In 1987, civil war drove an estimated 27,000 young boys from their families and villages in South Sudan. Most just 6 or 7 years old, they fled to neighboring Ethiopia to escape persecution and the war and, in doing so, embarked on-foot across desert land on a journey that took them more than a thousand miles.
With very little food and water, and many walking without shoes or much clothing, many boys died on the way to Ethiopia. In 1991, Ethiopia also fell into civil war and, once again, the boys were forced to leave their camp and go back on the road, this time heading to a refugee camp in Kenya. Often on the run and hiding from war that was raging around them, the journey was perilous.
Northrop Grumman’s Abraham Ater, public health analyst with the Health Division, remembers the tragic exodus well. He survived it. He and only half of the 20,000 boys who originally fled Sudan made it to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
They became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Abraham Ater, a Sudanese refugee, now works as a public health analyst for Northrop Grumman.
Born in Duk, South Sudan, between 1976 and 1979, Abraham Ater was around 9 or 10 years old when he was forced to flee his home. He still remembers the pain of being separated from his parents and the many fears that were an everyday part of his childhood.
“Many villages in South Sudan realized that children were not safe during the civil war and decided that they would send the boys away because they believed we’d be able to survive a long walk,” says Ater. “They told us that they were sending us away for school, but many of us knew it was because of the wars.”
Ater shares his remarkable story in his book, “My Lost Childhood.” His memoir describes how in the late 1980s, the Islamic government began to systematically torture and kill Southern Sudanese families, burn their villages and enslave young boys and girls. As a result, the approximately 27,000 plus boys were forced to flee from their homes, with only roughly half of them ending up in Kenya.
Ater and others left Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya after several years of massive suffering and were granted refuge in the United States in 2001. Many Lost Boys, including Ater, have become U.S. citizens and have continued to pursue their education. Thousands more have also been granted refuge elsewhere and are scattered around the globe.
After coming to the United States, Ater attended the University of Arizona and earned his bachelor’s degree in physiology and master’s degree in public health. He also completed a graduate fellowship with the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is currently finishing up his doctorate in public health at Georgia Southern University.
These days, Ater lives in Atlanta with his wife and their son and two daughters, and his life is centered on family and his work as a public health analyst with the Health division of Northrop Grumman, supporting the CDC Center for Global Health.
“I perform rapid application development for electronic data collection surveys to be used in CDC/President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funded countries,” Ater explains. “I also support data integration activities on a team working on development of ETL tools for data integration and database structures for data capture systems and warehousing activities. In addition, I provide technical assistance to PEPFAR, guidance on performance monitoring activities for country operation plan development and routine performance reporting.”
“I pursued degrees in the health field to focus more on prevention and control of infectious diseases," continues Ater. "My long range plans involve global health work in rural clinics, organizing health workshops and empowering local health workers to improve community health. This is in tribute to those who helped me along my own arduous journey. Making a difference in the lives of children and refugee camp dwellers is paramount.”
Ater is reunited with his mother in 2007 and they embrace for the first time since he left as a child.
In 2007 he, along with his friends, started a nonprofit organization called United Vision for Change in order to build a school for children in his native homeland. They are still raising funds but are currently providing scholarships.
“I’m very grateful for what I have been able to accomplish and look to bring educational and health resources back to my homeland,” he says. “The children there are still affected. There are no schools and clinics and not much clean water. Many children’s parents were killed in the wars and many need somewhere to go. I will do anything I can to help.”
To learn more about Ater's nonprofit effort, go to www.unitedvisionsforchange.org.