Lost Boy From Sudan Tells How He Found His True Calling In America : Goats and Soda Everyone has a story. Jacob Atem, who fled Sudan as a child, told his at a Baltimore event. It's horrific, heartbreaking — and ultimately inspiring.
NPR logo How A Lost Boy From Sudan Found His True Calling In The U.S.

How A Lost Boy From Sudan Found His True Calling In The U.S.

Jacob Atem, who fled Sudan as a boy, was one of the storytellers at "Stoop Stories," a Baltimore event. Atem talked about his life as a "Lost Boy" and what happened when he settled in Michigan — like the time his foster mom grounded him just for wanting to punch a kid who'd insulted him. Brennen Jensen for NPR hide caption

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Brennen Jensen for NPR

Jacob Atem, who fled Sudan as a boy, was one of the storytellers at "Stoop Stories," a Baltimore event. Atem talked about his life as a "Lost Boy" and what happened when he settled in Michigan — like the time his foster mom grounded him just for wanting to punch a kid who'd insulted him.

Brennen Jensen for NPR

Baltimore's Stoop Stories is a 12-year-old live show and podcast wherein people from all walks of life tell their tales. The premise is simple: Everyone has a story.

But then few have one as horrific, heartbreaking — and ultimately inspiring — as the one told by Jacob Atem, who was born in the part of Sudan that is now the independent country of South Sudan and who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Humanitarian Health.

"I always ask people in this country, when was the last time you drank your own urine?" he inquired from the Stoop Story stage on October 25. "We didn't have an option but to drink our own urine."

Atem is a former Lost Boy, one of some 40,000 children orphaned by the Sudanese civil war in the 1990s. They fled the country on foot via arduous cross-country treks and spent years in refugee camps. Nearly 4,000 were ultimately resettled in the U.S.

His "beautiful life" in a small village on the banks of the Nile River came to an end when he was around 7. He and his cousin were tending the family cattle when North Sudanese militia struck the town. His parents were killed, his sister and nieces enslaved. The boys hid in the woods and soon fell in with a ragtag group of other boys who'd escaped the carnage, now walking out of the country. If a lack of sufficient food and water weren't privation enough, militia forces pursued the boys, even bombing them from helicopters.

"The wild animals were also very vicious, especially the lions, and a lot of people got attacked," Atem told a hushed audience at Baltimore's historic Senator Theater. "A lot of people got eaten by crocodiles."

He walked over 2,000 miles. But life was little better after reaching the Kakuma refugee camp in the Kenyan desert. "In this camp, you're literally waiting for your death," he said. Malnutrition rendered him temporarily blind at times. Then hope came from the other side of the world when he was 15.

"In 2001, I was resettled to a place called Michigan," he recalled.

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The theme for the evening's stories was, "Getting it wrong: stories about mix-ups, misunderstandings, and mistakes." Atem came to Michigan with a pair of his cousins, and the cow-herding Sudanese boys had more than a few misunderstandings about life in 21st-century America.

"Language was difficult. When we see this sign that said 'Dead End' with our little English, we say, 'Wow, you go there, you will never die again.' They also got blissfully acquainted with something called pizza.

But then, during his sophomore year of high school, this: "One morning, my foster mom just dropped me off at the school bus. This kid sitting next to me said, 'Hey, what's up, monkey?' You should have seen my eyes. I grabbed the kid. I wanted to punch him because that's how we did it in Africa. Fortunately, my nephew was there. He pulled me back and he said not to do it."

Atem had learned to fight in the refugee camp. It was how you survived. Now the traumatized 16-year-old stewed in his anger. Worse still, when he got home his foster mother ("a wonderful woman") grounded him for just for wanting to punch the other boy. He cried himself to sleep.

A night of soul-searching led him to a new strategy: technology over knuckles. "I started having a tape recorder," he explained. "People would call me monkey, the 'n' word, you name it and I would record that and give it to the principal. The student would be punished or actually suspended for the foul language they used."

A corner was turned. "I went and graduated, got my bachelors, masters and now am a postdoc at Johns Hopkins." He also co-founded the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization, a nonprofit working within his war-torn homeland.

He finished up by saying: "To conclude: I just want to say that the decision I made of nonviolence has had a long-term positive outcome."

We caught up with Jacob Atem after the show to find out more about his refugee experience and his thoughts on the current political climate. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Are you in touch with your sister or other relatives in Sudan or South Sudan?

My sister and two of my nieces were taken during the war into slavery. I was last in contact with them in 2013, and then the war erupted again. So, right now I'm trying to trace them through the International Red Cross. It's been difficult given the unstable environment. Also, I have a half-brother who is a chief in my clan and I have two half-sisters who I have been in contact with. Also, a brother who went to Australia as a Lost Boy.

Do you feel Americans remember much about the Lost Boys and their plight?

People actually remember pretty well. There was a movie about us. They know the lost boys arrived here, but they don't really know what happened to us.

I am happy to report now that the Lost Boys are married with families. The Lost Boys are fighting in Iraq with the American military. Lost Boys are captains in the Air Force and engineers working on the Boeing 787. A Lost Boy friend of mine works for NASA. And a Lost Boy is doing postdoc work at John Hopkins. Those are the stories that Americans can be proud of it because it's America that made us who we are.

Did some Lost Boys have less exemplary outcomes?

Yes, there were some who struggled adjusting to America. Some did have trouble with the law. When we first got here, a lot of us were diagnosed with PTSD. That's doesn't justify whatever crimes they did but it's part of the baggage we came with — depression, anxiety. It was a struggle for some.

Has our charged political climate motivated you to tell your story more?

You bet. My dream is to have a dialogue on immigration. I'm ready to share my story, to get invited to speak — whether it's at the White House or wherever it is. I think it is time for the refugees, also, to understand the perspective of those with opposite views. This is where I pray to have leadership that can embrace dialogue.

There are some bad apples who may have damaged the reputation of the refugees. I'm not denying that. But the focal point here is that we sit down and see the big picture. What refugees want is to come to this country, work hard, get their education and give back to society as I did. Twenty years ago, America was a role model for the free world. It doesn't matter if you're Democrat or Republican. You know how the Lost Boys got here? It was a bipartisan agreement. Those are the days that I'm dreaming about.

What troubles you most about the refugee/asylum situation in the U.S.?

I never thought I would see, in my life as a refugee, a country that was separating children from their parents. I just cannot imagine it. My parents and 2.5 million people were killed in the Sudan civil war. But if they had not been killed and were with me when we went to Ethiopia or Kenya, I could never imagine that they would be separated from me. That's where my heart melts.

The world faces the greatest number of displaced people since the end of World War II. Are you optimistic that the U.S. will become more welcoming?

I think we can bridge the gap and reverse course. It's not too late. It's quite challenging, but it can be reversed because some of these are temporary political campaigns from opportunistic politicians taking advantage of what I call a misunderstanding between American people and refugees or immigrants.

The beautiful thing about this country is if you don't like it, change it through the vote.

Are you in touch with that boy who called you the name? It seems that the encounter, painful as it was, proved to be a pivotal moment in your development.

That is true. I don't know where he is. I know his name, but I haven't seen him for a while.

Why did you choose a career in humanitarian health?

This is one of my favorite questions. Coming here, after drinking urine and eating mud and in a terrible condition, I felt really truly blessed with what we have in this country. I thought it would be good to not be selfish and to help people back.

I went to study biology to become a doctor, so I can help people in general. But it didn't work out. Then I remembered that when I was young, I had a big wound and I could see my own bones. I remember how vulnerable children are. A lot of refugees around me were dying from diarrheal diseases, from preventable diseases. So I went and did my master's in public health, and I fell in love with a profession where I could couple my experience of living as a refugee with scientific research.

Brennen Jensen is Baltimore-based freelancer who writes frequently for Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health Magazine and publications as diverse as AARP The Magazine and the Southern culinary publication The Local Palate. Reach him @Bgray.jensen