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Dexter Students Hear Message of Resilience from Dr. Jacob Atem, a Lost Boy of Sudan

Man standing on a stage in front of an audience.

When Jacob Atem was six years old, his parents were killed when rebel forces from Northern Sudan attacked his village of Maar, located along the Nile River.  After seeing the flames, he and several other children from his village began making their way south toward Ethiopia.  This walk was the beginning of a 2,000 mile trek that ended in a refugee camp in Kenya - the same distance as from Dexter to Spokane, Washington.  No one was older than fifteen, and some were as young as five.  Along the way, these children had no food or water, faced wild animals, armed gunmen, disease, and injury, and had little to no help from adults.  Over 10,000 of the estimated 26,000-30,000 displaced Sudanese children died from these harsh conditions, but Jacob survived.

As a ‘Lost Boy of Sudan,’ the name given to these children in reference to the story of Peter Pan where orphaned boys take care of each other, Dr. Atem has spent his adulthood sharing his story with thousands of people.  On Monday, September 25, thanks to an invitation from Mill Creek teacher Cheryl Darnton and grants from community benefactors including the Educational Foundation of Dexter and LaFontaine Chevrolet of Dexter, Dr. Atem spoke to several hundred Dexter students about overcoming the odds and bringing positive change to the world. He has spoken at Dexter Schools many times, and his message is always well received by each new class of students.  His stories bring to life the curriculum of DCS social study courses, which teach African culture, geography, and history. 

Man standing on a stage in front of an audience.

Woven throughout his presentation were the concepts of resiliency and purpose. When faced with difficulties, Dr. Atem said, You have to adapt. He and his fellow Sudanese children had to become adults overnight in order to survive. Referring to COVID-19 as a shock to our way of life, he reminded students that they adapted to the situation; sometimes you have to do something that you need to do, rather than what you want to do. Dr. Atem said it is a miracle that he is standing here today, and that he is standing here with a purpose.

In 2001, almost 4,000 Lost Boys came to the United States, the largest resettlement of displaced peoples in American history. The United Nations workers said they were the most traumatized children they had ever interviewed. Many of Atem’s fellow Lost Boys won’t share their stories because they become retraumatized, but he feels that this is his calling.

When Jacob arrived in the United States, he was resettled in a foster home in Lansing. He didn’t know how to turn on a light switch, had never had a mattress or his own room, and didn’t know how to speak English. He started his first schooling ever as a freshman, and because he didn’t understand the language well, he would ask question after question after question. This annoyed his classmates, so he stopped asking questions in class, and asked them of the teacher after class. He adapted to the situation in a way he felt would help him to succeed.  

Man standing on a stage in front of an audience.

He made other important choices throughout his school career, such taking a nonviolent approach to difficult situations, which was very different from how conflict was resolved in Africa. He encouraged Dexter students to treat each other with respect, be careful of what you say, and always stand up against bullying. He said if students leave with one takeaway, it is to be grateful they live in Dexter, Michigan, in the United States of America.  “I don’t dismiss the challenges you are facing,” he said, “but compared to where I grew up, this is great!”

 In his senior year at Michigan State, Dr. Atem co-founded the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization (SSHCO) with a fellow Lost Boy. SSHCO provides health education and health care through a medical clinic in Sudan. Since then, the organization has also built a mobile clinic and a primary school for the children of the Mongalla displacement camp, fifty percent of which are girls. According to Forbes, South Sudan is the poorest country in the world, so this organization’s efforts are critically needed. Dr. Atem feels his experiences coupled with his education helped him achieve his dream of providing healthcare for the people of this devastated area.

Man standing on a stage in front of an audience.

Dr. Atem reminded students to seek help if they need it; if they don’t have hope and think no one cares, someone does.  Students should also take their education seriously, and to consider their dreams when making decisions that will impact their future. At the end of his presentation, he invited students to stand and repeat three times the following words:

I am strong. 

I am powerful. 

I will become. 

I am a leader.

  • Community Partnership
  • Dexter High School
  • Kindness & Empathy
  • Mill Creek Middle School
  • Personal Responsibility & Resilience
  • Social Studies
  • citizenship