He was once called a Lost Boy but today, his official title is Councilor-Elect.
Chol Majok won the 3rd District Common Council seat in Syracuse, New York, this week, becoming the first former refugee in city history to do so, according to Onondaga County’s Board of Elections.
“One of the things that I am certain about is when you are not at the table where policy and decisions are being made, you are not counted, you are not part of that narrative,” said Majok.
Majok arrived in Syracuse 18 years ago with other Lost Boys of Sudan — a group of 20,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the second Sudanese civil war in which about 2 million were killed. He was 16 years old and anxious to begin building his life.
He lived in foster homes until he turned 18, and although he was there for just two years, he says the conditions he experienced in the system changed his life.
“They are conditions that people in a first world country should not be in. So coupled with where I came from and what I saw, I just wanted something different,” he said.
Syracuse’s poverty rate is among the highest in the United States. About 32.6% of the population lives below the poverty line, according the latest figures by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Crime, gun violence and high poverty rates once again became part of his reality in his newly adopted country.
“As somebody that came from that conditions you ask yourself, what is going on here. It seems like everywhere I go there is this poverty that never separates from me and its only right to say you know what I can’t just stand by and watch, let me try to be part of the solution,” said Majok.
Majok’s mother died when he was 2 years old. His father, who died during the war, fought for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army which was originally founded as a guerrilla movement against the government of Sudan in 1983 and was a key participant in the war.
Now a husband and father of five, Majok earned a Master’s degree in Political Science and is now pursuing a doctorate in Executive Leadership.
A seat on the council is considered a part time job, so Majok says he will continue with his other work with Alliance for Economic Inclusion, an employment program that helps people find and keep their jobs by offering services like transportation, child care or interpersonal skills.
Onondaga County Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny said Majok’s win is “going to be a boon for the growing refugee community here in central New York and specifically the city of Syracuse.”
“They see this as a victory for them and they now have a voice on the city council that will cater to their specific needs,” said Czarny.
Majok plans to focus on service delivery in Syracuse, particularly with snow plowing. But he says he also wants to be a bridge between law enforcement and the community, who he says doesn’t have trust with police officers.
He says he also hopes his win will inspire other immigrants.
“I didn’t realize that when I got into the race until toward the end of it when so many of my brother and sisters start calling everywhere and just encouraged me to keep going. Then I realized it was bigger than me,” he said.