The Journey that Led a Lost Boy of Sudan to Gainesville

Jacob Atem does not know his exact age. But he knows that when he was about 6 years old, the Northern Sudanese Arab militia entered his village, burning huts to the ground, killing men and kidnapping women and children. In 2008, Jacob founded the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization with a fellow lost boy of Sudan, Lual Awan, to provide a clinic that would reduce maternal mortality rates in his village. Photo by Ashley Crane.

Eight-year-old Jacob looked around the riverbank. Behind him, bullets rained from AK-47s shot by men in military uniforms. In front of him, crocodiles waited along the bank with open jaws as thousands of young boys ran toward the water.

Those who dove into the Gilo River to escape their pursuers met their death by crocodile teeth. Others, desperate to flee the crocodiles, grabbed branches to swing across the river, but the men shot at them, and Jacob remembers their bodies falling into the water. Those who escaped struggled to wade to the other side. Many could not swim, and many drowned.

But Jacob Atem survived.

Now a UF graduate student, Jacob is one of the lost boys of Sudan who survived the second Sudanese Civil War, fought from 1983 to 2005 between North and South Sudan. About 2 million people died, 4 million were displaced and thousands of orphaned children like Jacob fled by foot to refugee camps, facing starvation, wild animals, bombs and military attacks.

“We formed a human exodus walking a thousand miles through lion and crocodile country,” Jacob wrote on his website, “eating mud to stave off hunger, drinking urine to quench our thirst.”

This is his story.


Jacob does not know his exact age. But he knows that when he was about 6 years old, the Northern Sudanese Arab militia entered his village, burning huts to the ground, killing men and kidnapping women and children.

Jacob and thousands of other boys were not there at the time. They had gone to a cattle camp by the Nile River, a custom of nomads. During the dry season, the village boys would walk with the cattle and goats to find water for the livestock.

It was a beautiful day, Jacob remembered. He was looking after a calf with his 14-year-old cousin, Michael Atem, when he heard bullets popping in the distance. He looked toward his village and saw clouds of smoke in the sky.

Many boys fled. Jacob ran into the woods with his cousin, where they hid for about a week.

He learned from those who escaped the attack by the militia that his mother and father were killed, and that his sister was captured.

“What we realized was [there was] no turning back,” Jacob said.

More than 20,000 boys started walking to a neighboring country they knew vaguely as Ethiopia. The only living relative he knew was his cousin Michael. When Jacob got tired, Michael would carry him over his back as they walked miles at a time, ran from troops and escaped bombs dropped from planes. At night, while the boys slept, someone would always keep watch.

One night, while Jacob was sleeping, a lion attacked his group.

“Michael slapped me in the head,” Jacob remembered. “It was pitch black and all I heard were people yelling, ‘Lion! Lion!’”

He scrambled to his feet and fled “like a scared rabbit” in pitch darkness, running into a prickly branch that tore straight into his leg, down to the bone.

“Today, I look at the scar on my leg and think of all Michael and I went through. When I look back on my life, I can honestly say that Michael saved my life many times.”

Despite his wounds, Jacob and the boys had to continue walking. They suffered from hunger and starvation. They went months without almost any water as they walked through arid deserts and mountains. Many boys ate mud and drank their own urine to survive.

Gilo River: The River of Blood, Tears and Haunting Memories

After five months of walking, the boys came to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and their pursuers stopped shooting because they were no longer in Sudanese territory. In Ethiopia, Jacob was baptized as a Christian and changed his name from Thon to Jacob.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia had been fighting its own civil war since 1971. In 1991, its government was overthrown, and the new government told the boys they had to leave.
Jacob and thousands of other boys with nowhere else to go insisted on staying, until one day, the Ethiopian government forced them at gunpoint to leave.

What resulted was the bloody night between man and beast along the banks of the Gilo River that Jacob remembers from his childhood.

More than 2,000 boys died in the river that day.
Jacob and the others who survived the Gilo River walked all the way back to South Sudan.

The northern Sudanese militia, upon learning that the lost boys had returned, came after them with guns and tanks. The boys fled again – this time to Kenya.
Wild animals, airplane bombings, gunshots, hunger and thirst plagued the boys daily.

After about eight months of walking, the boys came upon Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. There, Jacob lived for almost a decade.

“And now, you’re not a boy anymore,” Jacob said. “You’re grown a little bit into a young man.”

He and the other boys relied on the United Nations for food and clothes. When the United Nations didn’t bring food, they went hungry. There was a school in the camp for the young refugees, but Jacob was too hungry to go.

“Imagine when you’re so hungry that your eyes go blind temporarily.”
His friends who did go shared one book with about 50 other students. Classes were held under a tree. A blackboard was hung on the tree, and the boys sat on branches and wrote their notes in the sand. Many of those who finished eighth grade taught first grade.

In 1998, the United Nations took steps to bring them to the United States. The young Sudanese refugees were asked to each write their life stories.

“It was my cousin that wrote the story,” Jacob said. “I didn’t know how to write.”
In 2000, the United Nations came with lawyers to determine if they had been truthful in their stories. It became subjective.

“I know a few friends that didn’t make it,” Jacob said. “It could [have been] me.”
After they passed the interview, they had to take blood and urine tests to inspect for infectious diseases. Once cleared, they began a three-day orientation called “Welcome To America,” where they learned about life in the U.S.

Jacob doesn’t remember much, but one thing he does remember:
“Whatever happens, just call 911.”

Family Left Behind

Though Jacob and Michael made it to safety in the U.S., they left behind Jacob’s sister, who they haven’t seen since the day she was captured by the Arab militia that attacked their village.

From the start, girls were at a disadvantage. When the Northern Sudanese Arab militia attacked, many of the boys were at cattle camps, while the girls, who often stayed at home to cook and clean, were in their villages. Like Jacob’s sister, most of them were captured and taken into slavery. Many girls were raped.

Those who did flee joined the boys on their journey. When they got to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, the boys were placed loosely under adult care, while the girls were placed with foster families. When the United Nations considered the plight of the young Sudanese refugees, the girls were considered to be already cared for because they were with foster families.

Of the more than 20,000 young refugees who fled Sudan, only about 3,700 made it to the U.S. And of the 3,700 who came to U.S., only 89 were girls.

Most of the lost girls remain in refugee camps and face very similar circumstances to those Jacob once faced. Others, like his sister, remain bound as slaves to their northern masters.

A New Life

Today, if you ask a lost boy what his birthday is, you can be sure of the date – Jan. 1, the day many of them arrived in the U.S.
When Jacob came to America at about the age of 15, he was placed in foster care in Webberville, Michigan. He took a high school placement test and was assigned to the freshman grade, not because of his scores, Jacob emphasized as he had not attended much school, but because of his age.

“I could barely speak English, just using a lot of hand gesture.”

At school, kids would bully him, Jacob said. “They’ll call me the “n” word, the “f” word, you name it.” Little did they know the struggles he’d been through.

The state of Michigan required all students to graduate by the age of 18, so Jacob worked hard to graduate on time, successfully graduating in three years. He was the first in his family to ever receive a high school diploma.

He met his wife, a lost girl of Sudan, and they got married in January 2011. Jacob is now a Gator at the University of Florida, where he is completing his Ph.D. in Health Services Research, Management and Policy.

“It’s great to be in the Gator nation!”

Jacob Atem unloads USAID supplies in the Sudanese village of Maar, where the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization (SSHCO) will soon open its clinic. Photo taken in 2009, courtesy of the SSHCO.

Sending Hope Home

On his computer desktop, Jacob pulled up a picture of a girl who looked like nothing but bones squatting as a vulture landed nearby. South African photojournalist Kevin Carter committed suicide soon after taking the Pulitzer Prize winning photo. His note read:

“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children.”

Jacob looked at the photo, and he remembered his village, Maar.

In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from the northern government. Jacob believes he was spared from death for one reason: to pay it forward.

“What can I do to make sure that this doesn’t happen?” he asked.

In 2008, Jacob founded the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization with a fellow lost boy of Sudan, Lual Awan, to provide a clinic that would improve maternal mortality rates in his village.

The only standing clinic that existed after the war was pervaded by bullet holes. The maternal mortality rate in South Sudan is the worst in the world. According to a 2008 UNICEF report, one in every 32 women is likely to face maternal death.

Last year, with the help of donations, the building for the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization was completed in Maar. Medical supplies worth about $500,000 were also donated to the clinic.

The supplies still have a long journey ahead before they arrive in Maar. They have already been shipped from Springfield, Ill., to Mombasa, Kenya, and are expected to arrive this spring. Jacob hopes to have them shipped immediately to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and then to his village, Maar. It costs about $35,000 to ship the container, he said. So far, they raised about $15,000.

Jacob and the rest of the non-profit’s board of directors will visit Maar to officially open the clinic this spring.

One of the board members, Tim Page, an ophthalmologist who is going to Maar for the first time, will perform surgery on patients with cataracts – an affliction that has left thousands of Sudanese blind.

Jacob’s hope is that people will partner with him to get the clinic up and running and to ship supplies.

“If we have 50 students paying $20 a month, that’s $12,000 a year.”

Looking back on his journey, Jacob said his faith in God cannot be separated from his experiences.

“We have been called lost boys, but really we don’t feel lost,” Jacob wrote. “Even though we suffered much and lost many things dear to us, deep down in our hearts we know that we have never been lost from God.”

To learn more about how you can support Jacob, his dream and his organization, go to his website. You can also vote in the Dell Social Innovation challenge, where the projects with the most votes from different geographical regions are awarded $1,000. The last day to vote is May 13.