From Ethiopian Refugee Camp to Air Force Reservist

Pittsburgh’s Nyarauch Chuol embodies military value of ‘service above self’

By Grace Thomso

Published August 17, 2020

Read Time: 5 mins


It’s a long way from an Ethiopian refugee camp to a U.S. Air Force Reserve Station in Pittsburgh.

For Airman 1st Class Nyarauch Chuol, who works as a passenger operations representative with the 32nd Aerial Port Squadron, the journey has been one of hardship and personal triumph.

“We all have different motivations in life that make us want to serve and there are many different paths that lead us there,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Scott, superintendent with the 32nd APS and one of Chuol’s supervisors.

“When new members first arrive to our unit, we ask that they stand up in front of the unit and introduce themselves, say where they’re from, what made them join the Air Force Reserve and a unique item about them that others may not know.” said Scott. “This is when I first learned of her story and thought, ‘Wow, more people need to hear this.’”

Chuol is South Sudanese but was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Some of her earliest memories include members of the U.S. military helping her and her family.

“When I was living in a refugee camp, you’d see a lot of military members who would come in and help,” said Chuol. “A lot of medical members would come in and give vaccines, and I would see them walking around with their military uniforms and they were all very nice and it made me want to help.

“I just looked at them like, ‘Oh man, like that would be so cool to be able to do that one day.’”

Living in the camp, Chuol lost a brother to an unknown illness before the military arrived with vaccines.

“I remember one day I’d walked to school, and it was around a five-mile walk and it was hot,” said Chuol. “I went home, and my mother was sitting on a mat and she wouldn’t say anything to me. She was just staring at the ground. I didn’t know what was going on. I looked around the house and I didn’t see my brother and I figured he had passed.”

At the time, Chuol had been sick too, but she was fortunate enough to get vaccinated by members of the American military. Her decision to join the military may have come from this event, she said.

Getting to America

Chuol and her family moved to the U.S in 1999 after receiving a family-based visa. She was 8 years old.

Emigrating to the U.S. was no small task, but Chuol’s father was determined to give his family a better life and would not be easily discouraged. While they were living in the refugee camp, he entered them into a lottery system to get the visa, which is based on certain criteria, such as family reunification, job-based immigration or diversity.
Even after the family’s visa was approved, getting to the U.S. was still a challenge.

“There are people [in the camp] who did not want you to leave the country or they wanted to hold you for ransom,” said Chuol. “Because they can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to keep this person unless you can give me this much money.’ Oftentimes we were stopped by government officials or the bus sometimes would get stuck in weird terrain.”

The family of Airman 1st Class Nyarauch Chuol, passenger operations representative with the 32nd Aerial Port Squadron, poses for a photo outside of their home in Gambela, Ethiopia, 2011. Chuol was born in a house very similar to the one in the photo.(Courtesy Photo)

Finally, in December 1999, they made it onto the plane and began their long journey to the U.S.

“It was the first time I ever flew on a plane, and it was so scary,” Chuol recalled.

Once in America, they were introduced to their new home and were amazed by its size and luxury, more than they ever dreamed was possible.

The family moved to different cities over the years to figure out where they liked it best. First, it was New York City, then to Memphis and finally to Minneapolis, where Chuol’s parents received their citizenship. Since Chuol and her brothers were all minors, they became citizens, too.

As the oldest child, it was up to Chuol to learn English very quickly so she could translate for her family and help them assimilate, get jobs, and even study for their citizenship tests. She helped raise her younger siblings and became a parental figure for them in their early lives.

“Being an immigrant child was very hard, especially with my parents,” said Chuol. “They relied on me a lot to help them with paperwork and bills. When someone came to the house, and they didn’t know who it was, it was up to me to speak the little English that I knew and ask, ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’”

Finding her balance

While her parents still live in Minneapolis, Chuol now calls Pittsburgh home, where she lives with her husband.

In addition to her work with the Air Force Reserve, Chuol and her husband have started a business called Jiopy Design.

“It’s a cosmetic health and wellness company for skincare, haircare, nails, whatever you can think of,” she said.

The company is named after her youngest brother, and though the COVID-19 pandemic is making it difficult to get a new business off the ground, Chuol is hardly a stranger to adversity.

Airman 1st Class Nyarauch Chuol, passenger operations representative with the 32nd Aerial Port Squadron, and her family pose for a photo in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, on an unknown date. Chuol’s family immigrated to the United States in 1999 from Ethiopia as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. (Courtesy Photo)

After struggling with school and her responsibilities at home, Chuol found her balance and began to flourish.

“If I needed something, I could find it and I wouldn’t stop until I did,” Chuol said. “I became a really good caregiver. I was the hardest working person in the room. I was really proud of my motivation, just knowing that I can’t go back to that [her refugee life]. I’m here and this is my home. I’m going to do well.”

Her military career so far exemplifies her willingness to volunteer and her inherent need to do more in her community.

“She was inquiring about things that she can do before she was even back from tech school,” said Tech Sgt. Gregory Gaussa, program coordinator with the 911th Airlift Wing Development and Training Flight. “What can she do to further her training, what can she do to try to get a job out here full time.”

Her main goal in life is to give back anywhere she can, embodying the Air Force’s core value of “service before self.”

“I enjoy being in the military. I feel like I’m living my life, and I’m able to give back,” said Chuol. “I hope that one day one of my brothers will follow into my footsteps, or even my future children. I hope that I can lead the way, that I can be a good example.”

Grace Thomson is a senior airman with the 911 Airlift Wing based at Pittsburgh International Airport.

This is an abridged version of the story that originally ran on the Pittsburgh Air Reserve’s Station website. For a link to the full story, click here.

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