The boy’s lungs fill with the stale smoke of gunfire as he sprints away from the village, now ablaze. His tears fly behind him, splattering the ground of war-torn Sudan. Instead of turning around and being forced to fight, he decides to keep running, facing an uncertain future as a refugee.
“We ate mud to survive. Sometimes, we even had to drink our urine. Here in America, they say ‘that’s gross’ or ‘that’s disgusting,’ and it was, but it was all we had. We had to survive,” said Jacob Atem, a Lansing-area “Lost Boy” who entered a refugee camp in Ethiopia carried in the arms of his cousin, Michael, after walking for four to five months.
A civil war fought between Islamic and Christian Africans tore Sudanese boys from their villages in the mid 1980s until the late 1990s. It is estimated that some 33,000 children were displaced and left to fend for themselves. These Sudanese refugees were given the name “Lost Boys” of Sudan, after the story of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys of Neverland.
[octatem] “There were many deaths from hunger, thirst or the attack of wild animals,” David Deng, also a Lansing-area Lost Boy, stated. Although many of the boys arrived at a safe haven in Ethiopia, it was only about two years before a civil war broke out there and the boys were forced to relocate once more. This time, they traveled to Kakuma, a Kenyan refugee camp set up by The Office of the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees. Although education was available, problems with the distribution of food discouraged most of the boys from going to school. Atem and Deng both agreed that while there was a school, they found it difficult to pay attention on an empty stomach.”With food only coming once every two weeks, I would eat once a day and then spend two or three days without eating,” Atem said.
Atem, now in his early 20s, was roughly 6 or 7 years old when he was forced from his village in southern Sudan.”Since I could not read or write then, I do not know of my exact age,” he said. To this day, many Lost Boy refugees are unsure of their ages because they had been running for so long and barely knew how to read or write. They were assigned an age based on their education, appearance and other factors upon arriving at refugee camps.
Most of the Lost Boys arrived at Kakuma in 1992 and spent up to nine years minimum there until the United States came to their aid. It was not until 1998 that the U.S. government examined the state of African affairs post-Rwandan genocide and discovered the Lost Boys. In late 2000 and early 2001, the United States decided to take action. Thirty-eight hundred boys and 89 girls were taken in by the United States and resettled in a handful of cities, including in Michigan – Lansing, Grand Rapids and Sault St. Marie. Michigan was one of the states that took in the most refugees, and many of those boys got off the plane in Lansing. [octpic]
“It just so happened that we had two resettlement agencies within the area: Lutheran Social Services of Michigan took the minors (those under 18), and St. Vincent’s Home took the majors,” said Tom Luster, a professor of family and child ecology at Michigan State. Luster himself also took in a young man – around the age of 21 at the time he arrived in the States – named Sisimayo. Both Luster and the Lost Boys agree that majors, like Deng, had a harder time transitioning.”They were put into peer groups to live with others [their age] in an apartment. Within four months, they were expected to become financially independent,” Luster said. Minors, on the other hand, finished what was left of their schooling.
Although the transition was difficult for both majors and minors, Luster and some colleagues at MSU set up a support group that met every Tuesday evening at Christ Lutheran in the downtown area.”We avoided the topics of separation in the beginning,” Luster said. Rather, it became a place where Lost Boys and Girls could meet to discuss their transition and, if they chose, their past. MSU granted money and permission to Luster, as well as to some colleagues, to study the group upon its arrival to the United States. Of course, he said, he received permission from the victims themselves. He said he only selected a set number of people, and others found out through their peers about the study. He used his research to write a chapter of a recently published book named Strengths and Challenges of New Immigrant Families.
Deng was 19 when he arrived in the United States, making him a major and ineligible to do much else than work.”I wanted to go to high school, but because of my age, they wouldn’t allow me to,” he said. Deng was a junior in high school when he left Kakuma, but too old by U.S. standards to finish his education. Instead, he found his first job at an L & L Food Center in Lansing. He saved money to pay for rent and other bills but still wanted to eventually go to college.”We were very committed to education; education was our father and mother,” Deng said. Eventually, he saved enough money to take courses and receive his GED. He then left his job at L & L to find another that would allow him time for a college education. Deng took evening classes at Lansing Community College and transferred to MSU in the fall of 2007 as a sophomore.”I worked in the morning and had school at night,” he said. He is now junior status, majoring in economics.[octatem2]
Opposite of Deng, Atem was 15 when he arrived in the United States. He finished high school at Webberville High School in Webberville, Michigan. Although graduating high school was important to Atem, he still wanted more. He attended Spring Arbor University, where he played soccer for the school and graduated with a degree in biology just last spring. He said he would like to go back to Sudan to become a family practitioner in Maar, his hometown. Such an ambition is expected to bode well for the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization, the clinic that he and Deng co-founded.
“It’s something we had been talking about for a while. So many people are dying from such easily treatable diseases, like whooping cough, who could be cured if only they had good medical attention,” Deng said.
Deng’s family has been affected by waterborne and insect-type diseases; he said that many people in his community have been without adequate medical attention for 21 years or more. His mother, sister and uncle have gone to Kenya to receive medical attention but only because Deng was able to pay for them – which, he says, is why they want to build the clinic in their community. He and Atem are hoping to raise at least $250,000 to begin the project. But he said raising half may be enough to begin construction on the clinic. “Right now, we are just trying to spread awareness [and] mobilize this movement. The sooner we raise money, the sooner we will start building it,” Atem said.
Now seven years after their firsts – stepping foot on U.S. soil, going shopping and using electricity and water – the boys have come a long way.”I’m still amazed at how resilient they are. A lot of skills that helped them in Africa helped them [transition] here,” Luster said, citing strong religious beliefs and a commitment to education as some cultural expectations. Atem agreed.”If we, as Lost Boys, can [get through school], what is the excuse of any American kid to not go to college?”
Beyond education, Atem and Deng still believe there is work to be done in Sudan.”It is very difficult to see unity in Sudan; [one] would have to take religion out – where one race doesn’t consider itself superior to another,” Atem said. But he also believes the responsibility is not all on Sudan. “We, as the U.S., have to do more. We are a super power. But it is now up to us. Now you know. Now you cannot say you had no idea this was happening,” he said.

To learn more or donate to Atem and Deng’s organization, please visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *