Earning a doctorate is a difficult journey for anyone. But for Abraham Deng Ater, it’s the culmination of a journey that spans thousands of miles, several refugee camps, two continents and more than three decades.
In 1987, Ater was one of 20,000 South Sudanese boys who traveled over 1,000 miles by foot to Ethiopia and Kenya to escape a civil war. He wasn’t even 10 years old, and he left his family behind to become part of a wandering group known as the “Lost Boys,” sleeping in mud refugee camp huts along the way.
Fourteen years later, Ater entered the U.S. with the aim of fulfilling his late father’s wish that he finish his education. Today, he’s a public health researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (working as a contractor from Northrop Grumman), and at the end of 2018, he received a doctor of public health in public health leadership from Georgia Southern University, completing the promise he made so many years ago.
In another way, Ater’s journey is only beginning. His long-term plans are to truly come full circle, heading back to his homeland to help improve health outcomes. It’s a plan he’s held close for years, to give back to the place where he was born.
During his time in Statesboro, Ater worked closely with Dr. Gulzar Shah, the department chair of the school’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, who became a mentor. What immediately impressed Shah about Ater was his understanding of the bigger picture of public health.
“Most people, when you ask about health, they almost immediately think of people exercising or eating healthy foods, factors at the individual level,” said Shah. “In my conversations with Ater, he understood broader influences, such as poverty, education, security, food and shelter. Those factors constitute the bigger picture of health.”
A father’s wish
Like many of the Lost Boys who survived the journey, Ater does not know how old he is. Officially, he was born on Jan. 1, 1979. The truth? Who knows. He was given his official birthday in 1998, early in the process of moving to the U.S.
“They asked, ‘How old are you?’ and, of course, we didn’t know,” Ater said. “They’d look at you and say, ‘You look 15,’ and then your official birthdate would be Jan. 1 of 15 years before. If you were taller, you’d be estimated with a higher age, and if shorter, you’d be younger. And, of course, you could be small but older. But that’s how we got our age. All of the Lost Boys have Jan. 1 birthdays.”
Between his time as a Lost Boy in 1987 and his U.S. arrival in 2001, Ater spent 14 years living in refugee camps. He and the others stayed at each one until war came too close for safety, then headed to another. During the 1,000-mile journey on foot, roughly half of the boys died due to starvation or dehydration.
Many of the Lost Boys have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many others, including Ater, suffer from nightmares relating to their experiences. He does not suffer from physical or mental issues beyond the nightmares, however.
The war, which is known as the second Sudanese civil war, began in 1983 and did not end until 2005, by which time Ater had settled in the U.S. When it began, he was forced to leave his family along with the other boys, some of whom were as young as 6 or 7 years old.
There were few adults in the group, and Ater admits he did not know who was leading the way.
“We were sent from different villages across southern Sudan, so different boys came and met along the way, and eventually our numbers ran into the thousands,” he said.
The group gradually entered Ethiopia and Kenya in 1987 and ‘88, and then lived in groups as boys without proper families. Ater said the groups created their own version of kinship. He eventually settled in northern Kenya before being sent to the U.S., which is where many of the other Lost Boys ended up as well.
Ater last saw his family whole before leaving his village in 1987. His father’s last order to him before he left was to complete his education. He recalls a long conversation they had one evening, not long before his refugee journey began.
“My father went around to tell all of the village elders and parents that all the boys were being collected and sent away,” Ater said. “He told us, ‘Be strong and don’t get behind. You will survive by yourself.’”
But the main message Ater remembered was an emphasis on getting an education before coming back home.
“He told me, ‘Despite all of the odds that you’ll face and all of the problems you will have, just focus on your education,’” Ater said.
The promise of life in U.S.
The beginning of that education after fleeing Sudan bore little resemblance to the large American universities where it ended.
There were schools in the refugee camps, which were taught in English and Arabic. Ater first began school in Ethiopia in a school funded by the United Nations, and began his first-ever day of school as a third-grader.
But war again knocked on the door and interrupted his educational pursuits. After fleeing as a refugee again, Ater finally settled in northern Kenya in 1992. He attended school there through the end of high school around the year 2000.
“We didn’t get the same as what American students got. We just survived,” he said.
At the refugee school, the students slept in makeshift tents, and at first held classes outdoors under a tree. When the U.N. provided building materials to construct the school, the students helped build it themselves out of sheets, tarps, poles and wood, which was soon plagued by termites.
The process of moving to the U.S. was long and, despite the circumstances, initially unwelcomed by Ater. Officials came and spoke to the boys in 1998, telling them they did not have a future where they were and that they were going to be sent to America, where they could go to college, get a job and become a responsible adult.
“The message was hard for us to believe,” Ater said. “We didn’t know where America was, what it was, what it looked like. We’d never had a job except for surviving.”
Of course, he did want to go to college to further his education. At the same time, the move would place him even farther away from his parents. Many of the boys said they did not want to leave and would not go somewhere so unfamiliar.
As a means of persuasion, the officials played videos for the boys showing them what life was like in the U.S. They promised good jobs and safe houses, and assured them they wouldn’t send the boys anywhere dangerous.
“At the end of the day, we talked by ourselves,” Ater said. “We decided to give it a try. We didn’t have anything to lose anyway because we didn’t know where our parents were.”
The Lost Boys are spread throughout the world, and many died during the journey, but there are reunions once a year or once every other year that draw between 300 and 500 of them. Ater keeps up with some of them on the phone as well. The largest reunion was held in 2004 in Phoenix, with over 1,000 attendees.
The process of Ater formally moving to the United States took four years. He settled in Tucson, Arizona, where he enrolled in a community college, did well and then transferred to the University of Arizona.
It was a difficult transition, however, with only English spoken and different writing standards than what he was used to. He’d been taught British English in refugee school and spoke a local language called Dinka with his friends. Suddenly it was all English, and the American version at that.
Ater was persistent and did well, initially with the aim of majoring in medicine as a means of helping Sudan.
“In South Sudan, because education is limited, people die of things they shouldn’t die of,” he said. “When they’re dying, they don’t even know what they’re dying of. They just know fever, headache and stomachache. That’s it.”
Those conditions are what Ater hopes to change. He wants sick locals to know why they are sick, and for residents to know why a friend or relative died, be it from malaria, a heart attack, cancer or diabetes.
To pursue these goals, Ater later switched from wanting to become a doctor to majoring in the related field of public health. He earned a master of public health degree from Arizona in 2010, and his doctorate in public health from Georgia Southern is in public health leadership.
Reunion and move
While in graduate school, Ater learned that his mother was still alive in South Sudan. He wrote her a letter and was later able to meet her in person. The meeting was bittersweet, however, because she brought with her the news that his father and brother had died. Along with Ater’s mother was a sister that he’d last seen at age 4 or 5 who was now grown. It had been 20 years, and he did not recognize either until being told who they were when he reunited with them in Poktap, South Sudan, in 2007.
His mother still lives in South Sudan, and as the current civil war has abated somewhat, he is able to visit.
She still lives in the village, and there is now a telephone for them to communicate.
Ater married his wife, Alang Abut, in her village in South Sudan in 2009, and they live in Snellville. They have three children: an 8-year-old boy and two girls, ages 3 and 1. Though both are from South Sudan, they did not meet until being introduced by Ater’s cousin in 2008. Abut works part time as a certified nursing assistant.
Ater moved to Atlanta in 2012 after applying for a fellowship at the CDC through the Association of Schools and Programs for Public Health. He now works in the CDC’s global HIV and tuberculosis division.
The final step in Ater’s educational journey began in 2015, when he applied to Georgia Southern.
“I always knew I wanted to go back to school and get a Ph.D. or something of that sort,” he said. “Georgia Southern had a program where students can attend classes while keeping their full-time job.”
The 200-mile distance to Statesboro presented a challenge, but Ater only had to attend in person once a month. After three years taking a maximum course load, including summers, he finished his doctorate last December.
“This has fulfilled my father’s wish,” he said.
Shah, Ater’s mentor at Georgia Southern, eventually became the chair of Ater’s dissertation committee, helping him complete his research as a doctoral candidate. Together, the two are now working on a pair of academic papers they hope to see published soon.
To fully complete his journey, Ater aims to return to his native land to improve its public health outcomes. Sadly, South Sudan is in the midst of yet another civil war, which has been raging since 2013, but when he’s able, Ater would like to operate a school of public health to teach the next generation about medicine and how to collect data for research purposes.
“Prevention is better than a cure,” he said. “If you prevent a disease, you’ll be better off than getting sick and then getting treatment. My goal is to help set up kids in proper public health settings so I can train and teach them what I have learned.”
His position at the CDC already involves traveling to African countries like Uganda and Kenya to work on programs to help prevent the spread of diseases like HIV, Ebola or cholera. Ater is also co-founder of United Visions for Change, a private foundation dedicated to building schools and health clinics in rural towns of South Sudan, and to providing scholarships for refugees
“The reason I’m here today is because of people who helped me along the way,” he said. “I nearly died many times and was able to get assistance. I now have to do something to help other people out by providing education. I have to give back to my community.”
Previous AJC coverage of the Lost Boys of South Sudan:
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