Among the nearly 2,400 students expected to receive undergraduate degrees from Eastern Washington University on Saturday is one whose survival did not seem likely 20 years ago, much less his graduation from an American college.
David Atem’s remarkable journey to become part of the EWU Class of 2009 began in his native southern Sudan. When he was 3 years old, civil war forced his aunt, with whom he was living, to flee to Ethiopia with Atem and her own three boys.
Now 23, Atem can hardly believe his own past, it is so far removed from his current life on the Cheney campus. But the story is one shared by thousands of Sudanese men, now known as the “lost boys.”
In the 1980s, an estimated 27,000 boys had to fend for themselves as they crossed into Ethiopia – their parents killed and their sisters carried off by government soldiers. Many boys died along the way, reportedly gunned down, starved, drowned or eaten by wild animals.
Atem and his cousins made it to an Ethiopian refugee camp where they remained for four or five years until a new war forced them to flee again. Thousands of Sudanese youths reportedly drowned or were killed by crocodiles while trying to cross the Gilo River back into Sudan.
Atem’s aunt led the boys hundreds of miles south along the Sudan-Ethiopia border to a Kenyan refugee camp known as Kakuma, which was administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The family remained at Kakuma for about eight years until about 5,000 young Sudanese men were allowed to resettle in the United States. Catholic Community Services placed Atem and his cousins with a host family in Yelm, Wash. His aunt returned to Sudan.
Despite language and cultural barriers, Atem graduated from Yelm High School in 2004. He entered Eastern with the help of the Washington Achievers Scholarship, a program for low-income and minority children established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Now a U.S. citizen, Atem graduates Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in economics. But there is more for Atem to celebrate than commencement.
Recently, he discovered his mother was alive and spoke to her for the first time in 20 years. The telephone conversation was arranged by his aunt. His father was lost in the war.
Now he will try to find a job that will make enough money to help his mother, as well as a younger brother and sister he has never met. The family lives in Mading in southern Sudan.
“I have come this far, so I shouldn’t give up,” Atem said. “I have to keep going. I have to try to find my family and help them.”