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Strength from adversity

By Andrew Humphries

If Hollywood is looking for its next big blockbuster, it need look no further than the remarkable life of Dr Jacob Atem.

Jacob’s story contains all the ingredients needed for a hit movie.

How about this for a plot.

At the age of six in 1991, Jacob and his cousin are forced to flee from their village in Sudan as it is attacked and burnt to the ground by northern Sudanese soldiers, with his parents and a number of siblings killed.

Jacob and his cousin, along with many other displaced children, become the famous Lost Boys of Sudan as they undertake a perilous journey by foot across parts of Africa, facing malnutrition, dehydration, and exhaustion along the way. Their journey puts them in constant danger of attack by lions and involves crossing the crocodile-infested Nile River, with Jacob almost drowning at one point.

Jacob arrives at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he learns to read, and remains there until, at the age of 15, he is sponsored to settle in the United States as part of a foster family run by a remarkable woman named Jane White.

He settles in this strange new country, graduates from high school and college and eventually attains a PhD from the University of Florida after earning Bachelor’s and Masters’ degrees in Michigan.

In 2008, Jacob and his friend Lual Awan form the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organisation to help improve healthcare services in South Sudan, building the headquarters in the village of Maar, which Jacob had seen burnt to the ground as a child.

He addresses the United Nations about literacy and the many benefits it has brought to South Sudan, and is recognised as a Modern Day Hero by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative.

In 2022, after 31 years, Jacob is reunited with his sister Ayen, who like him had been displaced during the 1991 attack on their village.

It’s a most remarkable story, yet the man at the centre of it appears to be one of the most down-to-earth people you will ever meet.

At the heart of Jacob’s story is a deep faith, one that he shares with his Melbourne-based older brother Gabriel, a member of the Footscray Community Uniting Church.

In June, Jacob spent three weeks in Melbourne visiting friends and relatives, including Gabriel, and spreading the word about the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organisation and the wonderful work it does in his country of birth.

It was also an opportunity to thank Gabriel, and the Footscray congregation, for its ongoing support of SSHCO.

SSHCO opened its Maar clinic in 2012 and a mobile clinic in the Mongalla displacement camp in 2020, with the “goal of bringing health and hope to where it is lost”.

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Jacob and his brother Gabriel, who is a member of the Footscray Community Uniting Church.

In 2022 it built an education centre for primary-school children, and its agricultural expert helps families in South Sudan learn best practices in farming so they have food security during dry seasons.

It also provides saving loans which help provide livelihoods for families and allow the community to become self-sufficient.

Listening to Jacob’s story, and his strong bond with Gabriel, is a timely reminder that the power of faith is a mighty tool on the journey of life.

That strong faith, despite being tested at times, has been Jacob’s constant companion in life, including during a childhood that would have tested the resolve of anyone.

His story really begins as a six-year-old on a day over 30 years ago, in a country wracked by civil war.

“In my village of Maar, my job was to wake up at dawn and take my family’s goats and cows to find grass and water,” Jacob recalls.

“I was caring for the animals with my cousin one morning in 1991 when I heard gunfire and screaming and, when I ran to see what happened, I saw my village on fire.

“The rebel forces from northern Sudan had invaded, and I knew that my family members had either been killed or taken into slavery.

“I was six years old and, along with other young boys whose villages were destroyed, I started walking.

“As we trekked through the wilderness, we endured malnutrition, dehydration, exhaustion and worse.

“One night when I was hiding in the bush, one of the boys yelled ‘lion’, and I fled and ran into a sharp branch that cut my leg so deeply I could see bone.

“There was no way to get medical treatment but, miraculously, it didn’t get infected.”
Jacob estimates that about 10,000 of the children who made the same trek as him died along the way.

“Walking nearly 2000 miles I saw many boys die from communicable diseases such as hepatitis B, measles, pertussis and tuberculosis,” he says.

“Like them, I’d had no vaccinations, and the refugee camps where we ended up were overcrowded and prone to outbreaks of cholera, shigellosis and other diarrheal diseases, affecting younger children the most.”

As he reflects on life in the Kakuma refugee camp, Jacob says it was older brother Gabriel who showed him the true meaning of faith, when they were reunited at the camp.

“I’ve been through great struggles and, yes, I suffered a lot as a young child, and what got me through it all was my faith,” Jacob says.

“But one thing that I truly enjoyed was learning from Gabriel about what going to church really meant.
“Church was what continued to give us hope at times likes Christmas, which was my favourite time in the camp.

“And I remember looking at Gabriel and thinking that he had a greater faith than me, because he never missed going to church, unless he was very sick.”

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Jacob and Southern Sudan Healthcare Organisation co-founder Lual Deng Awan in South Sudan last year.

Jacob’s traumatic childhood meant that his belief in a higher power was tested on numerous occasions.

“Oh yes, it was tested many times when I witnessed many tragic events, but I would always ask myself, ‘why should I leave you now Lord?’,” he says.

“He has delivered for me on so many levels that I was saying to him, ‘Lord, I’m all yours and I have your weight behind me’.

“I have been in terrible situations I didn’t think I would be able to get out of and during those times, yes, I had that question of ‘Lord, are you there?’

“But in those times he said to me, ‘do you remember who brought you out of Egypt’.

“So when I’m now sitting in America and I have a home and I have really beautiful children, I just remember what he has provided me with.

“It was tempting, at times, to forget about the Lord, but he always delivered for me.”

Jane White, the loving foster mother who took in Jacob when he arrived in the United States as a 15-year-old, also taught him that there is much to be grateful for in life.

“The Lord changed me when I went to America all those years ago,” Jacob says.

“But he had to work hard on me because when you are by yourself, like I had been, you have to fight to survive.

“You don’t have mum and dad to protect you, so all the time you are in a violent survival mode.

“But that wasn’t the case in America because of what Jane was able to provide for me.

“She filled a gap that I had never had.”

Jacob recalls a life lesson from Jane that has continued to resonate with him many years later.

“I remember one day a kid called me a monkey and I wanted to punch him,” he says.

“I remember I went back home and I was so upset and I said to Jane, ‘just take me back to the refugee camp, I don’t have time for this’.

“And I was grounded by Jane and that made me more furious and I said to her, ‘why am I grounded?’

“She said to me, ‘listen, I know what you were about to do to that kid and I want to teach you one lesson, and that is do not ever touch someone in that physical way again’.

“I was so angry that I wanted to return to that refugee camp and then I prayed that night and I said, ‘Lord, if I go back there, have I solved the issue?’

“The truth is that wherever you go there are good people and bad people.

“Jane saved me because I don’t know if I would have been able to do what I have done without her, because without her guidance I would probably be in jail or something like that.”

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Jacob during a visit to the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organisation headquarters.


While he no longer lives in what is now South Sudan, Jacob continues to give back to his country of birth and is most proud of what he has been able to achieve there in the field of health care.

“When the Lord brought me to the United States from the Kakuma refugee camp, I asked him, ‘what will my purpose be?’,” Jacob says.

“My faith had been renewed and when I arrived in Michigan I said I wanted to do three things for my village in South Sudan.

“I wanted to build a church, a school and a health clinic, because you can’t have a school and health clinic without a church.”

It may have seemed an impossible goal at first, but Jacob was determined to give something back to his birthplace.

‘Well, I had no idea how to create a non-profit organisation, but in March 2008 we formed the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organisation to bring help and hope to the people there,” Jacob says.

“I remember we opened an account for it with just $5 and I was so excited about it.”

That symbolic $5 was enough to get the ball rolling as support then flooded in for Jacob’s dream.

Generous donors from Jacob’s country of birth, plus Egypt and Kuwait, came on board and $800,000 was raised to build a health clinic in Maar, which opened in 2012.

“Since then, the clinic has provided new levels of health care to the people of Maar and the surrounding area for the first time,” Jacob says.

“It has provided hundreds of people with a better life, with a focus on maternal and child healthcare in a facility where mothers deliver their babies safely with proper medicines and equipment on hand.

“SSHCO has extended its work to the state of Central Equatoria where, in 2020, it began to provide health services to the Mongalla displacement camp, home to 120,000 people.”

Some sobering statistics, though, give a glimpse of the challenges facing SSHCO in combating some of the worst child mortality rates in the world.

According to The Borgen Project, which fights global poverty, nearly 75 per cent of all child deaths in South Sudan are due to preventable conditions such as diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia.

The prevalence of these and other deadly conditions are major factors in South Sudan’s high infant mortality rate, with 96 infant deaths per 1000 births.

During his visit to Melbourne, Jacob took the opportunity to thank the Uniting Church for its ongoing support of SSHCO.

As part of the Footscray Community Uniting Church, Gabriel has been able to harness that support for something that, like his brother, is very much close to his heart.

That support from the Footscray congregation proved vitally important in 2020 when severe flooding impacted heavily on more than 600,000 people in South Sudan.

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Jacob’s work has helped many people in South Sudan gain access to better health care.

“Because of our strong connection with South Sudan it was important that we were able to support SSHCO with financial assistance,” Gabriel says.

“That strong connection opened up a wonderful opportunity to help my brother and his work with SSHCO, and it’s a way of saying how much we appreciate what is being done in South Sudan.

“It’s nice to be a support base in Australia for the work that is being done in our country of birth.”

As Jacob and Gabriel continued to rebuild their lives in the United States and Australia, there was still something missing, a deep yearning to reconnect with someone they had lost on the day their village was attacked in 1991.

The last time Jacob saw his sister Ayen was when enemy soldiers captured her and his nieces and took them away that day.

In the years that followed, Jacob never forgot Ayen and continued to search for her.

“For 31 years, I have been searching for my sister and nieces,” Jacob says.

“Finally, on January 30, 2022, I was able to find Ayen and my nieces and fly them to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.”

But even in finding his sister, Jacob’s faith was tested

“What is unique about my sister and nieces’ reunion is the fact that they brought with them those who had abducted them and their family members, and who they have then lived with for the last 31 years,” he says.

“So my sister, nieces, and their children now identify with other families from another tribe that has been taking care of them for those 31 years.”

It meant that Jacob and Gabriel had much soul searching to undertake before they could forgive those who had abducted their sister and nieces in 1991.

“When we talk about forgive your enemy yourself, it’s one thing to say that but another thing to do,” Jacob says.

“So last year Gabriel and I prayed as we asked ourselves what should we do about this, until we decided as brothers we must forgive them.”

As he reflects on a life story involving hardship that none of us could properly imagine, Jacob says he has been blessed with all that any man could want.

“I’m not rich in terms of having millions of dollars, but I’m rich in that I’m breathing,” he says.

“I’m rich in that I’m still alive and I have three beautiful boys who were born in a modern hospital.

“Matthew 6: 33 tells us to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you’, and that is something that resonates deeply with me.

“So all of this righteousness will be added onto and that’s why I’m so excited about what we are doing with the Uniting Church, because it’s showing that what unites us isn’t the colour of our skin or anything like that, the anchor here is Jesus Christ.

“This is where the joy comes in because when you look at the teachings of Jesus it’s about asking how you can help the most vulnerable people.

“And this incredible book of Jesus is telling us to love your enemy as yourself, and to love your neighbour, and the Lord is talking to me and saying, ‘what can you give back to people’?

“He is saying to me, ‘take care of those people in need’.”

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