At first glance, Benjamin Ajak didn't appear to have much in common with his high school audience.
His pinstripe shirt and trousers and red tie were in stark contrast to the laid-back T-shirts and jeans worn by the teenagers.
His crisp English revealed an African accent. Theirs was punctuated by long "O" sounds.
Common ground there was, however, as revealed during Ajak's day-long visit Tuesday to North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake.
The author and former Sudanese refugee paid a special visit to the school, where he played dodgeball with the kids, shared laughs over lunch, and compared notes about American sports and politics.
Ajak, 26, also spoke to students, teachers and the larger Forest Lake community about his experiences as one of the more than 27,000 Sudanese boys orphaned by war.
It was his only stop in Minnesota, as he continues his book tour across the country. Today, he is scheduled to speak at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
He and two other "lost boys" joined co-author Judy Bernstein in writing a critically acclaimed book, "They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky," which 10th-graders at the Forest Lake charter school read this year.
The students were so moved by the book that their teacher, Angela Schumacher, invited Ajak to come to Forest Lake.
"This brought the world home," Schumacher said after the visit. "Our kids need to see that the world is bigger than Forest Lake."
The book is a true account about the civil war in Sudan, seen through the eyes of three children: Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak. The three men now live in San Diego.
In the 1980s, civil war erupted between the northern and southern parts of Sudan. Ajak was just 5 years old when his village was attacked and his parents were killed. Alone, he fled in the middle of the night and joined a mass exodus of boys escaping violence.
Dubbed the "lost boys of Sudan," they crossed the border into Ethiopia and stayed there for three years. But when war broke out in Ethiopia, they were forced out of the country at gunpoint and ordered to swim the crocodile-filled Gilo River.
The survivors endured starvation, and attacks from lions and other predators as they made their way back to Sudan. Ajak was captured by the rebel army and jailed and beaten repeatedly for five months until he escaped.
He made it to a refugee camp in northern Kenya and stayed there until 2001.
His hardships weren't over, though.
He was on his way to America to resettle on Sept. 11, 2001. From his plane window, he saw the World Trade Center towers on fire. His plane was rerouted to Canada and a few weeks later, he finally arrived on U.S. soil in San Diego.
"I'm a survivor," he said Tuesday. "There's nothing left to be but happy."
Students were struck by the author's jovial attitude, despite all the pain he has seen and endured.
"It's really weird to see that he still has a lot of joy after everything that he's gone through," said Abby Nordby, 15. She said she loved the book because it was unlike anything she'd read in class before.
"I'd never heard anything about Sudan before this," she said.
Meeting one of the characters in the book was a huge deal for the whole 10th-grade class, she said.
She and the others were in awe of his towering frame. Ajak, who stands 6-foot-4, told them he is "medium size" by Sudanese standards.
"I've gone through hard things, but nothing compared to what he has," Abby said.
Allie Shah • 651-298-1550