Sean Kirst: For founder of clinic in South Sudan, rescue in blizzard built on Epiphany (2023)

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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

Sean Kirst

As a child, Fidele Dhan wandered more than 1,000 miles in the wild in the company of children. They were at risk of starvation and attack by wild animals. Dhan was one of the legendary “Lost Boys” of Sudan, and the events that finally brought him to Buffalo still seem to him like an impossible long shot.

Yet he has no hesitation in saying it: He has never been more afraid than when he was alone and wandering in a city that became a frozen desert of wind and snow, during the peak of the Christmas weekend blizzard.

“What I went through as a child, it was me, myself,” said Dhan, 44. He saw friends dying all around him, and he hardly believed his own life or death would cause any ripple in the world beyond the sorrow he witnessed in his companions, whenever one of them would fall.

Decades later, in Buffalo, Dhan’s wife, Abang Garang Kuol, and six children always await him at home. A medical clinic he founded in South Sudan employs 15 and depends on his passionate vision. He has reconnected with the mother and siblings once torn from his life, and he has an Upstate network of friends he loves.

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They all count on him. That is why, in blinding snow, he was afraid to die.

Dhan was caught on Clinton Street at the peak of the storm, while driving a van rapidly burning through its gas. Hurricane-force winds blew with such fury that it “made everything look like a blank sheet of paper,” Dhan said. His phone would soon go dead, and it occurred to him:

Sean Kirst: For founder of clinic in South Sudan, rescue in blizzard built on Epiphany (2)

After the unlikely voyage that carried a “lost boy” from one side of the ocean to the other, after fate and sheer will allowed Dhan to lift up the South Sudanese village his childhood self once had to flee, he might freeze to death in a blizzard in Buffalo – on a street that would usually be a five-minute drive from his own home.

On Sunday, in churches around the world, congregations will formally celebrate Friday's Epiphany – in church teaching, the day the Magi found their way to the Christ child.

Dhan, lost in the blizzard, was led to safety. Some of his rescuers offer this thought as both a fact and a point of wonder: He was saved, without question, because of the three kings.

The Journey

Dhan is a school bus driver. He has a degree in psychology from the University at Buffalo – the reason he first arrived in this community from Syracuse, his original destination after leaving a refugee camp in Kenya. What driving the bus provides him with is summers off, allowing him to focus on the clinic he started in South Sudan.

As a side job, Dhan and a few friends created a medical transport service. They pooled enough money to buy a van, and they drive patients to appointments. On the day the blizzard was forecast to arrive, Dhan was scheduled to drive an East Aurora man to dialysis treatments at a Buffalo clinic.

Sean Kirst: For founder of clinic in South Sudan, rescue in blizzard built on Epiphany (3)

Dhan called the place the day before. “Tomorrow’s going to be bad,” he said. The staff told him the patient was struggling. The treatment was important. Dhan needed to get him there.

The appointment was early. Dhan picked up the man and they made it on time. Once they left, the storm moved into a high and violent gear. By the time Dhan dropped off the patient where he lived, visibility was awful and the winds had their own chilling voice.

“The guy did not ask me to come inside,” Dhan said.

He saw no other choice. He had to make it home. He turned around and headed for Buffalo, forced to use back roads. It took what felt like forever, but he eventually reached the city and began to have some hope – until he turned onto Clinton Street, where traveling seemed hopeless.

From an Amherst school bus to saving lives in Sudan, a 'Lost Boy' finds his way

The children were on an emotional high wire Monday, knowing it was the final day of school, and Fidele Dhan could measure their happiness through volume alone. Dhan, a bus driver for First Student, drove his usual route in Amherst for one last time before school ends for summer. As the laughing boys and girls spilled off the bus,

Snow was piling up. Dhan could not see other vehicles until they were almost on top of him. He kept checking in by phone with Abang, his frightened wife, and finally he called both the police and his roadside service, seeking help. They told him there was no way to reach him, at least for now.

Their best advice: Find shelter, and fast.

Blessing of the Magi

The Rev. Ronald Sajdak, pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Clarence, had just returned that Friday from decorating the sanctuary when he made a call out of the blue, checking on an old friend in the storm.

Dhan answered casually. But it became clear, quickly, that he was in deep trouble.

Sajdak has known Dhan since his arrival here to attend UB, and is familiar with his story: How Dhan’s home village in South Sudan was attacked and burned by government troops. How Dhan, separated as a 9-year-old from his family, fled with other little boys into the fields.

They wandered for months, as suffering exiles. Dhan will tell you how children were attacked by crocodiles, how other kids drowned trying to cross rivers, how death from starvation or thirst was a constant reality.

Dhan survived. He lived for years in a refugee camp, nurturing a fierce love of education, and eventually had the chance to settle in Syracuse – where On Point for College, a local program that helps first-generation students succeed in higher education, embraced his decision to attend UB.

From his home in Buffalo, Dhan would finally reunite with his mother and siblings. He married Abang, and they are raising their children here. He also fulfilled a dream by creating the South Sudan Villages Clinic in his home village, which provides basic medical care for thousands in the region – a clinic whose financial stability is now a focus of Dhan’s life.

On the day of the blizzard, Dhan calmly explained his situation to Sajdak. “I’m stuck on Clinton Street,” Dhan said, “and I’ve only got 5% left on the phone.”

Sean Kirst: For founder of clinic in South Sudan, rescue in blizzard built on Epiphany (5)

By checking online, Sajdak saw there was a Family Dollar and an auto parts store not far away, and suggested Dhan try to find safety inside. Dhan managed to drive there. But the doors were locked. He again turned the van into the street.

Sajdak tried to think of anyone living nearby, who could help. He called the Rev. Jud Weiksnar, pastor of SS. Columba-Brigid Church, on Hickory Street. Weiksnar was about a mile and a half from Dhan. If it came to it, he told Sajdak, he would try to walk to him.

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But Weiksnar saw one other possibility: Every year, for the Epiphany, he joins with volunteers from the parish in wearing costumes styled on the three kings, or Magi, of the Christmas story. They visit the homes of parishioners, blessing each house. It both reinforces parish connections and is a reminder the Yuletide does not end on Dec. 25.

Weiksnar recalled going to the home of one family, the Lirianos, on Laux Street – a block or two away from where Dhan made his last call.

Reaching for his phone, Weiksnar thought: This might be the best chance.


Dhan’s phone had died. He kept driving as far as he could on Clinton, buffeted by waves of howling snow, before being forced each time to turn around. He had a few words with the occasional ghostly stranger, also wandering in the storm, and he was worrying more and more about his gasoline when he saw the dark form of an SUV crawling past. Dhan decided to follow it: Maybe it would lead him to safety.

The SUV abruptly stopped, and made a U-turn. Dhan saw no choice except for doing the same thing. As he spun the wheel, he looked out the window and saw two men on foot waving their arms, one of them rushing toward his vehicle. He rolled down the window and squinted, through the snow.

They were shouting: “Are you Fidele?”

It was Pedro Liriano, 43, a conveyor belt salesman, and his 20-year-old son, Mychal. Maybe 20 minutes earlier, Pedro’s wife, Tracy, received back-to-back calls. Weiksnar and Sajdak told her a guy was lost in the storm on Clinton, not far from Laux, and they wondered if the Lirianos could find him, then offer refuge.

Tracy put down the phone and reached for her boots. Pedro, startled, asked what she was doing. She told him she needed to help a stranger, in the blizzard. Her husband said it was too dangerous, that Tracy could get killed in that wind.

Sean Kirst: For founder of clinic in South Sudan, rescue in blizzard built on Epiphany (7)

By that time, she was putting on her coat. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to let my wife go out there and we’re not going to go?’ ” Pedro recalls.

He told her he would try to find Dhan. Mychal said if his dad was going, so was he. Father and son bundled up and went outside, where – as Pedro put it succinctly – “Man, it’s really bad.”

His glasses, almost instantly, caked over with snow. Mychal gently removed them from his father’s nose. They were fighting a wind that drove the snow with such ferocity it hurt Pedro’s face. Visibility was so terrible, Pedro said, that when a firetruck went past, they couldn’t see or hear it until it was close by.

As they pushed on, step by step, they knew the odds of finding one guy in such chaos seemed almost hopeless. But when they reached the corner, they saw an SUV turning around, with a creeping van trying to stay close behind it.

The timing, Pedro says now, was a quiet miracle. They waved their arms. Mychal ran forward. They had found their man at the exact right instant: A moment or two later, and he would have been out of sight.

"For them to come out looking for me? In that storm? And then to take me in?" Dhan said. "I really don't know how to express it."

After parking the van, he would stay with the Lirianos until Christmas – one of their sons, Jackson, insisted that Dhan use his bed – before he made it home to his joyous wife and kids. As for Pedro, he now has a lifetime bond with an extraordinary friend, and he said the entire thing caused a shift in the way he views the world.

Sean Kirst: For founder of clinic in South Sudan, rescue in blizzard built on Epiphany (8)

He does not know, before this storm, how he would have reacted if strangers came to his door, seeking help. It is easy for caution to turn into suspicion, and the first rule of life can easily be that you look out for your own.

But he goes back to the selfless reaction of his wife, how Tracy never had a second thought about putting herself in danger on behalf of someone she did not know, lost in a lethal storm. “You have old beliefs and you do things one way and then you see them a different way,” Pedro said.

The idea was reinforced Saturday when Weiksnar and two companions showed up at their door, for the annual blessing of the Magi. Pedro keeps thinking of how dozens of women and men lost their lives in the blizzard, and the only way countless others managed to survive was through the open arms of people they had never met.

Pulled all together, for Pedro, that is Epiphany.

“In Buffalo, this week,” he said, “really, it’s all we’ve got.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at


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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

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