Father of Former “Lost Boy” of Sudan Encourages Him to Pursue a Career in Public Health

by Abraham Deng Ater, DrPH, MPH

Students of Public Health: Voices & Profiles focuses on research projects and other contributions students are making to advance public health.

Lost Boy story

Abraham Deng Ater

Student Voices — “If you find an opportunity to attend school, do it!” my late father vehemently instructed me. “Never leave it halfway done. Bring it back home. You understand?” This was the last time I ever spoke to him alive. He was killed in Sudan’s 22-year civil war (1983-2005) along with more than 2.5 million others including my elder brother; not sure of their ages, nor my own. I learned of their death in 1993 when I was in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Fortunately, my mother and two sisters survived. My father’s instructions to fend for myself have stuck with me to this day. Education was my only hope once I was separated from my family. That’s been more than three decades ago. This was the start of my long journey across four different countries over two continents.

Kigali Genocide Memorial Center Courtyard, taken on a temporary assignment for CDC in Kigali, Rwanda, in December 2017

I think I was about nine years old when Sudan’s Civil War separated me from my family in 1987. (Many others were as young as seven.) Three months later, I arrived in neighboring Ethiopia along with an estimated 20,000 other boys. In 1991, the civil unrest in Ethiopia forced us to escape to Sudan, but the civil war didn’t let up. We had to flee to northern Kenya in 1992, where I resettled in the arid desert town called Kakuma for the next nine years. The journey was a perilous one, leaving about half of us on the deserts and rivers of the East African nations to fend against wild animals, crocodiles, and birds of prey after trekking for more than a thousand miles naked, barefoot, and ailing from starvation, dehydration, and disease.

The “opportunity” hoped for in my father’s sacrificial advice presented itself after the United States government granted me asylum in 2001. Upon my arrival, I had the privilege to attend school, an opportunity I had been deprived of in my own country of birth. I became the first member of my family, in fact, to receive a formal education. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physiology (2006) and a master’s degree in public health (2010), both from the University of Arizona. In 2015, I was fortunate to be accepted by Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health (JPHCOPH) of Georgia Southern University to pursue, unfaltering, my commitment to fulfill my father’s command. Obtaining degrees in the health science fields prepared and provided me with the knowledge, skills, and capacity to focus on global health and its emerging challenges. Public health threats such as climate change and emerging infectious disease require not just expert leadership and administrative skills but strong research and intervention approaches as well.

Entrance of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

During my academic training, I learned how to apply analytical skills in leadership and practice and took advantage of public health research methodology to solve complex practical problems in public health practice. For example, my quantitative dissertation research, which focused on local health departments’ engagement in community health assessment, community health improvement planning, strategic planning, and accreditation under the mentorship of Dr. Gulzar Shah, helped me understand the importance of these best practices in informing public health policy implications and intervention designs. This program provided me with competencies, knowledge, and skills for detecting health inequities and advancing population health, with the ultimate goal of giving back to the community. 

Abraham Deng Ater and Dr. Gulzar Shah in front of the portrait of Dr. Karl Peace, celebrated professor, statistician, and endower of JPHCOPH, named in honor of Dr. Peace’s late wife, statistician Dr. Jiann-Ping Hsu

After graduation, December 2018

My father’s advice and my education in public health have together strengthened my passion to help. In 2009, I traveled to what was then southern Sudan to implement one of our foundation’s United Visions for Change goals, the Health Education Initiative. During the workshop in the rural town of Duk Padiet, I was stunned to find out that many villagers were still not aware about the fact that the mosquito causes malaria. After coming back to the states, I decided to help even further. I conducted a descriptive survey study in 2010 on the Lost Boys of Sudan who reside in Arizona to determine the extent to which behavioral health problems existed among them due to past exposures to traumatic life. The result

Holding my younger daughter after graduation

shows that more than half (55.7%) of the young men reported nightmares often or sometimes, and 47.5% felt sick and depressed due to past experiences. These staggering findings call for more research on the Lost Boys population so that intervention strategies can be developed.

The combination of my past experience, with first-hand, rigorous technical and methodological trainings, have equipped me with the knowledge and expertise needed to one day lead or manage a program that will have a greater impact throughout the world. Academic trainings include advanced topics in qualitative and quantitative data analysis; leadership, management and governance; workforce development; and approaches to improving public health through policy and programs. My future endeavors involve public health research on health inequities and social determinants of health, which provide evidence to inform population health strategies and impact policy change. In tribute to those who helped me along my own arduous journey, making a difference in the lives of children and refugee camp dwellers is paramount.

Lost Boys community gathering, Louisville, KY

Abraham Ater is a public health researcher with the Northrop Grumman/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global Health program. He is a co-founder of the United Visions for Change, a private foundation dedicated to building health clinics in rural towns of South Sudan. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physiology and master’s degree in public health from the University of Arizona. He just graduated (2018) with the Doctor of Public Health degree from Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, Georgia Southern University. His long-range plan is to empower local health workers to improve population health through research and advocacy.

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