By Gretchen Day
Atem Aleu, 21, used a modern telephone for the first time five months ago.
He also used a vacuum for the first time, had his first college class, his first flight, and his first trip to Raging Waters, all within the last five months.
Aleu came to Salt Lake City from Sudan, traveling thousands of miles by plane, into a land that seemed to be years ahead in the future.
And the path he took to get here is longer and more difficult than most people think.
“The journey was very hard,” Aleu said.
Marc Bohn, 22, a junior from Orem, majoring in political science, has been involved with the Aleu since he moved to Salt Lake City. He said Aleu and his friends that came with him from Sudan were able to survive their journey because of their faith.
“They attribute what they”ve been able to go through to God,” Bohn said.
Aleu”s story, and that of his friends, starts in the 1980s. Thousands of children in Africa were wandering through a war-torn battlefield in northern Africa without their families.
Most of the boys” parents were killed, their sisters were abducted, and their older brothers were fighting in the war.
The boys, who would later be called the Lost Boys, were young when they started a treacherous journey that ended in northern Kenya four years later.
“The youngest boys ran away and they don”t know where they are going,” Aleu said.
Thousands of the boys would have been learning long division in the fifth grade if they were living in the United States, rather than running from a brutal civil war in their homeland of Sudan.
The conflict in Sudan was a drawn-out civil war between the Muslim government of the north and the black Christians and other non-Muslims of the south.
It is a war that not enough people know about, Aleu said.
“There are some people who don”t know what happened and I want them to see what happened in my world,” he said.
The boys were left without homes and without anyone to care for them in the aftermath of a war which has waged, on and off, for 18 years, according to Dateline NBC.
The Lost Boys sought refuge in Ethiopia, only to be forced out by continuous wars that made the country unsafe for them, Aleu said.
They continued their journey, much of it through dangerous wastelands and deserts. They ate leaves and drank muddy water.
“The journey was very hard because we don”t have food or any water. We don”t have anything at that time,” Aleu said. “Some people, they eat mud. If you got wet mud, you could put it in your throat.”
Lions and crocodiles killed some of their friends along they way, as did the exhaustion that plagued their long journey.
“They are with Jesus,” Aleu said of his friends who died.
The Lost Boys found safety at a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya. This was the new home for more than 10,000 homeless Sudanese boys, said Panos Moumtzsis, a spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Refugees, in an interview with Dateline NBC.
At the Kenyan refugee camp, the boys were given an education.
“They had this very strong desire to learn,” said Moumtzsis in an interview with Dateline NBC. “I don”t think I”ve seen any other group of children in the world coming from so little and saying ”I want to go to school. We all want to learn.””
Aleu was a teacher while he was in Kenya. He said he taught people how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
While the Lost Boys learned valuable skills in Kenya, including English, Aleu said sometimes they were not able to attend school when there was fighting. They were still afraid for their lives, Aleu said.
In 1999, the United States government stepped in to the Lost Boys lives by offering them a future they never thought they”d have.
According to Dateline NBC, by the end of this year more than 3,500 young Sudanese will be living in various cities in the United States.
That is how Aleu ended up in Salt Lake City.
Bohn became involved with the Lost Boys when his father was asked to help them in their adjustments to the United States.
When Bohn found out some of the Lost Boys lived near Raging Waters, he organized a trip to the water park. He got various companies to sponsor the outing and got discounted tickets from Raging Waters.
“They loved it,” Bohn said. “That”s just something that would have been beyond comprehension months ago.”
He said the Lost Boys have adapted to their surroundings quickly.
However, their first few months in the United States are critical. They are given financial support for a short period of time, after which they are expected to support themselves, Bohn said.
To help one another, Bohn said many of the Lost Boys live a communal lifestyle. They buy food for each other, cook together, and make sure everyone is taken care of.
Bohn said he has learned a lot from the Lost Boys.
“I think they have so much to give. They”re completely open,” he said. “They really have an air of innocence about them.
“These are kids who, in spite of the most horrific life circumstances, didn”t come out bitter, cynical or mean. They came out loving, open to new ideas, and hungry for possibilities.”
Aleu said he hopes to extend the new possibilities he has in the United States to his art. He has been painting scenes from his country and the war that ripped it apart.
Now he is attending his first formal art classes at Salt Lake Community College. He has displayed some of his art in Salt Lake City and hopes to teach the world about Sudan through his paintings, he said.
Aleu said he would like to go back to Sudan when it is safe to teach the people.
For now, Aleu said he is happy to be in the United States.
“We are comfortable now,” he said. “When we were there (in Africa) some people were not sleeping at night because they were afraid of being shot. Now I can sleep anywhere.”