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'Lost Boys' find new home

December 05, 2007

The curriculum was unheard of, the educational experience fraught with despair. The challenges were inconceivable, survival only the first step in a passing grade.

While most young students in this country prepare for a college education robotically attending primary and secondary schools, and sitting through the required courses that include English, math, science, history and more, recent Arizona State University graduates Yai Atem and Jany Deng journeyed through a set of books a world apart from the classroom settings of America.

Exhaustion. Thirst. Starvation. Drownings. Rebel ambushes during the day. Wild animal attacks at night.

“I was seven years old when we began the walk,” says Atem, given a birth date of Dec. 1, 1980, by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that helped find him a home in the U.S. after a 13-year, 1,000-mile odyssey that took him from his native Sudan to neighboring Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and eventually to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, as he and his fellow-“Lost Boys of Sudan” escaped the ravages of a bloody, indiscriminate civil war.

“We ate tree leaves and drank our own urine to survive to live one more day.”

The story of the Lost Boys has been told before. It is a compelling, mind-numbing tale that seems unreal for the sheer horror and suffering of some 20,000 refugees who walked through a triangle of African countries that is Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. It is a brutal reading of 12,000 who survived, eventually finding safe harbor in crowded Kenyan refugee camps from Kakuma in the northwest to Dadaab in the east.

Behind the headlines detailing the atrocities of an army coup-installed military Islamic fundamentalist regime is a story that offers hope and inspiration and is epitomized by Atem and Deng, who came to this country by different routes, earned U.S. citizenship, and received bachelor’s degrees from ASU after attending classes at the growing West campus.

“It was a hopeless situation before coming to America,” says Deng, who is the events program manager for the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix. “You just had to keep going,” he says of the meandering trek that eventually ended for him at Dadaab, the world’s largest camp for refugees. “We were fired upon (by rebel forces). We were faced with starvation, mental despair, general weakness. The sun came up, we got up. The sun went down, we went to sleep.”

School of hard knocks? Atem’s journey of despair ended 11 years after his arrival in 1989 at Kakuma, a camp of 80,000, located, ironically, in the area where archaeologists believe the human race began. But, before his relocation to the U.S. by the IRC, Atem was challenged by the harsh realities of life on the run.

“It took three months to get to Ethiopia,” says Atem, who earned a B.S. in criminology and criminal justice from ASU’s College of Human Services in May and now serves as security manager at the Beatitudes senior living campus in Phoenix. “When you got tired, you just stopped, because you couldn’t go any further. You would see someone who had died on the way, and you would think that could be me.”

After two years in Ethiopia, Atem, like Deng, was forced to flee that country because of civil war. Hoping to find a return to relative normalcy in their native Sudan, Atem and Deng, instead found the same desperate conditions and moved on – with thousands more – to find refuge in Kenya.

Life changed dramatically for Atem and Deng upon their separate arrivals in the U.S. Atem, who had the benefit of schooling at Kakuma and learned English while there, was flown from Kakuma to Nairobi to Brazil to New York to Denver to Phoenix, arriving in the Valley of the Sun in 2001. At the massive Dadaab camp, schooling was not an option for Deng, who arrived in the States speaking only his native Dinka. Both arrivals turned to education.

Deng’s schooling in the Valley began at Shadow Mountain High School and was “very hard and very frustrating,” he says. After graduation from Shadow Mountain, Deng attended Paradise Valley Community College, earning an A.A. in 2005.

“I say education is my mother and my father because without education I cannot communicate, I am helpless, and the world does not know me,” says Deng, whose bachelor’s degree in social work was awarded by ASU’s College of Human Services in May. “Education opened a new world for me; it allowed me to see the world in a new way.

“Primarily, education gave me the tools and the knowledge to find my family, who I have missed so much for over 20 years. I know where they are now; I have found them in Gambella (a town that rests on the Sudan-Ethiopia border) and I am going to see them next month (December) and tell them how important education is. They know.”

Atem, too, discovered a new world through his pursuit of an advanced education. He had passed a national secondary school test in Kenya before coming to the States and was able to enroll almost immediately at Phoenix College. After two years of criminal justice studies and an A.A. degree, he enrolled at ASU.

“ASU has taught me that people’s actions and behaviors are different and that they have impact, good and bad,” says Atem, who will begin graduate courses at the West campus in January. “My classes reconfirmed for me how important education is in our lives and that you can change lives through education. There is no other way; to correct wrongs, you must correct them through education.”

Deng, whose given birth date is March 3, 1979 – four years after the birth date his brother says is the real one (March 15, 1975) – agrees, noting that ASU’s commitment to community has been engrained in his character, and he is glad for the lessons learned.

“ASU gave me a better dedication and commitment to people around me,” he says. “My professors and classmates have taught me about teamwork and about my responsibilities to others and my community. I now feel like I can make a difference in the community. I support this 100 percent, because I see things in a different way now.”

Cari Autry, an assistant professor in ASU’s department of Recreation and Tourism Management (RTM) in the College of Human Services and a member of the Arizona Lost Boys Center board of directors, is moved by the story of the Lost Boys and of Atem and Deng.

“What stands out for me is the hope and optimism the Lost Boys and Girls have,” says Autry, who has helped develop an RTM student internship program at the center to work with its Journey of Hope team and other fund-raising events. “These men and women work so hard at everything, and education is most important to them. And what is more moving is that it is important for them to choose an education focus or concentration in human services where they in return can help give back to their communities, here and Sudan.”

“The Lost Boys and Girls are inspirational because they are so motivated and upbeat. Their smiles are deep and heartfelt, and yet they have been through so much. But it isn’t about feeling sorry for them, it’s that their smiles and motivation help us all celebrate life.”

When considering the many challenges faced by Atem and Deng, Ralph Serpico, center executive director, says education plays a significant role in the programs and support offered to more than 300 “clients” by his staff.

“Education is not an obstacle but rather a solution for them,” he notes. “Lack of education would be an obstacle. They see that the road to self-reliance and to success in America is education and that without an education, they are at a severe disadvantage.”

Atem and Deng were among 11 Lost Boys from the Phoenix center who received degrees in May, the largest graduating class of all Lost Boys centers in the U.S. Atem and Deng were the only two who earned their degrees at a four-year university.

Serpico sees Atem and Deng as having set the bar for many of their brothers to follow.

“We tend to think of everyone as the same,” he says of his Lost Boys clientele. He adds, “It is easy to forget that they are each unique individuals. Jany and Yai represent both the spirit of their common history and the strength of their individuality.

“As some of the first graduates of a four-year major university, Jany and Yai are perfect role models of how to succeed in accomplishing the goal of getting an education and working at the same time. They are great role models and leaders because, despite their past, they are optimistic, hopeful, friendly and forward-seeking.”

As these two men, who took different roads to this country but are linked by a common, punishing life experience – as well as their alma mater – continue to count their new-found blessings, they cannot forget their past.

“I remember growing up with cows,” says Deng, whose fiancé, Tara, was a nursing student at ASU before graduating in July. “Walking them, feeding them, fishing and playing with family and friends is what I remember best.

“But, there is also the memory of not knowing what was going to happen and walking for so long and just having to keep going, and then waiting at the camp, just sitting. Sometimes we kicked a soccer ball, sometimes we played dominoes, but there was no routine, just waiting and not knowing what was going to happen.

“Now, there is safety and no more bombings. Now, we have a chance to live and share with others what we have learned.”

And, through all of this – the endless marches, the misery, the exhaustion, the uncertainty of what the next moment might bring, followed by the promise of life in America and the rewards of higher education – is the irony of one of Deng’s first impressions of his new home.

“At Jack in the Box, I am amazed that you speak to a box and then collect food,” he says.

If only education, and life itself, were so easily ordered.