From the time of his birth in a refugee camp to the day police pulled his body out of Carter Lake, Wuor Wiyual’s life was full of hardship. And opportunity.
In the end, hardship won. On Friday, Omaha police identified the 19-year-old new American citizen and classified his death a suicide. News circulated among friends and family, shocking everyone who knew him.
“It’s beyond tragic to me that he’s gone,” said his former Bryan High coach and American government teacher, Terrence O’Donnell. “I’m just devastated and I know everybody who had him as a part of their lives is devastated.”
An autopsy was scheduled for this weekend. No funeral arrangements have yet been made. A GoFundMe campaign for his family was started on Saturday.
When reached Friday, Wuor’s brother Kier, a senior at Bellevue East High School, said their mother, Buk Deng, was in shock and hadn’t been able to utter a word.
Wuor, whose name is pronounced “war,” was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. His parents had married earlier that year. His mother was 16.
In an essay Wuor would later write to get a college scholarship, he said his parents, who’d fled South Sudan, had promised their parents in Africa that they would get their children to college.
“College is something I’ve always dreamed of going to,” he wrote in December 2017.
Wuor wanted to be a teacher.
Like a lot of boys growing up in America, though, Wuor first had designs on being a professional athlete. He was most interested in football, but everyone said he should play basketball. That sport proved hard initially for a gangly, constantly growing boy who at the time of his death was 6-feet-8 and 165 pounds.
In his 2017 essay, Wuor described not making his seventh grade basketball team, a disappointment that caused him to turn his focus from football to basketball and steeled his will to make it the next year.
At Bryan High, he began playing on the freshman B team but worked his way to the varsity squad by his senior year. O’Donnell saw Wuor as “a late bloomer” and once told him that his ceiling was “very, very, very high.”
That dream of basketball stardom drove him, O’Donnell said, but Wuor wanted most of all to be a teacher.
The scholarship essay explains why. Growing up in Omaha as the oldest of five children, Wuor took on responsibility for his family amid stresses including domestic violence and poverty. In seventh grade, his family was robbed of the kids’ TV and PlayStation and $500 cash his mother had hidden in a box.
His teachers at Bryan Middle School mobilized. They replaced the lost items and gave the children “the best Christmas ever.”
“It was the first time in my life I’ve woken to presents,” Wuor wrote.
In his essay, Wuor describes his hero — his mother. How she worked hard, “nearly 15-hour shifts then coming home, taking care of the kids.” How she stayed strong and didn’t give up, qualities he said “could take you far.”
Those were the very qualities O’Donnell and Wuor’s Central Community College coach, John Ritzdorf, saw in him.
“I’ll talk about Wuor all day long,” said Ritzdorf. “I’m not ashamed to say it — he’s a favorite of mine.”
Ritzdorf described Wuor as a student whose Christian faith was important, who placed value on family and was “proud of his mom,” and who was a model teammate whether on the court or on the bench.
“He was the most excited guy on the bench, jumping up and down after someone else made a really good play.”
Ritzdorf said Wuor embraced his opportunities at “CCC,” as the college is called.
“You could tell he appreciated it,” Ritzdorf said. “Nothing was a chore for him. He was super genuine and funny and caring.”
The basketball season wrapped up right as the novel coronavirus was starting to upend daily life. As the campus outside Columbus began to shut down, Wuor went back home.
Back to the Bellevue apartment where his mother and four younger siblings live. Back to his job at QuikTrip. Back to helping around the home.
Wuor’s brother said it wasn’t easy. Wuor’s computer wasn’t working right for his online classes. He wanted to be more independent, as he had been in college. And he had been drinking. This caused friction with his hero, his mother.
The two had words. Wuor left for his night shift on March 27. He didn’t come home. He sent text messages to several people, sounding distressed. A police report described them as “suicidal statements.” On March 28, Wuor’s 2017 Ford Fusion was pulled from Carter Lake.
On Thursday, members of the Omaha Fire Department dive team found his body.
“No words. Just Deep Wounds,” Kier wrote on Facebook.
He’d looked up to Wuor. His big brother had been his role model. Kier, too, plays basketball. He, too, has college hopes.
“He always knew how to make people laugh,” Kier said.
And he always pitched in. In that scholarship essay, Wuor wrote about helping distribute food and clothing to the needy and cleaning a thrift store.
“Just me experiencing getting help,” he wrote, “makes me want to give back to others.”
He apparently didn’t give himself the chance.
O’Donnell, his Bryan coach, was reeling last week.
“This is such a shock and blindsided tragedy,” O’Donnell said. “Everything about him was confidence to keep working hard and persevere. He persevered through extraordinarily difficult circumstances. … I can’t wrap my head around what could be in his mind. Something he couldn’t overcome.”