'Who Much Is Given, Much Is Required': The Story of GW Women’s Basketball Player Nya Lok

Born in an Ethiopian refugee camp to parents who fled civil war in Sudan, the Revolutionaries' shooting guard is paving a path for others.

February 29, 2024

Nya Lok

Nya Lok, who captained the first-ever South Sudan women's basketball team to compete in international competition, has shared her insights and life perspective with her GW women's basketball teammates. (Cara Taylor/GW Today)

There were the obvious signs to Nya Lok, B.A. ’23, that she grew up differently than many of her peers in Melbourne, Australia, most notably that she spoke a different language at home than at school. And then there were the not so obvious ones, such as learning to cook at 7 years old or having to walk her younger siblings to school.

As she navigated childhood in a country she wasn’t born in, Lok would wonder why she and her four brothers and three sisters were assigned tasks that other kids’ parents seemed to be doing.

But as she became more aware of her family’s courageous backstory that landed them in southeast Australia, it was abundantly clear the importance behind having these basic life skills at an early age.

“[My parents] did it out of the fact that if anything ever happened to them, we would know how to raise ourselves,” Lok said. “They made sure we knew how to survive.”

Survival, in fact, is the biggest reason Lok is on Earth today, which in this moment places her at George Washington University as an alumna, graduate student and vital member of Revolutionaries women’s basketball team.

Before she was born, her parents fled their native Sudan during the country’s second civil war. Roughly two million people died because of the nearly 22-year conflict spanning from 1983 to 2005, and another four million people were displaced at least once in a conflict bursting with human rights violations.

Lok, who was born in an Ethiopian refugee camp and lived there until she was 5 years old, never really asked her parents about their escape, mostly because she could tell it was still traumatizing to them. But when she finally did, they told her about fleeing across rivers of floating dead bodies, not knowing if they themselves were going to be killed—either by the people they were fleeing from or wild animals they encountered along the way.

On top of that, there were no landmarks within the eastern African landscape to let them know where they were on their 1,000-mile journey to refuge.

“They basically just had to follow the sun,” Lok said.

Years later in Australia, sports became Lok’s own guiding light in helping her navigate Australian society while living the Nuer culture at home. Whether it was soccer, track or later basketball, they provided a common understanding through a common goal.

Around the same time Lok was developing this passion for sports, South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011. And 10 years later, those stars all aligned.

A sun to follow

Lok would eventually make her way to the United States to pursue basketball at the highest of levels. She played two years at Midland Community College in Texas, where she eventually caught the eye of GW coaching staff who offered her a scholarship prior to the 2021-2022 season.

“We watched her, and we liked what we saw,” said GW head coach Caroline McCombs. “We saw a lot of growth from her between her freshman to sophomore years (at Midland), and I thought that was really important.”

Nya Lok drives basketball
Nya Lok drives the basketball against St. Louis on Jan. 20 at the Charles E. Smith Center. (Photo by Mitchell Layton)

It turned out McCombs was not the only one who had interest in Lok’s talents and acumen on the court.

Just prior to her first school year at GW, Lok received an invitation to play for South Sudan’s first-ever women’s basketball team to compete in international competition—specifically for the June 2021 FIBA Women's AfroBasket Zone 5 Qualifiers tournament in Rwanda. Lok eagerly agreed and would eventually become the team’s captain. The experience, which included a pre-tournament training camp with her teammates in Sacramento, was one she’ll never forget—for both the basketball and bonding over a shared identity.

“It was amazing being able to play with all my sisters and understand the way we grew up was sort of the same and understanding that our parents had similar stories,” Lok said. “I’m hearing their stories on their journeys through basketball, and then being able to play on that stage together was something that I’m very honored to have had happen.”  

The cultural significance of this team was not lost on Lok, either, especially for women and girls from South Sudan or who have South Sudanese roots.

A 2017 report from the GW Global Women’s Institute (GWI) found women and girls in South Sudan faced staggering rates of violence compared to other nations, which GWI researcher Maureen Murphy said is often a reflection of an imbalanced societal power structure. During her many trips to South Sudan for humanitarian work, Murphy has found women and girls in the country to be strong and resilient but not necessarily recognized. Lok and her teammates representing the country on an international stage, she said, is no small feat and can carry a lot of weight.

“Having strong women pushing against some of these cultural norms, playing sports and being elite athletes is truly amazing,” Murphy said.  

Lok cherishes the opportunity to be someone South Sudanese women and girls can look to for inspiration. She noticed her Instagram followers skyrocketed during the 2021 tournament in Rwanda, and her direct messages flooded with words of support, which only intensified her leadership desire because she saw just how much she and her teammates gave hope to people—young girls specifically—of South Sudan.

 “We wanted to pave the way in the sense of ‘if I can do it, another woman can do it,’” Lok said. “I could have easily been any girl that is in South Sudan right now that didn’t make it on refugee status. I always say 'who much is given, much is required.' If I’m given that, I need to provide that to every South Sudanese girl so they can have that opportunity, as well.”

Lok has also taken that leadership to heart at GW, where she has played in 80 career games while starting in over half of them in three seasons, averaging 8.1 points per contest. She was recruited in part because of her growth in between seasons at Midland, and McCombs has seen even more growth in her since donning the Buff and Blue.

“She has a lot of good perspective and insight she can share with our team, and that growth really came last year where she has really allowed herself to be much more vulnerable and was willing to share her life experiences with her teammates,” McCombs said.  “That’s something that was important not only for her growth, but also our team’s growth. She’s been able to explain a lot of the things that have happened throughout her life, and then being that mentor on the basketball court has been very impactful.”

Lok is wrapping up her GW basketball career with an eye to the future. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and entrepreneurship last May at Commencement on the National Mall, where her parents even came from all the way from Australia. Currently pursuing a master’s in business, Lok aspires to create solutions to social problems and find sustainable ways to give back to people she believes deserve it most.

Her main message is to keep persisting because, she said, there’s another person in this world just waiting for their own sun to follow.

“It’s so important to understand that the more you can fight through your adversity, the more you are paving the path for somebody else to walk,” Lok said. “Someone is waiting for you to do it so they can find the courage to do what it is they need to do.”