Please join us for the celebration of South Sudan Independence, which will be held on Saturday, August 6th, in Tucson. The people of South Sudan are finally free and now have their own independent nation as of July 9th, 2011.
For further information you may watch two of the event organizers (Bior Keech and Abraham Deng Ater) speaking about the celebration on PBS - Channel 6, Tuesday Night - 6:30pm (Aug 2nd).
More information about the celebration are in the attached flyers.
Tucson, Arizona - Aigust 6, 2011, at 5:00 PM. St. Cyril Catholic Church, 4725 E Pima Street, will host the independence celebration for the South Sudanese Community in Tucson. Music entertainment will be provided by Kuot Jongkhoor and the live traditional dances will be provided by the local South Sudanese performers.
St.Cyril Catholic Church to host the independence of South Sudan for the Sudanese Community Association of Arizona.
About the South Sudanese Community in Arizona:
The celebration is being organized by the South Sudanese Community in Tucson. This is to express their excitement about the birth of their new nation. Many came to Tucson area as asylum seekers due to a bloody civil war fought between the Southern Christians and the predominantly Arab Muslims in the North. In his first speech as the President of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit told the multitude in front of the world leaders that “We have been bombed, maimed, enslaved, and treated worse than a refugee in our own country” by the Government of Sudan. The event is not only the celebration of the new born nation, but the remembrance of the untold sufferings and sacrifices during the 21-year civil war.
About South Sudan:
South Sudan was officially inaugurated as an independent state on 9 July 2011 after its citizens voted overwhelmingly to break away from the rests of Sudan. The referendum vote came as a result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended a two-decade civil war in 2005. Following yet another overwhelmingly vote by the Security Councils and the United Nation leaders on July 14, South Sudan became the newest world’s United Nations 193rd Member State.
Bior Keech, Event Organizer
Matthew Reer, Event Organizer
Ex-war refugee, now with master’s degree, plans school in Sudan
Posted: Monday, September 6, 2010 12:00 am
As a Sudanese war refugee, Abraham Deng Ater escaped from his home country and then traveled halfway around the world for his education.
Ater is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of young men who were relocated to Tucson.
Since his arrival, he has pursued his education and now has founded a nonprofit organization in hopes of building a school one day in his home country.
Ater developed the idea of a foundation in 2007, when he traveled back home to Sudan, where he reunited with his mother and sisters after not seeing or talking with them since he’d left.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I was speechless.”
He and a friend from college, Donald Dains, decided the best thing they could do for Sudan was to build a school.
“They won’t have to trouble to find an education anywhere,” Ater said, referring to the children he hopes will attend the school. “They wouldn’t have to be sent away again like us and suffer like we did for that long time.”
When Ater and Dains returned to the United States, they started the Lost Boys Schools for Sudan project and have since been trying to raise enough money to build their first school.
Dains, co-founder of the foundation, said they are in the process of finding volunteers, creating building plans and raising funds.
“They have the absolute least access to education in the world,” said Dains of children in Sudan. “I couldn’t find a more deserving place in the world to actually work and build these schools.”
They had planned to begin construction on the school this year, but they say the economy has made it difficult to raise enough money.
“We understand that it’s not a sprint, but it’s a long-distance type of race,” Dains said. “We’re looking for people that want to leave some type of legacy behind bigger than themselves - something that’s going to make a difference in the world.”
Dains said he would do anything for Ater, and he hopes his story can be told.
“The sad thing is, he’s seen some of the worst horrors that any human being has ever had to face and endure in any lifetime, and he’s seen all this as a child,” Dains said. “Despite that, he keeps moving forward and persevering.”
In Tucson, Ater received an associate’s degree from Pima Community College and a bachelor’s in physiology from the University of Arizona. He recently was awarded a master’s degree from the UA’s College of Public Health.
Alison Hughes, Ater’s faculty adviser, said he made a strong first impression after he couldn’t get into the school the first time around.
“He introduced himself, and he said, ‘Well, I didn’t get accepted, and I want to know why,’ ” she said. “So there’s a first impression for you - somebody who just doesn’t accept ‘no,’ and that impressed me a lot.”
Hughes continued to help Ater while he was in the school. She said he did extremely well in his courses while simultaneously working a part-time job at Costco and starting the foundation.
Ater’s journey to Tucson began when he was forced to leave his village at age 9, due to a civil war between northern and southern Sudan.
“The war was coming into our villages, and the villages were being bombed down, and some of our friends saw their parents killed,” Ater said. “All the local villages around southern Sudan met and said, ‘We want to send our children away,’ because young boys were being taken into the military by force or being taken as slaves.”
Ater said he was one of 27,000 young boys who eventually wandered through Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan seeking safety. He said the children were targets of the war.
Ater was able to finish high school in a refugee camp in Kenya, where he learned how to write and speak English. In 2000, the U.S. government decided to bring the young refugees to America, and Ater was moved to Tucson.
“When we first came here, it was so difficult to adjust to life,” he said. “With food, crossing the street, turning on the light, using the telephone - things we didn’t know before. I had never seen a telephone. We didn’t know any of those technologies, so we got used to it.”
Ater said only 10,000 of the original 27,000 so-called “Lost Boys” made it to the U.S. Many were lost along the way due to illness or other hardships.
When he arrived in Arizona, Ater was placed in an apartment with four other young men. He said they had no idea what to do for food, so they just waited in their apartment hungry until someone showed them where to go shopping.
“A refugee camp is in a rural area, so we were only used to one food, like grain or wheat flour,” he said. “We didn’t know about all these fruits and vegetables - that was something new to us. We didn’t eat all the food, like salad and ice cream and all that.”
As a recent graduate, Ater said he hopes to find a job and establish himself while continuing his work with the foundation, and he’s happy that life has led him to the U.S.
“It was a good thing,” he said. “That’s why I came over here - because I wanted to go to school, and I finally found it here. I’m getting what I need, and I’m on the right track.”
Rikki Mitchell is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star.
Contact her at
Air Date: March 2, 2010
Join us tonight 7pm to 8pm (MT) on WWW.KJSLRADIO.NET or WWW.QUESTFORCHARACTER.COM where Mike will interview Abraham Deng Ater, “A Lost Boys of Sudan,” and he will share his vision about building schools in Southern Sudan.
“The post-war children of southern Sudan look to The Lost Boys as their only hope for an education and the only opportunity for a better tomorrow. Our mission is to provide the opportunity of an education to disadvantaged children by building sustainable primary and secondary schools throughout southern Sudan.”
The Dean’s Report 2009
Issued: December 05, 2009
Abraham Deng Ater knows first-hand what it’s like to live in a refugee camp.
After four years wandering the deserts, mounts and rivers of the southern and eastern regions of Africa in search of food and safety, he spent nine years of his life in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya before reaching asylum in the U.S.
Abraham is one of the 25,000 estimated “Lost Boys” to flee Sudan between 1983 and 2005. Today Abraham is a second-year MPH student in Public Health Policy and Management.
“I chose this program because I wanted to go back home some day and teach people about disease prevention,” he said.
Abraham was awarded the Maureen Mangotich Scholarship and the MEZCOPH Community Advisory Board Scholarship. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from the UA.
Inspirations: Lost & Found
Abraham Deng Ater
Issued: December 2009
Sudan is the largest country in Africa and one of the continents richest in natural resources. Unfortunately, it also has one of the most tragic modern histories of any nation on Earth.
Long divided along ethnic, religious, political and geographical lines, Sudan’s Northern and Southern regions experienced two civil wars that occupied 40 of the 54 years gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1956. A cease-fire agreement ended the second conflict in 2005, but a separate revolt continues in the western Darfur region.
The effect of four decades of war on Sudan’s people, particularly in the south, was devastating. From the beginning of the second civil war in 1983, nearly 2 millio9n Sudanese died due to the war and its resultant famine, and millions more were displaced and destitute. One of the most well-know aspects of the conflict was the plight of tens of thousands of children, mostly young boys, who spent years walking hundreds of miles from one squalid refugee camp to another. The estimated 27,000 “Lost Boys” became the focus of humanitarian groups around the world, and nearly 4,000 were brought to the United States.
Abraham was one of the Lost Boys. In 1987 when he was just 9, his parents sent him away from their village in Duk County, southern Sudan, telling him that he was going to school. It was a lie intended to save him from the militia conscription or death. For the next 14 years he lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya, not knowing the fate of his family, or what his own would be. In 2001, at the age of 22, Abraham was rescued by an agency affiliated with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and relocated to Tucson. At long last, the education his parents had promised him, and the chance to live his life, came to him.
Abraham enrolled at Pima Community College, and in May 2002, he was hired at the Tucson (Costco) warehouse. In 2004 he enrolled at the University of Arizona (UA), where he earned a bachelor’s degree un physiology in 2006. All the while he continued to work at Costco.
Soon after arriving in the U.S., Abraham learned that his mother and sisters were still alive, although his father and older brother had been killed during the war. Following his graduation, he went to work full time at Costco and saved his earnings to fund a trip home to see his family.
In may of 2007, he returned to the Kenyan refugee camp from which he’d been rescued, and a few days later crossed into Sudan and made his way to his ancestral home in Duk County. Abraham stayed with relatives for a few days, but was initially unsuccessful in locating his mother. Thankfully, his disappointment was short-lived, as he told the Tucson Citizen in a 2008 interview.
“One day, I just saw a lady walking by my relative’s home, and somebody said, ‘hey, that’s your mom!’ ‘Hey, that’s your son!’ It just happened like that and it was really emotional.”
Abraham accompanied his mother on the 30 mile walk to her village, and along the way, he saw the ruins of the southern Sudan, and witnessed the poverty and illiteracy that afflicts its children. He knew he had to help. He formed the Deng Ater Foundation in 2007, and its initial campaign, “Lost Boys Schools for Sudan,” aims to construct five four-room school houses in Duk County to facilitate the education of 900 children. The foundation also supports the efforts to collect books, backpacks and laptop computers for Sudanese students.
Additionally, Abraham was accepted into he master’s program in public health at the University of Arizona (UA). He intends to focus on preventable diseases that are presently running rampant in southern Sudan, including cholera, HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Abraham endured a tortuous 14-year odyssey as a displaced and abandoned casualty of war that very few of us can comprehend. He understands the urgency of southern Sudan’s need and its immensity. His commitment to his homeland runs deep. In another quote from the 2008 article he ties the two together.
“When we walked across the desert, people would help you if you fall behind… 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.”
For more information about the Deng Ater Foundation, visit Abraham’s Website: lostboysschoolsforsudan.org.
Story by Stephen Smith -
My name is Donald Dains and the following is a snapshot of an ongoing journey that began long ago by a good friend of mine, Abraham Deng Ater, a former Lost Boy of Sudan, now a US Citizen and postgraduate student currently pursuing his Masters Degree in Public Health. His is the story of the American dream. Sadly it was a dream born of unspeakable tragedy, severe suffering and deep sadness.
Many of The Lost Boys, now men, since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord have begun to return to southern Sudan for the first time in over 20 years to find and reunite with their families. All have begun the painful process of rebuilding their lives and communities in Sudan.
Abraham returned to Sudan in May of 2007. I had to go with him, to see for myself, to make it real, to try and understand. After much difficulty and many hardships during our travels, Abraham was finally reunited with his mother. It was a beautiful and life affirming moment.
I was tremendously humbled by this experience and I have never seen, nor have I encountered so much kindness and humility among people of such dire circumstances as I did during my stays in Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya and in the towns and villages throughout southern Sudan…
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was there to bear witness to their endless suffering and the purpose of my journey, I now believe, was to bring back a message and share it with you.
It’s a message of hope -hope for a better tomorrow -something that all of southern Sudan seems to be surviving on these days. It’s what has kept Abraham and thousands of boys and girls like him alive for all these years.
Mr. President, there is much work to be done.
After assessing the great need and compelled to act, Abraham and I decided upon our return we would take the necessary steps to create a public non-profit 501(c)(3) grass-roots organization to help us fund and build schools in southern Sudan. We would start in Abraham’s home village.
And so in the fall of 2007, The Deng Ater Foundation - Lost Boys Schools for Sudan was formed.
Our Mission (our hope) is to fund an educational process that will provide the opportunity of an education to disadvantaged children by building economically, socially, environmentally sustainable primary and secondary schools throughout southern Sudan.
Our focus is from the inside out. We believe in a hand up, not a hand out, and that Africans must solve Africa’s problems. But first they must be provided with the tools and an opportunity to use them if they are to succeed. And for this to occur, they need lasting peace.
We returned to southern Sudan in December of 2008 and registered as an indigenous Non-Governmental Organization with the South Sudan Relief & Rehabilitation Commission and the Government of Southern Sudan in January of 2009. A preliminary visit was made in the state of Jonglei and a suitable building site for our first school was selected just outside of Duk Fadiet within the township of Dongchak.
It was good to return once again, to see hope on the eyes of all who remembered our first visit. But this time the message from the elders was more direct -it was a plea for help and I could see the impatient expressions worn on their faces and sense the desperation in the air. We had planned to stay longer. Sadly our visit was cut short on our third day when we received word of an impending attack on the village of Duk Fadiet and were forced to leave in the cover of darkness.
Abandoning the women and children was unconscionable. We felt like cowards but the community was more concerned for our safety than that of their own. As we quickly gathered our things, a young boy armed with a machine gun appeared from the shadows and in passing said, “This is Sudan, it is a place of war,” as if to rebuke me, then he disappeared into the darkness.
An unthinkable statement for a child to make, but words never more profound. This is his reality; the reality of what is Sudan, and that thinking must change!
We left the following afternoon under the protection of an SPLA escort and we returned to Juba. The following day, the village of Duk Fadiet, and the surrounding villages, were ruthlessly attacked and several innocent people were senselessly murdered. I returned to the US shortly thereafter and regrettably the attacks continue to this day.
Fortunately, and bravely I might add, Abraham returned to his community to complete our mission and single-handedly held our first public healthcare prevention and education clinic in February of 2009. This initiative will hopefully, over time, minimize the number of deaths occurring within this community and will ultimately help stabilize the local population. I believe that our efforts within this community are their best hope. Sadly, and quite possibly, it could be their last.
Mr. President, it’s important to understand that the post-war children of southern Sudan look to the Lost Boys as their future leaders, their only hope for an education, and their only opportunity for a better tomorrow. The people of southern Sudan need our unconditional help and support now perhaps more than any single nation on the planet.
If we don’t act on their behalf to save the future generations of southern Sudan, who will?
By doing nothing, war will undoubtedly return and the threat of violence will spread throughout Sudan and the whole of greater Africa. This will further destabilize the region, which in turn will ultimately threaten the lives of millions upon millions of helpless and innocent people. We cannot allow this to happen.
Tragically the evidence of this violence is that very recently the community of Duk Fadiet, the very people we have been working so hard to help, was brutally attacked once again and by all accounts the village has been decimated. This time the attackers murdered hundreds of innocent men, women and children and the village was burned to the ground. I am haunted by the thoughts of their suffering and of those who may have survived or perished. So many faces, so many stories, and so much hope; it all seems to be lost once again.
Regrettably, the children, as always, have suffered most these ill effects of war.
Regardless, I continue to hold out hope for their plight, a last hope it seems, and in times of my own quiet desperation, I fear that we will not live up to our promise, and this call for help, their last hope, may have come too late.
I am often asked, why do I care so much and why have I taken on this seemingly impossible task? To me, the answer is simple: My soul is inextricably intertwined with their plight.
I want to personally inform you that the genocide in Sudan has never ended, it has only slowed, and I have experienced the terror and witnessed its heartbreak first hand. And although the violence “seems” to be ending in Darfur, it continues today and is “once again” gaining strength and spreading uncontrollably throughout the south.
Unfortunately, as you read this letter, the fragile peace process in southern Sudan is quickly unraveling. And I believe those who have violated the virtue of its very core must be exposed and held accountable for their ultimate betrayal and crimes against humanity.
For the greater good of humanity, we must not allow this hopelessness, this genocidal cycle of insanity to continue. The alternative is horrifyingly unimaginable and absolutely unacceptable. We must act now! The violence must stop!
Sadly though, as the violence continues to grow throughout the region, I feel we have reached an impasse. It has become exceedingly dangerous and the obstacles the violence is creating will eventually make it impossible for us to continue our work and, quite frankly, I don’t know where to go from here. One thing I do know is that in order for our or anyone else’s efforts in southern Sudan to resume and have any hope or level of success, there must first be lasting peace. Unfortunately the privilege and greater burden of that seemingly impossible task is a responsibility that rests squarely on your shoulders and on that of the international community.
I am only one man, but I am an American and I am proud of this fact. I have every opportunity and privilege available to me in the world that life can afford and because of this I feel it is my duty as a citizen of our great nation to act on the behalf of the helpless and innocent people of southern Sudan, and to add my voice to their plea as a global citizen of the world.
I implore you Mr. President, that the Government of the United States of America:
Mr. President, this is your “Moment of Promise.” I hope we, the United States of America, do not “squander this opportunity!” Lasting peace is Sudan’s only hope, and quite possibly, it is Africa’s last hope for Sudan!
As the former member of the US House of Representatives, Congressman Charlie Nesbit Wilson was quoted as saying: “We [screwed] up the end game. It would have been very easy and done for a minuscule amount of money. We should have done the basic things for a backward country that’s trying to come out of (a war) and have a reasonable hope of economic success.”
“This is a direct reference to when Charlie Wilson asked his Congressional colleagues to appropriate $1 million to build schools in Afghanistan. The request was dismissed -the same committee which had poured over $1 billion for military assistance to fight the Russians -would not offer 1/1000 of that to build schools. Mr. Wilson now believes that the United States’ failure to invest in Afghanistan’s recovery following the war led in large part to the ascension of the Taliban, who provided a refuge for Osama bin Ladin, who had fought with the Mujahideen against the Soviets, and Al Qaeda in the years leading up to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.”
The following is a direct quote from Greg Mortenson, philanthropist and author of Three Cups of Tea: “Although it may seem kind of a waste of our resources to many Americans, we made a promise. When America cut funding to Afghanistan in the 1980’s, we basically abandoned the people who helped us overthrow the Soviets. I worry that history may repeat itself. We invaded, and within a year and a half ran off to Iraq - again we abandoned the people. To me this is our third - and final - try.”
We no longer can ignore the plight of southern Sudan, nor can we afford to let the country slip back into a morass of endless civil war, suffering and death. We simply cannot abandon them and ignore their cries. How quickly we forget not so long ago Sudan was a safe haven for terrorists such as Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The international community allowed radicalism to flourish and the end game was September 11th. Now an arrest warrant has been issued for the President of Sudan for crimes against humanity.
When is enough, enough? When will the international community honor the words, “Never Again?”
I have made a pledge to myself to create positive lasting change in the world that will continue to exist far beyond my lifetime. I have also made a personal promise to a friend and a community full of peaceful people who asked me to deliver a message to our great nation.
Please do not forget them. The people of Sudan are dying needlessly every day and they desperately need our help now more than ever!
Mr. President, war is the great scourge of our earth and a most shameful preoccupation of man… We cannot afford to allow history to repeat itself again; this may very well be a final opportunity for peace.
I hope for the sake of Sudan, for the sake of what is right and wrong in this world, for our very humanity, that we don’t “screw” this one up too!
Please lend the voice of our great nation to their plea. Insist that the world stand up, take notice, and help forge a lasting peace!
Help us create hope! And together we will shape the future for the children of southern Sudan.
My sincerest & warmest regards,
Donald Ray Dains
Co-Founder & Vice-President
Deng Ater Foundation - Lost Boys Schools for Sudan
Vice President Joe Biden
Secretary Hillary Clinton
General Scott Gration
Ambassador Susan Rice
Senator Jon Kyl
Senator John McCain
Congressman Raul Grijalva
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
Arizona Public Media and UANews brought home a combined seven Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards at the recent awards ceremony held in Phoenix.
‘Will Holst, a video communications manager in the UA Office of University Communications, earned two Emmy awards during the ceremony. “Schools for Sudan” won in the category of advanced media for public, current and community affairs.’
By: Rebecca Ruiz-McGill, University Communications
Posted: October 27, 2009
The Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has announced the winners of its prestigious 2009 Emmy Awards.
Two University of Arizona units brought home a total of seven Emmys which were announced during the chapter’s Emmy Award Ceremony held on Saturday in Phoenix.
Reporters with Arizona Public Media KUAT Channel 6 were awarded a total of five Emmys while UANews.org’s Will Holst brought home two Emmys.
The Rocky Mountain Southwest Chapter represents television professionals from all disciplines of the industry with regional representation in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and El Centro, Calif.
The award recognizes excellence in television by honoring the work submitted by its members. Other chapters within the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences judge and select the best work in each category.
Holst, video communications manager in the UA Office of University Communications, earned two Emmy awards during the ceremony. “Schools for Sudan” won in the category of advanced media for public, current and community affairs, where he competed against the East Valley Tribune and Phoenix-based Wild Visions, Inc. He earned another Emmy for “Anatomy of Sorrow” in the category of advanced media, video editor, beating out Jobing.com, Surprise 11 and The Lavidge Company.
Holst won two Emmys during the 2008 competition.
Videographer and producer Dan Duncan along with producer Pamela White of KUAT – both of whom have received prior Rocky Mountain Emmys – won for their work on “Wavelengths 4: Paths of Life” in the category of informational and instructional content.Duncan and White competed against KTVW in Phoenix and Apple Box Pictures in Scottsdale.
Luis Carrión, an award-winning producer, won an Emmy in the category of religion, news single story/news feature or program, for “Tucson Islamic Community.” Carrion, who contributes stories for Arizona Public Media’s television, radio and Web outlets, vied against KTVW in Phoenix.
Sooyeon L. Johnston, a KUAT producer who has already earned multiple Emmy awards, received three Emmys in three different categories.Johnston won an Emmy in the category of arts/entertainment for a feature segment program on photographer Mark Klett. Her second Emmy was won in the category of arts/entertainment special programming for “Arte 201: Art & Inspirations.” Her third Emmy was awarded for “Retablo: Uncovering the Secrets” in the cultural documentary category.
Ari Date: July 19, 2009
“Our mission is to provide the opportunity of an education to disadvantaged children by building sustainable primary and secondary schools throughout southern Sudan.”
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