ALACHUA — It’s safe to say that most people have hard times and sometimes troubles seem too much to overcome. In America, troubles are generally over relationships, school drama, jobs, money, and the other similar issues. And teenagers tend to see these everyday challenges as more distressful. On Dec 10, students at Santa Fe High School gathered in the auditorium to hear Dr. Jacob Atem as he spoke to them about preserving in times of trouble and overcoming obstacles to create their own success.
Atem knows about hard times and adversity. He is one of those known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” Born in Sudan, his country became embroiled in a brutal civil war that claimed the lives of close to 2 million people and lasted for 22 years. It is one of the longest civil wars on record.
Village burned to the ground
When Atem was seven years old, he watched as his village was attacked and burned to the ground. This young child watched as his parents and almost every adult he knew was murdered. He escaped and joined over 20,000 other orphans (mainly boys) trying to flee the country. Much of the travel took place by foot in large groups with the boys traveling in single file lines.
The journey from South Sudan to the nearest refugee camp could be up to thousands of miles. Travel ranged from a span of weeks to two or more years. Often, the children traveled with no possessions besides the clothes on their backs. The Boys often depended on the charity of villages they passed for food, necessities, and treatment of the sick. However, most of their travel was in isolated regions with very little infrastructure and few supplies to spare.
Orphans attacked by Ethiopians
Groups of Boys were often organized and led by the oldest boy in the group, who could be a young adult or sometimes as young as 10 or 12 years old. Repeatedly attacked as they fled toward Ethiopia, young Atem saw many other children die from military attacks,thirst, starvation and wild animals including lions, hyenas and crocodiles. An estimated 50 percent didnt make it.
Once the children finally crossed into Ethiopia, they were put in crowded refuge camps where malnutrition, starvation and disease continued to kill them. After two years in these makeshift camps, they were told they had to leave because the country was embroiled in its own civil war and could not afford to feed or care for the children. On the Sudanese side of the river were militias that wanted to kill or enslave the refugees. Caught between the two, the Boys refused to leave and were attacked by the Ethiopeans and forced into the river where many drowned or were eaten by crocodiles. Many more were killed or captured by Sudanese militia and forced into being child soldiers.
Refuge in Kenya, then America
Atem survived and continued with others on a journey to find refuge in Kenya where international aid groups had set up camps. The world was now aware of their plight and some, including Atem, were given a chance to immigrate to America.
But Atem told the students that immigration is not as easy as often portrayed politically. It took two years to get through the paperwork, pass the citiizen exam and find a sponsor family in the United States. Ones that were over 18 had a three-month visa to get a job and pay back their travel costs or be deported. Those under 18 had to find foster parents willing to sponsor them.
At 15, Atem did not know how to read, write or speak English and even simple things taken for granted in America required learning, such as light switches, television or cooking with a stove. They were all foriegn to the world he had grown up in. Placed in school, he faced bullying,was called stupid and riduculed. But he knew he had an opportunity to have a better life and persisted in his studies.
Education key to future
The reason Atem told the students his story was to show how bad adversity could be and yet not defeat you. He worked hard, eventually working his way into college and finally graduating with a Ph.D. The point of his lecture was to show that no matter how bad things seem, you can make your own future if you work hard and don’t give up. He urged the students to take their education seriously, saying, “Education is a commodity that determines your future abilities.”
He also discussed using education and privledge to help others by doing volunteer work for the less fortunate. Atem has established a medical clinic in rural South Sudan to help rebuild the country of his birth that also drove him and thousands of other out. Atem holds no animosity towards others and has learned to heal and better himself by helping others. He said that the mission of his clinic is to provide medical services and education to uplift the people of South Sudan and bring hope where it has been lost.
He told the students that he was not smart, but rather, achieved his goals and current life through hard work and urged the students to do the same. "If you have a teacher trying to help you learn and you don’t show up or care, you only hurt yourself and limit your ability,” Atem said. “Success in your life is only gained by your own efforts.”
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