Jacob Atem doesn’t know when his birthday is. As someone who was born in a place with no hospital in South Sudan, he said every day is his birthday.
When he was around six years old, his parents were killed during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
He shared his story in a USA Today opinion piece July 22. He was one of 20,000 young boys who were forced to flee their homes in Sudan. These children, known as “lost boys,” had to travel more than 1,000 miles before arriving at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
Atem earned his Ph.D. in environmental and global health at UF. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Public health, I find, was a better way to serve my people not only in America but in South Sudan,” Atem said. “(It’s) my way to contribute to society.”
Atem said he wasn’t able to focus in school prior to arriving at the refugee camp due to extreme hunger. Additionally, educators there weren’t properly trained, and 50 students would have to share a single book.
These experiences inspired Atem to co-found The Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization in 2008. The goal was to create a clinic and provide health supplies, services and education to those in South Sudan.
“We take health for granted here in America,” Atem said. “I’m helping the people of South Sudan and the refugees who are already vulnerable to different kinds of diseases.”
Up to 3,000 patients enter the clinic, which was built in Maar, monthly. The thousands of patients who enter come in to give birth or be treated for malaria, dysentery or sexually transmitted diseases, Atem said.
His story has inspired other UF students like junior public relations major and media chair for Students Organize for Syria (SOS) Marya Zaidi.
Zaidi, 20, said Atem shared his journey with her and others when he gave a talk to SOS at the university.
“His story is very inspiring and should be shared with everyone,” Zaidi said. “His life now emphasizes education and service, and I really look up to that.”
SOS is an activist group dedicated to raising awareness and support for the refugees in Syria. Zaidi said she believes it’s important to remain compassionate toward others, and turning our back on refugees goes against the basic values of the American ideology.
“I personally believe that as a human, it is our duty to help other humans in need, especially those suffering from inhumane, violent acts of war and crime,” Zaidi said. “It is absolutely important that we stick to (our) country’s foundation and fight for freedoms and equality for all.”