The Rev. John Ater told Henry County Middle School students faith and hope proved his greatest survival tools as a ‘Lost Boy’ of Sudan.
HCMS students recently read A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park, which gives two narratives, 23 years apart, following the lives of two youths that face adversity due to political unrest and a lack of natural resources.
Ater came to the states at 20. He recalled vividly how Sudanese rebels killed young boys as a measure of wiping out their future enemy.
“I was 8 years old when I fled from my home to Ethopia,” Ater said. “Sudan had been at war for 50 years. The war was a war between the Muslims and the Christians. Christians were persecuted by the Muslims because of their faith. They were told to change their faith from Christianity to Muslim, and if they didn’t they would be killed. Muslims decided for us to end this war they, would kill the young boys because if we allow them to grow they will be our enemy later on.”
Ater told the students he was a lost boy not by choice but war. Many fled from South Sudan into Ethiopia and eventually into Kenya. After Kenya, Ater was allowed to come to the United States.
“We fled on foot. It was a really tough journey. We started walking and many people didn’t know where to go, and as a result, many people died,” Ater said. “People died one from starvation without food, and two, the journey was very long on foot. Second Africa is a lot of bush, people were eaten by lions and hyenas and other wild animals.”
Ater’s first-hand accounts of the horrors he experienced are similar to the Sudanese boy, Salva’s, experience in the book. Salva was in class when a rebel army started shooting near his school. Teachers evacuated their students and told them to flee on foot and not return home to their villages where the rebels would attack. Ater’s journey brought a brutal reality home for the students.
“Some people would give up along the journey and we couldn’t carry them. Some went to the bush and prepared to die. Many people said they found us by following the bones along the way,” Ater said. “We lived for four years in Ethiopia. The government in charge of Ethiopia then in 1991 were in with the rebels of South Sudan. They decided they should kill us too so we fled back to South Sudan and later went to Kenya.”
Ater said the journey to Ethiopia took three months on foot. The young boys didn’t have food when they arrived in Kenya and relied on U.N. rationed food for refugees.
“We took a pound and maybe sometimes it weighed two pounds of food. We would stretch it into 15 days,” Ater said. “We learned to resist the hunger. When we walked from South Sudan to Ethiopia we survived by eating off of trees. We learned to eat small things like mangos and bananas other things you don’t have here. We made use of the resources available. We went to the river and just drank. People there don’t get sick from drinking the water they are used to it.”
Jessica Crenshaw, Henry County Middle School Language Arts teacher, hopes the visit from Ater impacts the students.
“We have students become passionate about water issues because of the book,” Crenshaw said. “They ask us how they can do something about it. Overall, we hope they become impactful on their society and community. By making them aware of global issues like Sudan the students will use their gifts and passions in their community. Whether it is helping people who are homeless, don’t have access to clean water, help people in the community, the state or throughout the nation.”
Crenshaw spent a month in Ghana and saw a population suffering.
“I saw needs that could be easily fixed. We saw people on the side of the road obviously suffering from Malaria and we were taking pills for Malaria that cost a penny a pill while we were there, it was an easy fix,” Crenshaw said. “I like working with organizations that empower the individual. In other countries, it is a bigger issue than poverty. We could do more good by teaching them about malaria and why they get sick from drinking their water instead of just giving them things.”
Many of the Lost Boys were of high school age by the time they reached the U.S. Ater said although they didn’t have the traditional classroom like students in the U.S. they were still excited.
“When we started education in Kenya we sat underneath a tree, we didn’t have books we used our fingers and wrote in the dirt, like an ‘a’ or a ‘b’,” Ater said. “We didn’t have any schools but we loved it.”
With a program brokered through agencies in South Sudan and the United States government, many childhood refugees escaped persecution. Ater lost his father during the Sudanese Civil War. His mother, two sisters and three brothers are still alive and he has gone back to visit in Duk, Sudan, where he is from. He hopes his talk will help children understand not to take things for granted and be grateful for the opportunity in their country. His Christian faith was his greatest survival tool.
“Faith first is to believe what you can’t see is what you call faith,” Ater said. “So our faith was to move forward with hope. The other thing is fear. Fear is a great enemy and you have to keep fear away. It is a negative thing. Hold to faith. It is the one thing that kept us going.”
Ater went back to his country in 2011 when South Sudan voted for independence as a country. He preaches at the United Sudanese Christian Church in Louisville and helps fund education and housing for orphans in Sudan.
For more information about Ater’s missions call (502) 436-0622 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org