WAUNAKEE — History came alive for seventh-graders at Waunakee Middle School on Monday, as Jacob Atem shared his story of survival as a 6-year-old orphan fleeing civil war in north Africa in the late 1980s.
“I would never, ever wish this on you,” Atem told the students in a voice earnest and soft-spoken. “But it’s to make you appreciate the life you have in this country.”
Atem, now 32 and a U.S. citizen, was one of the storied “Lost Boys of Sudan,” part of an estimated 20,000 boys ages 6 to 17 who left family and country to escape death or conscription into rebel or government armies.
The boys walked more than 1,000 miles from what was then southern Sudan — and since 2011 has been the independent nation of South Sudan — to reach refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then two years later in Kenya, where they went to escape civil strife in Ethiopia.
“It wasn’t an easy, take-your-time kind of walk, either,” Atem said, recalling for the students a harrowing trek with no shoes and little food, beset by wild animals, disease and warring soldiers.
At one point Atem lifted a leg of his pants to show a large scar above his left knee he said he got from running into a “sharp tree” to avoid a lion in camp one night, days after some other boys were killed by lions.
“It’s just amazing to me,” said Quinn Whalen, 13, after the hourlong talk, which capped a social studies unit on Africa for all of the school’s 330 seventh-graders. “It’s hard to comprehend everything they had to go through.”
Atem was so skinny by the time of the lion attacks that he could see his leg bones, he said, crediting his survival on the journey to a 15-year-old cousin who carried him much of the way. Atem’s parents had been killed and his sister was kidnapped before he left home, he said.
“People are chasing you with guns,” Atem said, as the students listened with rapt attention. “It’s hot ... and you are seeing your colleagues and friends dying.”
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About half survived the journey and some, including Atem, eventually thrived, resettling in the U.S. after years in camps, which Atem described as devoid of hope and like “living in an open prison.”
Arriving in the U.S. with some 3,000 others in 2001, Atem, then 15, initially lived with a foster family in Michigan. He spoke little English, he said, and like his fellow refugees faced extreme culture shock, amazed and confused by everything from the electric lights in hotel rooms to the pilot’s voice over the intercom on their plane.
By 2008, Atem had earned a master’s degree and created the Southern Sudan Health Care Organization, a nonprofit he founded with fellow former Lost Boy Luag Deng to provide medical facilities and distribute health care supplies to people in his former homeland — and setting an example for the students, Atem said, that if he could make it to college and follow his dreams, so could they.
Beyond hearing Atem’s talk, students also read a non-fiction book about the Lost Boys called “A Long Walk to Water,” and they are raising money in a “penny war” fund drive to support an organization called Water is Basic that promotes clean drinking water in South Sudan. Last month another guest speaker, Gregg Keen, demonstrated water filters that his company distributes in developing countries.
“This is a look at other world cultures and a look at what people different from ourselves have to deal with in their everyday lives,” said Clare Zaiman-Keen, one of three social studies teachers at the middle school who helped develop the unit curriculum on South Sudan.
“It’s about understanding different kinds of normal,” she added. “We think nothing of having running water everywhere we turn around. But our speakers have talked to us about people who don’t have easy access to clean water, and how it’s a compounding problem. They have to go get water, so they don’t get to school, and if they don’t go to school, they can’t get jobs. Or if they drink bad water, then they get sick, but with no good medical facilities, they miss more school and work.”
What surprised Quinn Bogost, 12, most about Atem’s story, she said, was “how they were able to stay motivated” during the walk by little things along the way, such as finding a bit of food or being able to cover a small distance each day in the epic journey.
Carson Blang, 12, said it put their own daily troubles in perspective.
Students asked Atem many questions, such as whether he remembered his parents — not as well as he would like, he said; whether they had to cross a river with crocodiles in it — they did, and many did not survive; and whether he ever saw his sister again. He did hear from her once over the phone in 2013. But he hasn’t been able to return to find her, he said, because civil war has again broken out in South Sudan, making it dangerous to return now.