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An 8-Year-Old's Mission To Help South Sudan

Alex Smith

In 2001, when the Lost Boys of Sudan came to the United States, most of the young refugees brought painful memories of war as well as a deep desire to help their home country.

Now, over a decade later, many of them have families and children of their own. A former Lost Boy living in Kansas City recently found out that his devotion to Sudan doesn’t end with him. John Akuei was as surprised as anyone when his six-year-old son decided he wanted to collect school supplies for children in South Sudan.

For years, John Akuei and Rebecca Mabior followed the news and searched the internet to find out the latest from their home country of Sudan. The couple is part of the Dinka ethnic group, and they had each fled for their lives from Sudan when the government tried to wipe out the Dinkas during the country’s Second Civil War. The John and Rebecca often spoke with fellow refugees about signs of hope in Sudan or ways to help the struggling country, but they were reluctant to discuss the painful, complication subject with their three, young America-born children.

That changed in spring of 2011, when the family was watching scenes of poor, rural life of Southern Sudan on the internet. For the first time, their son Atem, who’s now eight, spoke up and asked his parents about the children on the screen.

“One day we were watching the news about the children in South Sudan [who were walking barefoot],” John Akuei says, “They wear shorts, you know, they don’t have clothes. And then the school – under the tree where the children write in the dirt with their finger. So Atem saw that, and he just jumped to his mom and he said, ‘Mommy, mommy! What is this? Why [are] these children crying, and why do they write with their finger in the dirt?’”

John grew up in rural south Sudan in the early ‘80s. The area received almost no funding for schools or infrastructure from the national government in the north because of ethnic conflict between the two regions. Like the children in the video, John Akuei was taught math and writing by drawing in the dirt with fingers. It’s a practice that continues to this day. When Atem found out about it, he decided he wanted to help.

“Well I just went up to my room and I got 10 pencils and ran downstairs,” explains Atem Akuei, “And said ‘Can I just give these 10 pencils to the children of South Sudan?’”

Lost Boy of Sudan

Growing up in southern Sudan, John and his family struggled with poverty and lack of opportunity. But these trials couldn’t prepare him for what came next. In 1983, when John was four years old, the Sudanese government started attacking southern towns to stop the emergence of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which had started to stand up for the people of southern Sudan. The Sudanese military targeted young boys to prevent them from joining the SPLA. In 1987, on the night the army came to John’s village, he and the other boys ran to escape being killed. They ran all night and hid out during the day for the next 30 days, eventually traveling 1000 miles through the brush to refuge in Ethiopia. John Akuei still has scars around his ankles from this month-long exodus.

“Those scratches happened,” says John Akeui, “When I hit the wood with my leg when I was running. And I feel the pain, but, you know, because of fear, I wasn’t really focusing on pain, I was focusing on how to get away.”

A New Life

John eventually settled in a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for nine years. In 2001, John and about 3800 other Lost Boys of Sudan were allowed to resettle in the United States. He took a job in a paper company in Kansas City and joined a growing community of Sudan expatriates here. And at a Sudanese community get-together, he met Rebecca.

“The first time I saw her, it was so amazing. I’m lucky. I saw a girl here that came from Sudan, and she looks like us. And I would maybe see if we can get together sometime.”

Rebecca, like John, is slender and well over six feet tall. Though she grew up in the north of Sudan, Rebecca is also Dinka. John says it’s important to the Lost Boys to find Sudanese wives and start Sudanese families.

“We feel like if we marry from our own community, then we will keep the same story together, and then we will think about the people back home together. So this will keep us strong, and we are not going to lose our history. So we will keep our history [for the generations] to come.”

Next Generation

Rebecca and John were married in 2003, and Atem was born a year after that. They later had twins, a boy and girl named Akuei and Akone. Although the couple was committed to helping Sudan, they hadn’t discussed it with their children. John says he was surprised when Atem first suggested collecting pencils. 

“First of all, my reaction – I wasn’t prepared enough to tell people about my hometown. So my son took over and [told] me what I’m supposed to do. So I feel guilty! When Atem was starting [this], I really [felt] guilty. The water started to drop from my eyes, because – how did Atem just [see] something on the internet and begin to ask me and my wife [how] we could deliver only ten pencils? I [hadn’t] even thought about giving ten pencils to children in South Sudan. So I [felt] guilty…and I didn’t want to let it go … It just reminded me what we are supposed to do.”

Talking About War

Atem and his parents started talking to friends, classmates, coworkers and church congregants about Sudan and asked their help with collecting pencils and other school supplies. The drive was more successful than any of them imagined. They’ve collected nearly 38,000 pencils and other school supplies as well. And now that Atem has been asking about Sudan, John and Rebecca have been more open to talking about it, though they are reluctant to tell him details of the war.

“Well, the thing that I want Atem to know - [Atem wants to know] where I came from.  That will let him understand why am I here. So I tell Atem, ‘Atem, we belong to South Sudan. I came from far away, and we came here because somebody – the government of South Sudan – didn’t like us because of our differences, our religions.’ I did not talk much about what was the big impact of what is still impacting us, because Atem is still eight years old. He needs to know some of my background, but he doesn’t need to know everything because he mind is still [evolving].”

Visiting South Sudan

The Second Sudanese Civil War ended on 2005, and in July of 2011*, South Sudan became an independent country. John and Rebecca decided they wanted Atem to see the new country, so on Christmas, Atem and his mother will go there to see relatives and deliver pencils. John explains why it’s important for Atem to see South Sudan.

“Atem needs to go there and see with his own eyes. And then I want Atem to go and sit under the tree with them also and see how it [feels]to sit the under and write in the dirt. I want Atem also to know that these are his brothers and sisters who are suffering there, not [just people he’s helping]. It’s his blood. And he wants to feel it also. By sitting down there, how do you feel? And when he comes back here, I think Atem will always be focusing on how we can help those people back home. And also, I need those people who are back home to feel like we are not forgetting about them. We never forget about them. We are still with them, and we will always be with them.”

Eight-year-old Atem Akuei is already planning for a bigger project to help South Sudan. He’s raising money to build a school there. And John and Rebecca are working with their church, Gashland United Methodist in Gladstone, on a project called Journey of Hope. They’re goal is to provide clean drinking water to rural South Sudan.

* Correction: In the original story, July 2012 was given as the date of South Sudan's independence. The country actually became independent on July 9, 2011.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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