Building schools in Sudan is UA student’s mission
Issue Date: November 11, 2008
By day, Abraham Deng Ater is a University of Arizona graduate student, toiling toward his master’s degree in public health. By night, he’s a Costco employee, corralling shopping carts that are scattered across the darkened parking lot like spilled marbles.
In between, he’s thinking of southern Sudan’s children, who have a greater chance of dying from malaria than of learning to read.
Ater is one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, the estimated 27,000 males between the ages of 4 and 15 who were displaced by civil war that broke out in 1983 between the mostly Arab forces in north Sudan and the indigenous Africans in south Sudan. Ater came to Tucson when nearly 4,000 Lost Boys were rescued from refugee camps in 2001 and relocated in the U.S.
Now a lanky 29-year-old, Ater knows education equals hope, and he wants to bring that hope back to his native land through his Lost Boys Schools for Sudan project.
Just as when he was running from bloodthirsty militias or crossing crocodile-infested rivers to get to refugee camps, Ater feels he’s in a race against time to save what international experts term “the lost generation” - the hundreds of illiterate, post-war children in southern Sudan.
“They are willing to learn, but they have no resources,” Ater said of the children he saw last year on a trip to Sudan. “I feel I need to bring education to the country because there will be no leaders without it.”
Without leaders, southern Sudan may be usurped by northern Sudan - and its citizens subjugated - when the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war expires in January 2011, Ater said.
“There’s no infrastructure in the south right now - it’s been destroyed by two civil wars,” said Donald Dains, a UA Fine Arts alumnus and Ater’s partner in the schools project. “That’s part of why we feel it is so important to get schools built. If there’s no progress on the ground, then the people of the south will have nowhere to turn to except to the north.”
That is a scenario Ater will not let himself imagine. He and Dains founded the Deng Ater Foundation a year ago to raise funds to build three 20-room schools in rural villages of southern Sudan, each serving 900 students in grades kindergarten through 12.
Dains said they’ve developed an operations model that will result in each school becoming self-sustaining after three years. But to get started, they need $250,000, which would be used to build the first school in November 2009 and keep it running for three years as they build the next two schools.
So far, the nonprofit foundation has raised only $5,000, but Diane Dains, Donald’s wife and a member of the foundation, said she thinks Tucson’s generous hearts and open hands can rectify that.
“One wants to be a good citizen, but in the bigger picture, I think it is about being a global citizen,” Diane Dains said. “It’s hard for one person to do something like this. You need an army of people to help collectively. It’s helping an American citizen here to bring back hope to the children of his native country.”
Trek from Sudan starts at age 9
Deng Ater was only 4 when civil war broke out between the Arab government in northern Sudan and the indigenous tribal rebels in the south, and just 9 when his parents sent him walking barefoot, with other village boys, toward the Sudanese-Ethiopian border, telling him he was going to school.
It was a lie, one desperate parents told to save sons from certain death or militia conscription.
“When we left Sudan we are told we are going to school, not because of the war,” Ater recalled recently. “I ask my parents, ‘Where is the school?,’ and they said, ‘You’ll find it, just walk that way.’”
The school didn’t materialize, but the lie kept Ater and thousands of other Lost Boys alive. Ater spent 13 years in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya, walking hundreds of miles between each camp. He was rescued in 2001 and relocated to Tucson, a 22-year-old who’d experienced more trauma than one life should hold. With help from refugee resettlement agencies, he got started on the education he’d been promised each time the Lost Boys were sent walking again toward another refugee camp.
He enrolled in Pima Community College and shortly thereafter got word through a friend in Kenya that his mother and sisters were still alive. (Ater’s father was killed fighting with the rebels and his older brother was killed by the northern Sudan militia, although he was not part of the rebel forces.) From that point forward, he planned to return home to visit her.
Ater graduated from Pima in 2004, then transferred to UA, where he received his bachelor’s in physiology in 2006. He worked about 30 hours a week at Costco while in school, which is where Dains met him one spring day in 2004.
“I was studying film at the UA and doing a black-and-white film project about the movement of bodies,” Dains said. “I saw Abraham pushing carts and said to my wife, ‘Well, he looks like an interesting guy.’ I immediately wanted to know what his story was, so I went up to him and told him about my film project.”
The three-minute film led to long conversations about the Lost Boys, shared meals and a deep, abiding friendship.
“I told him, if you ever do go back to Sudan, take me with you,” Dains said. “So, in 2007, he said he was ready and I said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Following his May 2006 UA graduation, Ater became a U.S. citizen. He worked full time at Costco for a year, saving money to go back to Sudan and find his mother.
In May 2007, he and Dains returned to the Kenyan refugee camp where Ater had last lived. They stayed with distant relatives and friends for a week before crossing the Sudan border and traveling to Duk County where Ater’s family used to live. They asked after his mother and people said they’d seen her, but could not point to her village. It turned out they didn’t need to.
“One day, with my relatives there, I just saw a lady walking by my relative’s home and somebody say, ‘Hey that’s your mom!’ and ‘Hey, that’s your son,’ and we started running to each other and grab each other and it just happened like that and it was really emotional,” Ater said.
The next day, they walked 30 miles to her village, past decimated communities full of impoverished, illiterate children.
“We had to walk like three hours to go there and I saw the kids,” he said. “They have nowhere to go and they don’t have education, so they were just playing with the mud.”
Focus on public health issues
That journey stuck with Ater and Dains. When they returned to Tucson, the Deng Ater Foundation was born. Dains took over the day-to-day business of the foundation, getting paperwork filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission and the Internal Revenue Service for nonprofit status, and building an extensive Web site. Ater returned to school, first as a non-degree-seeking student in public health and, this fall, getting accepted as a master’s candidate at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. His choice of study was determined by his Sudan trip.
“When I visited, I saw the need there,” Ater said. “These people are dying from simple diseases that are preventable and public health focuses on prevention, not treatment. I think if I get a degree in public health, I can go back and teach them and that is what I intend to do.”
Ater will get a jump-start on that in January when he and Dains hope to go to Sudan to do site surveys for the first school. While there, he’ll provide public health information on preventable diseases with the help of another UA student.
“Abraham and I are going to focus on cholera, malaria, HIV/AIDS and develop health education materials to educate the villagers on how to prevent these diseases,” said Holly Page, who will receive her master’s in public health in December. “The literacy rate is pretty low there, so we want to have pictures that we can leave behind so they can remember what we told them.”
Page learned about the Lost Boys Schools project when she attended a Vail fund-raising event earlier this month, hosted by Ben Astenius, owner of Man of the Soil Landscape Builders. The event raised about $1,300 from the 45 people in attendance.
“My wife is a co-worker of Deng’s and heard what he was trying to do,” Astenius said. “You just see the concern he has and after what he’s been through, he’s trying to save his people through education. How could you not get behind somebody like that?”
During the January trip, Ater will focus on public health projects and Dains will evaluate potential school-building sites, making sure they are free of land mines and have good soil. He’ll also identify the cost and availability of local building materials and water sources.
Ater knows his goal is large but said there is no choice.
“When we walk across the desert, people would help you if you fall behind,” he said, recalling the Lost Boy experience. “One day I fall behind and I was almost dead from dehydration, and there were people ahead of me that draw some water and bring it back to rescue me. When I am here, I keep that in mind when I think of the children suffering with no school. . . That is how most of us Lost Boys survived, by helping each other.” - Abraham Deng Ater