a free education at St. George's University and are expected to return home and serve their country. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)

St. George's, Grenada - He was one of the lost boys of Sudan. But years later, Joseph Rufino has found his way, and his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor is finally coming true.

Rufino guesses he was about 11 when Sudan's long civil war came to his village in the late 1980s. Rival groups were nabbing boys to turn them into child soldiers. Without as much as a good-bye to his family, he disappeared into the bush beginning a long trek away from the war, his home and his country.

He saw things no child should see: packs of lost boys facing disease, hunger and the always present danger posed by wild animals.

"I went through that -- I went through that," he remembers with a sigh.

The survivors walked into Ethiopia and finally ended up at a refugee camp in Kenya where Rufino was trained to work in a medical clinic run by the International Red Cross. He grew into manhood in the camp and stayed there until offered a chance to resettle in the United States in 2001.

Once settled in Kansas City, he studied medical books on his own even though he doubted that his dream of becoming a doctor would come true. In a recent interview with the CBS program "60 Minutes" he said, "My main aim was to go to school in order for me to be what I have said, to be a doctor. But things fell apart."

When the interview aired, it caught the attention of Americans connected to St. George's University in Grenada. The university -- known for its for-profit, international medical school -- offered him an all-expenses paid education.

Joseph Rufino leans against a table as his fellow South Sudanese medical students study in Grenada. HE who escaped from South Sudan during the civil war in the 1980s, came to the U.S. in 2001 dreaming of becoming a doctor. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)

Rufino joined 12 others -- 11 men and one woman -- in a special program for South Sudanese students. The goal: to create new physicians to serve in a country that currently has less than 200 doctors for the entire population of roughly 11 million people.

All the students in the program have promised to go back to South Sudan once they earn their degrees, with the exception of Rufino.

After living in the United States for 13 years, Rufino hasn't made up his mind where he will practice medicine. Maybe he'll return to Missouri, maybe he'll go to Africa.

But his classmate, Andrew Wieu Kuac, who left behind four children in South Sudan to study medicine, will return.

"I have to go back after qualifying here, I have to go and work for my own people," he says.

Andrew Wieu Kuac was a medical aide before coming to Grenada. He says he can't wrap his head around why all this is happening but adds, "I will simply say, it is a call from God."

He and the other students will return to a country with growing pains, poverty, and bloody clashes between rival groups.

The students selected by St. George's come from different factions of the current conflict. Now they share a dorm suite.

Marko Mou Mel says they want to return and heal their country in more ways than one.

"We shall go as ambassadors of peace," he says.

In the meantime, as they study, they hear the steel drums that infuse the streets of Grenada in the distance -- different from the drums of Africa, yet still familiar.

"I think it is like deja vu," says Clarice Modeste, Grenada's Minister of Health. She speaks of the African ancestors of many who live in the South Caribbean. And says she wants the South Sudanese to feel welcome.

Marko Mou Mel says he can feel the kinship. As he studies in their kitchen surrounded by books and his laptop, he looks up and says "I am feeling now that I am at home."

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