Graduate overcomes homeland's civil war, political unrest to earn degree

Haak Betiem gently cradles his iPhone in his fingers, proudly showing a family photo from 2017. It’s hard to miss the beaded bracelet stylized like the flag of his home nation, South Sudan, adorning his right wrist. 

In the image, Betiem poses with his sisters — a group of young people who have escaped atrocities and hardship to find sanctuary at a United Nations camp for internally displaced people — as they bid him farewell on his journey to America. 

A journey that stretched more than 7,300 miles across two continents and an ocean reaches an important milestone on December 10.

A person's hands holds a phone showing a picture of people

A life of turmoil and upheaval will be granted a moment of jubilation when Betiem receives his master’s degree in health administration and is recognized with a Graduate Dean’s Citation for Academic Excellence. 

Since August, he’s been employed at Spectrum Health Hospitals Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, leading a team responsible for the sterilization of instruments and facilities.

“It means a lot to me to be graduating,” Betiem said. “Now I can show my real talent and skill I learned from GVSU. It’s like a dream come true. All I can do now is work hard to achieve that dream.” 

He has survived four years as a child soldier in Sudan’s brutal civil war; 10 years at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya; and the targeted elimination of his fellow tribe members, the Nuer, during the South Sudanese Civil War which began in 2013. 

“Peace is coming slowly, but the security situation remains terrible countrywide,” Betiem said.

Now as it appears the conflict in South Sudan is subsiding, global warming and climate change have unleashed flooding on a massive scale across his homeland, endangering farmland and prolonging a famine. Ninety percent of the land in Mayendit County, South Sudan, Betiem’s home, is underwater, he said. 

“I want to find partners or work with academic researchers to find a solution to the flooding which has engulfed my home country,” he said.

It has been a remarkable odyssey for Betiem, who survived to find a new life in the United States and eventually Michigan. 

“I have worked with Haak as his advisor, and it has been inspiring to watch him encourage others, overcome barriers, and grow in resilience,” said Raymond Higbea, director of the School of Public, Nonprofit, Health, Hospitality and Tourism Management. 

A person wearing a cap and gown has their hands in the air. The words Grand Valley State are on a building in the background.
Haak Betiem's journey stretched more than 7,300 miles.

Betiem initially came to the United States as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative. Begun by the Obama administration in 2010, the program brings young African students and community leaders to the United States to further their education or develop their leadership abilities.

After a short stint at Texas Tech, a cousin invited him to stay with her family in Grand Rapids. That’s when he found Grand Valley. 

“I like the way President (Philomena V.) Mantella talks, and she understands that people with limited financial backgrounds deserve opportunities too,” Betiem said. “Her comments motivate me and keep me moving. 

“My advisor, the president, everyone, they want to make sure that everybody gets that opportunity, and that is amazing. They looked at me as a human being that deserves an opportunity.”

Betiem is profoundly grateful for those opportunities he received. He did not know if they would ever happen. 

The Second Sudanese Civil War plunged the country into a political and ethnic conflict that scarred the landscape and its people. The war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy and others of attempting a coup d’état.

The country’s two main tribes — the Nuer and the Dinka — soon became entwined in the political unrest. As members of the Nuer, Betiem and his family found themselves targeted by the Dinka led government.

Betiem described one harrowing event with him, his brother and his brother-in-law soon after Kiir strengthened his grip in the main city, Juba. The president’s loyalists were corralling and questioning anyone whom they deemed as sympathetic to the opposition’s cause. The three men and others were thrown into an underground jail with little daylight. 

“Even if it was noon, it was dark down there,” Betiem said. “At night, they would beam a light on people, and you are told to look up into the light. There were people they were specifically targeting. They would come and look around, take them out and kill them. We never saw those people again.”

Betiem survived merely because he gained the favor of the official in charge. Within a week, he was released. 

A person looks out the window at buildings.
A person wearing a cap and a tassel looks out a window at buildings.
Betiem works at Spectrum Health Hospitals Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, leading a team responsible for the sterilization of instruments and facilities.

And yet despite all he’s faced, Betiem said he would like to return one day to help in the development of South Sudan and be with his family, particularly his three sons, who are all under 10 years old. His three boys are living with their mother, sisters and other family members in the safety of Uganda.

If he were to return to South Sudan, his education at GVSU and his time in health administration as a supervisor will be a tremendous asset, he said.

“They need people who have a health care background,” Betiem said. “I would be able to help more people with these skills, that was the whole idea. If I choose to remain in the United States, that also is a skill that is needed anywhere as I am an essential asset now.”

“My time at Grand Valley has been very rewarding. I’ve made a lot of connections with people who will be my friends for life. It’s given me the opportunity to access a liberal education, and now I’m ready to explore the world. I’m so grateful.”