After escaping Sudan, `Lost Boy' finds hope

A former refugee has his eye on a definite future

May 26, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sitting on a bench in a sunny courtyard, Amal Athieu doesn't flinch as an airplane roars overhead. But he does notice it.

In his native Sudan, he said, the sound of a plane would send everyone scurrying for cover.

Athieu, 26, has come a long way from that war-torn country.

Yesterday, he graduated from Anne Arundel Community College with an associate's degree in business administration. He plans to attend the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall, and law school after that.

Eventually, he would like to return to the Sudan to fight injustices there.

But for many years, Athieu could not plan for the future because he was trekking thousands of miles through jungles and deserts, scratching out a meager existence in and out of refugee camps.

Athieu is one of about 25,000 "Lost Boys" of the Sudan, victims of a brutal violence that separated children from their families.

Though he hasn't been home in 19 years, Athieu can still remember the village of Tot, where he lived with his parents, five brothers and a sister. His house was made of mud and grass, and there were many kids around. Crops such as beans and millet were grown. "It was nice," he said.

But when he was 8, he was tending cattle near his village when government troops attacked.

"The militias came, riding their horses," said Athieu, never raising his voice or betraying emotion as he spoke. "They were carrying swords and guns."

Athieu and about 400 other youngsters ran into the jungle as all around him, people were shot and decapitated. The militia, he said, were targeting children so they could quell the next generation of rebel fighters.

For the next three months, the survivors, mostly ages 7 and 8, trekked about 1,000 miles to the border of Ethiopia, he said. To survive, they ate fruits and leaves.

"We had nothing at all," he said. "We had to eat mud. We had to drink our own urine."

Wild animals posed a constant danger, so the children walked in groups, holding hands.

Still, he saw members of his group mauled and killed by the animals. After three months of wandering through these dangers, Athieu and other refugees were intercepted by United Nations officials, who provided tents and food in Ethiopia. Still, many people died from diarrhea, he said.

Eventually, a school was started, Athieu said. The children had no paper or pencils, so they drew in the dirt. Four years passed. Then the political situation in Ethiopia grew unstable, and Athieu said the enemy "sent us out of the country. ... They started shooting us."

In May 1991, the band of refugees, about 18,000, walked to the border to return to the Sudan. But the Gilo River separating the two countries was swollen with rain. While the refugees stood on the Ethiopian side to decide what to do, "the enemy comes and starts shooting," Athieu said. "I remember I jumped into the river, but I don't remember how I got out."

All around him, people were drowning or being attacked by crocodiles, he said. Five thousand people died in that river, he said, but somehow Athieu lived.

Finally, the shrunken group of survivors reached Kenya, and the United Nations set up a camp in Kakuma. Athieu remained there for nine years, until he was 21. All that time, he had no idea what had happened to his family, he said.

In the late 1980s, the plight of the Lost Boys came to the public's attention, thanks to a PBS documentary and other media attention. Nearly 4,000 Sudanese refugees eventually came to the United States, including Athieu, who settled in Atlanta in April 2001 with three other Lost Boys, David Tit, Pandak Deng and Deng Anyang.

Athieu began taking classes to earn a high school diploma. In 2002, he and the other three moved to Washington to get jobs through the Job Corps, a federally funded jobs program. At that point, Athieu and the others were taken under the wing of Jim and Lorraine Hiskey of Annapolis.

"They would come out on Sundays and go to our church and then spend the day with us," said Lorraine Hiskey. Bay Area Community Church agreed to sponsor the boys, and the Hiskeys became their mentors.

"Our church was willing to be their larger family, so then we had a lot of resources to draw on," Lorraine Hiskey said. Athieu is the first of the four men to graduate from Anne Arundel Community College.

The Hiskeys and their church have become so involved with Sudan that they have sponsored two more men, and are now working to establish a hospital in Sudan.

With the help of the church, Athieu has also started a project called the Ciec Community Development Association, which seeks to raise money for a health center, school and church in his former homeland.

While taking a full course load, Athieu has held two part-time jobs, one at a furniture store in Prince George's County and the other at Anne Arundel Medical Center. "Sometimes I go to bed at 4 [a.m.]," he said.

"These young men just have a remarkable story," said Tom McGinn, AACC's director of admissions and enrollment. "They're eager to learn, they want do the right thing, they work very hard, they're very organized."

Athieu is leaving Monday to go to Sudan for the first time since he was a child. He'll stay for five weeks, reunite with his parents and siblings and hold on to his hopes of returning there permanently.

"If God helps me make that happen, I'll go and help in the community there," he said.

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