Student Alumni Working to Build Schools in Sudan

UA News

Abraham Deng Ater, with help from two UA alumni, established a foundation and is currently raising money to try and build three schools in his native Sudan.

By: La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications

Issue Date: October 27, 2008

Abraham Deng Ater returned to his native Sudan – Africa’s largest country – last year in search of his family and found the infrastructure in the country’s southern region almost completely dismantled.

It was years after the end of the 22-year-long Second Sudanese Civil War. Abandoned and ruined tanks, trucks and cars still littered the terrain. Crippled buildings, toppled bridges and destroyed roadways were commonplace as were fields of deserted, yet fertile land that once served as the harvesting bed for the families that had long lived there.

It was then that Ater – a University of Arizona graduate student who was among more than 25,000 estimated “Lost Boys” to flee the country between 1983 and 2005 – decided to help in the reconstruction effort by raising money to build schools there.

One of the most compelling drivers in his decision, he said, were the orphans.

“They had no where to go,” said Ater, now a UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health student.

Ater recalled walking the streets and dirt roads of his village, sometimes three hours to reach the rural areas. Along the way, he met children who had no families, no homes and no schools. Despite their tremendous loss, the children had an obvious and undeniable desire to learn.

This drove Ater and two of his friends, Donald Ray Dains and Diane Marie Dains – both 2004 College of Fine Arts graduates and honors students – to establish the nonprofit Deng Ater Foundation – Lost Boys Schools for Sudan.

Together, they are raising funds to build three primary and secondary schools in southern Sudan, namely in Mareng, Padiet and Fayuel.

“Education can provide for health care, the children can teach the parents,” Ater said. “If you can teach one child, that child can teach other people. We’re trying to focus on the long term.”

The Grand Plans

Currently, the educational system in Sudan is bleak. A World Bank Development Indicators report estimates that the literacy rate in northern Sudan is about 58 percent while it is around 33 percent in southern Sudan. Comparatively, the estimated literacy rate in the United States is 99 percent.

To build the first school, the foundation needs at least $80,000. Ater and the Dains scheduled a Nov. 1 charity dinner to be held at the Vail Mining Company in Vail to try and raise $20,000 toward the cost.

Donald Ray Dains, who has a background in construction, said he devoted himself to the project because of Ater and also because he did not leave Sudan last year unchanged.

“Getting to know Abraham over the years, I’ve come to love him like a brother,” said Dains, also the foundation’s vice president.

“He’s an amazing friend and has an amazing spirit that moved me. And when I saw the great need, I was compelled to do something.”

The foundation’s group hopes to build one school each year. Each school will serve a student population of about 900. The hope is to turn the schools over to the government within three years of their opening.

For now, Ater and Dains intend to visit Sudan at the end of the year to meet with the southern Sudanese government, local leaders and the archbishop of the Episcopal church of southern Sudan. They also plan to register their foundation with the government and begin searching for a site for the first school.

“We have a lot of support from the government,” Ater said, adding that the group wants construction to begin toward the end of next year. “But they just don’t have the resources to do it. But we are willing to do it.”

Another intention is to involve the adults not only in the building process, but also in their own education, specifically related to health care issues and ways to build small businesses.

Ater’s Story

Ater was a 4-year-old when the civil war broke out between mostly Christian rebels from the south and the mostly Muslim government in the north. He was 9 years old when his family sent him away with other boys for safety.

The group spent about four years trudging through the deserts, mounts and rivers of the southern and eastern regions of Africa in search of food and safety.

Estimates indicate that upwards from than 3 million people were killed during the war, which predated the Darfur conflict with millions more displaced.

Eventually, Ater settled at the Kakuma Refugee Camp located in Kenya and was eventually sent to Tucson, Ariz.

After returning to Sudan with Donald Ray Dains last year, Ater reunited with his mother and two sisters. His father and brother both died in the war.

But the lives lost are only part of a post-war effect. Some of the most pervasive problems that exist in Sudan in addition to a defunct education system include unemployment, poverty and health care concerns.

During their trip, Ater and Dains found themselves on a flight with a very ill boy. The captain asked if anyone had medical experience and would tend to the boy. Dains, who has a military background, volunteered. But before the plane could lift off the ground, the young boy had died from appendicitis.

“I was upset that this could be going on,” Dains said. “But this kind of thing goes on all the time. Young lives seem to begin and end without notice.”

So immense was the emotional response to what they experienced and saw in Sudan that Ater and Dains established the foundation two months after they returned to Tucson.

“We took six duffel bags with us and it made people feel good but we were just talking about what do we could do, and we wanted to do more,” said Dains, adding that the bags contained clothing, toys and books.

“The bottom line is that people are still starving and dying from simple, treatable diseases,” he said. “People are suffering to get by day after day.”

Ater said he does not want to see his people continue to suffer, reflecting on his own life as something that should be shared.

It was about six years ago that Ater and the Dains met in a Costco parking lot in Tucson.

“I saw him at Costco pulling cars in the parking lot and I said to Diane, my wife, ‘That’s an interesting looking character,’” Dains said, “‘I wonder what his story is?’”

After speaking briefly with Ater, Dains volunteered to produce a video about his life and help him begin writing a book. The two have completed a series of edits and plan to send it to a publisher.

“Abraham’s entire life’s journey has been based on the idea that he would pursue an education,” Donald Ray Dains said. “Of all the boys who did survive and get out of the refugee camp, that’s the one thing that keeps you alive – your education.”

Ater began his studies at Pima Community College in 2002 and also began working at Costco full-time. Eventually he transferred to the UA where, in 2006, he earned his bachelor’s degree in physiology – the same year he became a U.S. citizen.

Now, Ater is a first-year master’s UA student who spends his evenings and downtown spending time on his foundation work in addition to the 32 hours a week he puts in at Costco.

Ater said that while he has become accustomed to “this life” of round the clock electricity, running water, indoor plumbing and an abundance of food, it pains him to know that his people are not privy to the same.

During the years he spent running, Ater said: “We had no one, and everywhere we went we could start a school. We said that education is our father and our mother. There were no adults, just boys. We all thought our parents had died so we thought all we had in the world was education, and that it would help us.”

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