MBA custodian's death leaves unanswered questions

Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 11:45pm
Malith-Wiek.jpg

Most people will never know what it’s like to run for their lives.

But running was perhaps the thing Malith Wiek, a Sudanese refugee who settled in Nashville, knew best. He was one of as many as 20,000 boys who fled their villages to escape genocide in Sudan’s civil war in the late 1990s.

The survivors, less than half of the original 20,000, became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. About 3,600 immigrated to the United States, and Wiek was one of about 150 who came to Nashville in the early 2000s.

He had been working as a custodian at Montgomery Bell Academy for about six years and was a beloved figure at the school, when he was found murdered in April at the intersection of 42nd and Indiana avenues. He was 33. Last week, his roommate, Gai Kuot, was arrested in connection with the murder.

Wiek’s death rocked the exclusive all-boys school to its core.

MBA Headmaster Brad Gioia said Wiek talked frequently with students and faculty about what life was like in Sudan, telling stories about using his feet for transportation.

According to school legend, he often ran 60 miles a day in the Sudan, mostly on errands to help support his family.

That running spirit carried over when he first arrived in Nashville and did not have a car. He ran wherever he needed to go, often along White Bridge Road, and always with a smile on his face.

“He would laugh with the students a lot,” Gioia said. “They not only trusted him, they liked him.”

Becky Weikert, whose son graduated from MBA in 2008, called Wiek, “a huge part of that school — much more than just an employee.” She added: “He was just that guy that all the kids loved. He smiled all the time and had a tremendous work ethic.”

On the day after the community learned of Wiek’s death, an anonymous alumnus created a shrine of remembrance at the school. Wiek was also given one of the top honors high school students can bestow: They dedicated the yearbook to him.

Unfortunately, Wiek’s murder isn’t the first in the local refugee community. Although refugees tend to keep a low profile, and we can’t be sure how all the Lost Boys have fared, we know at least three other Sudanese refugees have been slain since arriving here.

In September 2004, Pel Gai was stabbed to death in a bar in south Nashville. His killing prompted photographer Jack Spencer, who was shooting a portrait series on the Lost Boys, to get involved. There wasn’t enough money to pay for Gai’s burial, so Spencer rallied friends in the arts community to help.

“From that he just saw what a great need they had and how they were still struggling,” said Lois Moreno, president of the Lost Boys Foundation of Nashville, which Spencer founded. It operates a studio and art gallery to provide an opportunity for them to make extra money.

“Most of them still live with two to four of them in an apartment sharing expenses,” she said. “It’s probably rare to find someone that’s totally self-sustaining.”

It’s believed Wiek might have been trying to save money to visit home. Robbery may have been a motive, another peril for refugees.

Police have release few details on the case, but said more arrests are likely.