March 3, 2012; Source: Gainesville Sun

The story of 26-year-old Jacob Atem, one of Sudan’s “lost boys,” is similar to the story of the subject the subject of David Eggers’ What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.

If you don’t know the story of Sudan’s “lost boys,” the tens of thousands of boys (and some girls) who were orphaned by the civil war waged by the government of Omar Bashir in Khartoum against the population of South Sudan, Eggers’ book is recommended reading material. The book chronicles young Achak’s displacement from his home in the Dinka village Marial Bai by the armed Arab militias known as the murahaleen and by northern Sudanese soldiers, his starvation-ridden trek to a refugee camp in Ethiopia with thousands of other boys who lost their parents in the intended genocide, their eviction from that camp by Ethiopian soldiers and tribes, and finally their reaching the Kakuma camp in Kenya, where they lived for several years. Since 2000, a few thousand lost boys were relocated to the United States out of the Kakuma camp. It is a heart-rending story that will never leave you, and Jacob Atem lived it.

Atem is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida studying health services and management. He and his family lived in the South Sudan village of Maar. Like many of the lost boys here, Atem has remained committed to doing something for his desperately poor, now independent, South Sudan homeland. In 2008, he co-founded the Southern Sudan Heath Care Organization, which built the first health clinic in Maar in January of this year. Unfortunately, Atem’s organization hasn’t been able to get the supplies for the clinic any closer to Maar than Kenya. Although Atem and his colleagues raised $800,000 for the clinic, the organization is still $12,000 short, and the supplies in a 40-foot container won’t be able to get any closer than Mombasa.

The supplies will arrive in Mombasa on April 8th. Atem and his team of volunteers will arrive in the South Sudanese capital of Juba on April 22nd to then head to Maar. The question is whether they will come to Maar empty-handed. “If we don’t have enough money and the container is still in Mombasa due to the lack of funds, it would totally be a disaster,” Atem said.

The stories of the lost boys of the Sudan are hard to absorb. They and their families were the victims of unfathomable cruelty. The new country is one of the world’s absolute poorest, made more so by the Sudan government’s policies. It would be a tragedy if the efforts of lost boys like Atem to help what remains of their home communities were to come to naught for want of what is, in philanthropic terms, a pittance.—Rick Cohen