Engineer Kuol Majak: a journey of loss, hope, learning and success

Mar 15, 2018   | Categories: Canadian Fuels Association, Refineries
March is National Engineering Month, and we’re taking the opportunity to profile three engineers working in Canada’s refining sector about their journey to engineering and their professional accomplishments.

Kuol Majak has triumphed over daunting odds in his years-long journey from war-torn Sudan to an engineering career in Canada. His story is one of perseverance bringing him to where he is today – a process engineer at the Irving Oil Refinery, Canada’s largest oil refinery, in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Majak was born in 1985 in a village on the Nile River two years into a brutal 22-year civil war. Majak’s father died before he knew him, his family escaping in 1991 following an attack on his community that killed many family members.

They returned, but after another raid in 1997, Majak was 12 years old and on the run again – this time on his own. After months of walking, he arrived at a Kenyan refugee camp of 100,000 people living in tents and surviving on maize. In the camp, where he attended school, they called him “the lost boy.”

Majak’s bravery and brains helped him persevere. In 2008, he was sponsored as a refugee by Dalhousie University in Halifax under the World University Services of Canada student refugee program.

By now in his early 20s, Majak was determined to become an engineer. He was initially unsure of which arm of engineering to study but developed an interest in petrochemicals.

After graduating, Majak landed a job in Alberta focusing on safety during gas plant refinery shutdowns – but his heart remained in Atlantic Canada where he studied. He had applied to the Irving Oil Refinery and was waiting hopeful when he received the call for an interview. Successful in the hiring process, he made the move from Alberta to New Brunswick, where he knew he could develop a meaningful career with the company.

“One of my professors at Dalhousie University actually recommended that I look for opportunities with Irving Oil,” said Majak. “I wanted to be part of a company with a great deal of history and culture in reliable operations.”

Majak has been a process engineer at the Irving Oil Refinery for four-and-a-half years and is well respected for his knowledge gained in such a short time.

“In this case, my role is more that of an alteration engineer that will do trouble-shooting,” he said. “I like it …. I’ve been enjoying what I do and get support from people.”

Majak enjoys applying what he learned at Dalhousie to on-the-ground situations.

“Having to apply your theory in the real world is kind of a thrill,” he said. “That is the highlight: having to operate and apply those theories and products. Solving problems. The thrill of that.”

He also looks for every opportunity to continue to learn and grow his skills on the job.

“Every year, we are encouraged to identify courses to develop our skills. And I attend technical training seminars from in-house experts at the Refinery. I like getting out into the plant to learn from the operators.”

He advises young engineers to study hard so they can master the principles.

“Trying to solve the problem in class will help, but the problems in the real world will be difficult if you don’t grasp the principles. Most of the time when we come out of school we will be thinking about what we don’t know, but it will all kick in when you have to sit down and ask, how do I solve this problem?”

Majak has now sponsored several students from Sudan to study here, helping them through the same process and journey he took earlier in life. He also volunteered as an adviser for Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative.

“You feel you have an obligation to help. I’ve tried to give it back to society.”

Majak has since returned to Sudan on a few occasions. After being married recently, he travelled home with his wife to introduce her to his family. A large two-week celebration in honour of the couple was held in the same place where Majak’s journey began.
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