“When was the last time you were chased by a lion?” Jacob Atem asked the 40 people at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe.
Heads shook all over the room.
Atem hasn’t been chased by a lion since he was 6 or 7. He’s not sure which, because he was born at home in southern Sudan, and his family didn’t keep meticulous track of his age.
But he says his memories of fleeing lions and starvation have never left him.
Atem was one of the “Lost Boys,” about 20,000 children, primarily boys, who fled the Second Sudanese Civil War that raged between southern and northern Sudan from 1987 to 2005.
Atem came to Stowe last Thursday to talk about the clinic he established in his home village as leader of Southern Sudan Health Care Organization, which he co-founded after earning a Ph.D. in environmental and global health from the University of Florida.
He wanted to speak in Stowe about the importance of accepting refugees into the United States. As a child refugee himself, he couldn’t imagine attending high school, let alone earn a doctorate; it was all he could do to stay alive.
Atem was out in a field, helping a cousin tend a herd of cattle, when the war came to Maar, Sudan, where he was born.
“In that attack, I lost my parents,” sisters, cousins and nieces, Atem said.
Genocide in southern Sudan was common during the civil war. Men and boys were usually killed immediately; women and girls were taken into slavery, sold or raped.
When they learned of the attack, Atem and his male cousin ran, not understanding what the fighting meant for them.
“Are we coming back home?” Atem would ask as the days dragged on, and his cousin and the boys they were traveling with got farther and farther from Maar. “The answer was no.”
The boys knew they had to leave the country entirely to escape the war and genocide that had slaughtered their families, and the closest place they could seek refuge was Ethiopia.
It took three to four months to walk there, and their feet were the only transportation the children had. Their ages ranged from 6 to 15, and when they ran out of the food they took with them when they fled, many died of starvation and disease, drinking their own urine to survive.
“We were really kids, but kids start burying kids” after just a few weeks, Atem remembered. “You have anxiety — is it me next? The more you walk, the more people are going to die. … Most of my memories are there.”
About 12,000 boys made it to Ethiopia, where they were sent to a refugee camp. Food rations were thin, and many children continued to die of malnutrition.
Atem went temporarily blind there because he wasn’t getting enough to eat.
People donated books and supplies, but “we’re not thinking about education” when starving, Atem said. “You’re waiting for your grave.”
After a few years in the Ethiopian camp, the children were forced at gunpoint to flee to Kenya in 1991.
Between 1992 and 1996, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund reunited about 1,200 lost children with their families, but kids like Atem, whose families had been killed, needed another answer.
In 2001, the United States agreed to allow 3,800 Lost Boys to be resettled in at least 38 cities across the country.
Getting to those cities was “a tedious process,” Atem said. Lawyers grilled the children about their pasts. Doctors checked them to ensure they wouldn’t bring infections or diseases into the country. Then, each child had to wait for an American family to volunteer to take them in.
“You could wait months for a foster family,” Atem said. “I’m grateful for my foster mother. … I was one of the fortunate few who made it to America.”
He was 15 when he was relocated to Michigan and raised in foster care. At the time, he had the equivalent of just a fourth-grade education, but he finished high school, overcoming all manner of barriers. He was bullied, called “monkey” and the N-word, and was severely behind his classmates.
“It didn’t come naturally,” Atem said.
But he fought through, because he was so grateful to have been given a chance.
“When I got that high school diploma, I jumped up and down for joy,” Atem said.
Atem graduated from the University of Michigan, and while he was a student, he founded the Southern Sudanese Health Care Organization.
“When I was walking, diseases were the problem,” Atem said. Being allowed into the United States was a great gift, and he wanted to “help the people I left behind. … Refugees give back” because they’re grateful to be able to.
His organization raised enough money to build and operate a clinic in Maar in 2012. Today, it serves about 3,000 patients every month, at no cost to them.
About 80 percent have malaria, and half of all the clinic’s patients are under age 5. An average of 10 babies are born there every month.
It costs less than $9,000 a month to run the clinic and offer free health care to those 3,000 patients.
Today, Atem is a postdoctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Humanitarian Health, engrossed in public health research to educate and empower refugees and people in developing nations. The center has completed 41 public health projects in 27 countries.
Dean Goodermote of Stowe chairs the Center for Humanitarian Health’s advisory committee, and was behind Atem’s talk at Helen Day Art Center.
Goodermote points out that refugees all over the world are looking for sanctuary.
South Sudan is still in the top three nations for refugees fleeing elsewhere; Syria and Afghanistan are the others.
Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda are the top three nations of asylum, Goodermote said.
The United States contributes about $5 per person every year to refugee resettlement efforts.
“It’s considerable, relative to others,” Goodermote said, but the U.S. falls short when it comes to actually taking in refugees.
Right now, about 320,000 people in the country have temporary asylum, he said. Next year, just 30,000 people will be allowed in; this year, that number was 45,000.
So, next year, a refugee has only 10 percent of the chance that Atem had of coming to the United States in 2001.
“The part that makes me angry is when we classify them all as criminals,” said Linda James, Atem’s wife. James was a Lost Girl of Sudan, but her family was fortunate; her father had a political position, and the family could get to the United States. But first she had to walk through forests for three months with only the clothes on her back, helping look after her pregnant mother, her grandmother and her sister.
“They want to be in a better place,” James said of today’s refugees. “It’s dehumanizing of their condition. … We expect other people to be wide open, but we’re not.”
“These people are running from being persecuted,” Atem said. “It’s a tough situation where we need dialogue.”
“Whenever hatred and fear comes in, it’s because there’s no compassion,” James said.
Atem loves the United States, and has faith in his adopted homeland.
“Despite our bickering and despite our problems, we are a great nation,” he said. “All we need is to sit down and talk.”