From civil war to centre court World-travelled athlete finds home with the Trojans

At first glance, Nyawal Bukjok’s height is immediately apparent. At six-foot-one, the SAIT first-year business administrative student stands with confidence and poise.

It’s hard to believe that behind her smiling eyes lays a story most SAIT students could not imagine living.

Nineteen-year-old Bukjok, a newly recruited forward for the SAIT women’s basketball team, was born in Kenya and lived there with her mother. Bukjok was separated from the rest of her family – her father and her siblings – due to the Sudanese civil war. When she was six, Bukjok and her family were reunited in Ethiopia.

Her only memory of the war is one most Canadian six-year-olds would never experience. “I was home alone,” says Bukjok. “I was peeking outside my window and I saw a group of men running towards each other with spears and stuff.”

When Bukjok got the news she was going to be able to leave the country, it was out of the blue. Bukjok escaped the war-torn country in 1999 with her cousin and her cousin’s fiancé.

At the time, the members of her family weren’t together. As a result, Bukjok couldn’t say good-bye to her mother. “We didn’t think it was going to be permanent,” says Bukjok.

She landed in Newfoundland and stayed there until about 2001. “It was cold,” says Bukjok. “But good.”

Other than the cold weather, Bukjok adapted to life in Canada with minimal difficulties. “There are a lot more opportunities, more education,” says Bukjok. “And it’s safer.”

After living in Ontario for two years, she made her way to Calgary in 2003.

Bukjok settled into living in Calgary. She lived with her cousins until her Grade 12 year when she moved out on her own. Her community at Crescent Heights high school and the friends she made there soon filled the role of a family unit.

“I consider them family rather than my biological family,” says Bukjok.

Despite adjusting to Canadian culture, Bukjok still has moments where she misses her mother, whom she was forced to leave behind. “I see myself so much in her,” says Bukjok. “She’s a strong, beautiful and very ambitious woman. I miss everything about her.”

Crescent Heights’ principal, Arvin Rajan, describes Bukjok as a vibrant, enthusiastic and funny person. “She always makes people laugh,” he says. “She is an extremely positive and resilient person. I don’t know many people that would be able to cope with some of her life experiences.”

“Nyawal would make any father proud,” says Rajan.

Bukjok has always relied on her faith to get through difficult times. “God is a huge part of my life,” she says. “(My family) went through a lot, and we would always pray.”

Bukjok now fills her time with school, a modeling career and practicing for the Trojans’ basketball season opener.

The commitment and dedication required for the SAIT Trojans team is at a higher level than what Bukjok is accustomed to. “There is a lot more competition, and a lot of commitment,” she says.

Bukjok plans to continue her studies at SAIT and eventually study psychology. She currently has landed immigrant permanent residency status in Canada but is working towards her Canadian citizenship.

Women’s basketball coach Donovan Martin, who recruited Bukjok, says she’s an “intimidating presence in the key.”  He adds that she entertains her teammates when they’re off the court.

“She’s always upbeat and keeps the team loose,” he said.

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