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A complex grief: How one Calgary community aims to rebuild after multiple deaths among its young people

Nyatuoy Buom Met Kujock was 21 when she collapsed at a friend’s house in November. 

She had come to the house in an Uber a short time before, and after she collapsed in the bathroom, the people in the house set her down on a bed to rest and recover.

Her family says no one checked on her for hours, and when they did she was dead.

Standing in front of the townhouse where she died, her family said they have so many questions and so little hope of ever getting any real answers. They haven’t even been able to confirm who she was with before going to the townhouse that day. That mixes grief and anger.

“Deaths don’t happen like that — you cannot just fall asleep and you never wake up,” said Daniel Baum Met, her father. 

“My feeling inside is that she might be poisoned.

“The death of my daughter hurt me so much. She was a leader; I like that so much. She was a good listener and brilliant in school. With her death, I have a lot of questions.”

Nyatuoy’s death is just one example of what community leaders say is a growing problem within Calgary’s South Sudanese community. 

Young adults are dying — often of drug overdose or gang violence — and their peers don’t speak about what happened. No one will tell their family or police who was with them before they died, what drugs they might have taken, and why.

A woman holds a picture of a young woman with a sign that reads in part "With pain, we miss you our love one."
Angelina Matiek holds a picture of her daughter, Nuatuoy Buom Met Kujock, who died in Calgary on Nov. 8, 2023. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Nhial Wicleek, a psychologist from the community, said police and medical examiner reports don’t answer these most important questions for the families. That creates a complex grief that’s very difficult to heal from, especially when friends and peers of the deceased won’t talk about what occurred.

Wicleek volunteers with the local non-profit Komkan Africana Institute and has been trying to help the community find solutions for years. He said the local South Sudanese community has about 17,000 people, and they’ve seen 30 to 50 deaths among young adults like this in the last two decades.

After Nyatuoy’s death, he and Daniel restarted their efforts to deal with this problem. With Komkan, they launched a series of meetings with young adults in the community to make a plan. Then they intend to hold focus groups and workshops with both the young adults and their parents’ generation.

A group of people sit around a folding plastic table and talk.
Nhial Wicleek, centre back, and other board members with Komkan Africana Institute meet with young adults at the Dover Community Hall in spring 2024. (Liz Deng)

The community needs to address this grief, he said.

“It’s about finding the facts and making sure there’s a solution to this,” said Wicleek. “This will engage the parents and the youth together.”

Daniel is also a social worker in Calgary. He came to Canada as a refugee in 2003. He was one of the lost boys of Sudan who completed high school during the nearly 10 years he spent in various refugee camps and then earned his degree at the University of Calgary. 

When Nyatuoy died, Daniel knew he wanted to speak publicly about her death, hoping a story in the media would help his community start talking about this. He said she was a young woman who had a lot of potential, who did well in high school, had a talent for basketball and was registered to study nursing before the pandemic hit.

When she died, she was living at home with him. He said she drank with friends sometimes, but when they talked, she told him she was not using drugs.

He hopes the conversations will lead to change because the damage to South Sudanese young people is coming from within their own community, he said.

“All this you heard, gunshot, poisoning. It’s by themselves. And everybody says, I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said. “As soon as someone gets injured, they don’t cooperate to tell you what happened. They live in denial. And then what can you do?”

Calgary community rallies to confront series of heartbreaking deaths

15 hours ago

Duration 3:17

Families in Calgary’s South Sudanese community say young adults are dying, often of drug overdose or gang violence, and their peers don’t speak about what happened. Now the community is coming together to find a solution.

When CBC News reached out to Calgary police, they confirmed Nyatuoy’s death was ruled non-suspicious. The medical examiner’s office has not yet finished its report.

Speaking to CBC News, a young man who answered the door at the townhouse where she died confirmed Daniel’s story about Nyatuoy being placed on a bed and left. He did not want to do an interview or give his name.

Daniel is angry that police did not go further, interview more friends and find answers.

Wicleek says he doesn’t think the police are at the root of the problem here. Because if the young adults’ peers have decided not to share information, the police can’t find out what has happened either. But he says holding a meeting so families can talk with police to share their perspective and ask questions about the process might be part of what can help families heal.

After Nyatuoy died, Daniel reached out to several other South Sudanese families who lost young adult children in recent years, asking if they would also share their stories with CBC and the community to help find solutions.

Three responded and all of them talked about how hard it is to not know what really happened. 

A woman sits on a couch holding a photo of a younger woman.
Nyariay Thot Lam (Martha) lost her daughter Nyaruach Nguot, 32, in February last year when she collapsed at a friend’s house and died on the way to the hospital. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

Nyariay Thot Lam (Martha) was one of them. She lost her daughter Nyaruach Wal Nguot, 32, in February last year when she collapsed at a friend’s house and died on the way to the hospital.

Police said there was no evidence of violence. This spring, the toxicology report came back suggesting an overdose.

But again, what substance did she take and why? What was going on?

“I had asked the police if I can talk with those girls [who were there], but they told me if they want to come to you, that’s fine. They said it’s up to them if they want to come and tell you or not.

“I was thinking the girl will come and tell me sorry because my daughter died. She was there,” said Martha. “I thought she could come and tell me what happened.”

“None of them came to my house. They never came to tell me what happened.”

A woman with bright makeup on her face smiles for the camera.
Her mother says Nyaruach Nguot, foreground, loved makeup and beauty. Here she was modeling for a photo shoot in Calgary. (Mulner Photography)

“This past year, I believe there’s four or five kids who died. When Daniel told me, are you willing to share your story? I said yes. Because my daughter, she’s already gone but I want more for the rest of my community and my own children.”

Nyarout Jock’s family is from South Sudan. They moved to Calgary when she was a young child. Now 25, she’s trying to help the youth in her community, helping with children’s sports, computer training and cultural programs with the YES Youth Centre in Forest Lawn.

She says the fact these deaths are common makes them no less traumatizing, which is one of the reasons few people want to talk about them. 

“We’re losing our friends and family and people that we’ve grown up with. It’s a really traumatizing experience even though it happens frequently and we get used to the idea that this is something that happens in our communities.”

A woman stands in front of a banner that says YES Youth Centre and in a second frame, children dance with colourful bands around their waist.
Nyaruot Jock, left, is a coordinator at the YES Youth Centre, where she helps with children and youth programing. Pictured on the right is a class in traditional dance held at the centre in Forest Lawn. (Nyakim Kueth and Liz Deng)

“I think a lot of youth are traumatized but it’s hard for them to speak about it because it’s so normal. And if it’s not directly your brother or sister, you almost feel that it’s not something you have a right to speak on and you always want to give the family that’s grieving privacy.

“But it affects us because the pain always continues, even if you’re not close you also feel the effects of it.”

She’s involved with children’s sport and cultural dance through the YES Centre, and said she hopes these kinds of positive activities will help her community members feel confident in their own skin. That will improve their mental well-being and make it less likely for them to get involved with gangs, drugs and alcohol. 

“Running was something that helped me,” she said. “Invest in the youth. Even if that means you pick up different children, take them to a basketball program. Just give the youth your time.”

A graphic showing soccer players and women drinking coffee.
Sharing Knowledge: An invitation to all local East African communities. (Lianne Sabourin/CBC)

Last fall, CBC Calgary launched a new community project with local East African community members. This included a workshop to help young adults to tell stories of importance to their community and mentorship from CBC producer Elise Stolte. 

Read more at and check out other reporting sparked by this partnership.

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