February 13, 2017 | 4:00am
One of the first thoughts that comedian James Thiep had when he landed in the U.S. came with a ready-made punchline. "I saw the words 'restrooms' and in my tribal language, that would mean a mortuary," says Thiep, who is from Sudan. "So I was thinking, 'How frequently do people die at the airport?'"
Thiep emigrated to the U.S. in 2001 while fleeing the Second Sudanese Civil War that lasted almost 22 years, killed 2 million civilians and displaced 4 million people, including more than 20,000 boys. He was one of the 4,000 "Lost Boys of Sudan" who emigrated from Sudan, which is now one of seven countries affected by Trump's travel ban.
Thiep landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City not sure of his exact age, much less the country he would call his new home. He had spent most of his childhood either fleeing the terror of war or preparing himself to fight a government regime that was pushing an oppressive religious agenda.
These days, Thiep loves telling stories about his journey from Sudan to the United States and the culture shock he experienced when he immigrated to the U.S. He usually tells them to comedy club audiences at venues around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, such as Hyena's Comedy Nightclub. "After going through hell and crying nearly half of my life, I decided to laugh through the other half," Thiep says. "I am done crying."
In the early 1980s, when he was about 9, Thiep was separated from his father during an attack on his South Sudan village. Thiep's mother had left some time before the attack due to a family dispute in which his grandparents demanded that Thiep be given to his aunt to raise because she couldn't have children.
According to Thiep, his grandparents reasoned that "every person had to have a child." "They told my mother, 'You already have four children and you cannot take him. If you refuse, we will ask the ancestral gods to kill him' — or something like that," says Thiep, who has three brothers and a sister.
After the attack, Theip made his way to Ethiopia with a group of other refugees who were also fleeing their homes. The trek took four months of indescribable physical struggle and several members of his party died. "One of the adults told me when we got to Ethiopia that we would be trained and given arms to go back and fight," Thiep says. "I felt really good about it because that is what we needed to do at that time; to fight back."
At first, the rebel fighters from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army didn't want to take children to their training camp but Thiep says, "I couldn't see myself just sitting in the camp." Thiep spent five years with the rebel fighting force.
He says he never got the chance to go back to reclaim his village or find his father. "My home village was closer to the north," Thiep says. "The enemy was from the north and I wanted to go back home and fight there. But I was kept away from there and instead, I was fighting in other parts of Sudan. I thought those were the wrong places."
Thiep says he realized the term "enemy" is a relative one during his time with the rebel army. "At some point when I saw my own people being killed by my own people, I thought, 'There's not a specific religion that is bad,'" he says. "There is no permanent enemy."
Thiep and some other boys who had served in the army ended up leaving for a refugee camp in Kenya. They attended school there for several years and were eventually able to immigrate to America through a special U.S. government program. The process only took six months thanks to a partnership with the United Nations. "The United Nations already had information on everybody," Thiep says.
He had no idea what to expect when he left for the United States. He had only known war and destruction his whole life. "I didn't know any better," he says. "I thought that's how it was all over the world. When you're born into a situation like that, it's normal until you get out."
The civil war ended four years after Thiep came to America. Thiep says he never heard from his father again but he did find his mother three years ago. The two talk on the phone almost every day and he's making plans to see her for the first time. He works as a cab driver at night and he's been sending her money to pay for health care and a new home.
Thiep says he hopes that through his comedy and other artistic endeavors he can give Americans perspective on places experiencing unrelenting turmoil and war. When he's not driving his cab, he's working on his standup routines, working on a book about his experiences in Sudan and the U.S., or preparing a talk. "I think the more we bring out what happened in the past, the more likely we can prevent it from happening in the future," he says.
The experiences Thiep jokes about in his sets are unthinkable to many Americans, but when he performs he says he is imbued with a sense of hope, and his goal is to pass that on to others who need it. "I feel there's always possibilities. I feel positive and optimistic. No matter how hard it can get now, there is always going to be a time for good things to happen."
James Thiep will perform at Hyena's Dallas, 5321 E. Mockingbird Lane, Feb. 23-25. Tickets are $12-$17 at hyenascomedynightclub.com.