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Florida Voices | Jacob Atem, A Lost Boy Finds His Way

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This is Florida Voices, a series of ordinary Floridians with extraordinary stories.
Find more in our weekly podcast, The Point.
Do you know someone whose story should be told? Email news@wuft.org.

Although there is so much beauty in the world, unfortunately, there is also a great deal of senseless evil.

Nobody knows that to be true more than Jacob Atem. Born in a small village in South Sudan, Jacob lost his parents and the life he had come to know after the Northern Sudanese Arab Militia took everything away from him. Once considered a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, he now leads a life filled with love, education and service. He has used his unique experience and platform to help rebuild his home in Sudan by providing health care and hope to where it is lost.

“I haven’t forgotten the people of Sudan, and I will do what I can to help them heal,” Atem said.

What is SSHCO?

It is The Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization. I built it with Lual Dang Awan and our vision is to bring health and hope to where it was lost.

How does SSHCO operate?

SSHCO is a non-profit, which operates strictly through volunteers. Through the help of these volunteers and numerous generous donations, a health clinic was able to be built in Maar. Individuals all around the world help make this clinic operable, from Sudan, Egypt, or even the United States. The health clinic provides new levels of health care to the people of Maar and the surrounding area for the first time. It costs as little as $5 for visit

How can people get involved with SSHCO?

People can get involved simply by telling a friend, which spreads our mission. It lets individuals around you know about SSHCO and they can help transform healthcare in South Sudan. Another way is by organizing an event. This can be done through companies, schools, or even neighborhoods across the nation. One of the easiest ways to get involved is through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

What are your goals for SSHCO?

There is no one goal for SSHCO. When a goal is met, there will be something else to strive for. There will always be work to be done. I guess my goals are to do the work, to bring back hope, to give the children of Sudan what I did not have. You know, the problems are deeply rooted into the culture. There is not a lot of hope for people there. I want to return some of that hope. It has been taken away by these evil forces, and we can bring some back. It will not solve the whole problem but it may solve one part of it. I guess that is the goal, just to give help and hope.

What are some of the biggest obstacles for SSHCO?

The better question might be what aren’t the obstacles. It’s difficult when the issues are happening so far away, people struggle to really understand. It’s like out of sight, out of mind. The reality is we need money to do what we set out to do. Money is not easy to come by. People who learn of these struggles and hear the stories are willing, but often times don’t have the resources. I try to share my story as much as I can so that more people in the United States can learn of the realities children, men and woman face in other areas of the world. It is not a pleasant reality, but it is real. It’s hard, you see, to revisit these memories so frequently, but I have learned to speak about my experiences to benefit others. The biggest struggle may be the distance to Sudan, and the severe danger that exists there.

What is the reason for conflict in Sudan?

South Sudan is the worlds newest country but war has diseased the country for decades. Sudan is hundreds of years behind other established countries. The fighting, in my perspective, is senseless. The reason for it is greed, corruption and hatred.

Do you believe peace can be accomplished?

I believe in peace, but I don’t think we have seen it in this world yet. It’s something we have been striving for, as a global community, since the beginning of time. Humans use same methods and practices and ways of doing things even though they claim to have learned. War doesn’t work. Hatred doesn’t work. Greed doesn’t work. Violence doesn’t work. Peace will be accomplished when the global community comes to understand that, and when people change.

When did education become so important to you?

Education was something I never knew until I made it to America. It was a rare possibility for kids in Southern Sudan. Education is one of the rarest and most valuable resources in the world. My fight has always been to have more. Money, power, oil – what all of these wars are waged over, it is not important. Education gives me hope and understanding. It gives me a purpose.

Was the transition to American school a challenging one?

It was difficult. Language barriers were tall standing, and I brought with me the dark memories of Sudan. But I had a wonderful family who helped ease that transition.

What do you plan to achieve next?

I hope to raise children of the world, who will bring us one step closer to peace. That’s what I hope to achieve.

Jacob Atem is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and even though he has been considered lost for many years, he says that he “was never lost from God.” (Photos by Samantha Score/WUFT News)
With a warm personality, kind heart and keen sense of humor – it’s difficult to imagine that he is the same child who walked barefoot through Africa to escape rebel forces in his home country of Sudan.
“I went to a small Christian college for my undergraduate education. I remember being told I would never go to college, but here I am. All it takes is hard work, encouragement and faith. When you have that, the sky is the limit,” Atem said.
At the Emerging Pathogens Institute, Atem does biomedical research in pursuit of a doctorate degree, a privilege he had never considered a possibility.
“We now see over 100 patients each day in the South Sudan clinic. With every child, man and woman we help, we are returning the hope that was lost,” Atem said.
“15 years ago I would have never believed you if you told me that I would have a PHD from the University of Florida. It’s amazing, America. America gave me a second chance,” Atem says while sitting at his desk at the Emerging Pathogens Institute.
Although he has accomplished a great deal, Atem is most proud of his two sons, Sammy and Tio. “Kids are crazy, man,” he said.
Atem passes his colleagues as he leaves the office for the day, “God bless,” he says as he heads home to his family.

Find more Florida Voices in our weekly podcast, The Point. Do you know someone whose story should be told? Email news@wuft.org.

About Samantha Score

Samantha is a reporter who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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