Simon Atem: Turning Rage Into Reconciliation In Sudan

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This article was originally published in ODE Magazine.

Simon Atem was 7 when he watched soldiers shoot and kill his uncle while he held Simon's hand. He was visiting his relatives, a day's walk from his home village of Aweng in southern Sudan, when militia suddenly stormed the area and opened fire on civilians. The last word Simon heard from his uncle was "Run!"

It was 1995, and the Second Sudanese Civil War was ravaging the country. The southern non-Arab populations, led by the Sudan People's Liberation Army, were fighting for independence from the northern Arab-dominated government. Islamic military forces were attacking villages in an attempt to purge the Christians. The soldiers killed adults and enslaved girls while the boys, many of whom had been tending the herds, escaped into the jungle.

After his uncle's murder, Simon walked and ran through bush so dense it was black as night during daylight hours. He spent the first three days alone, sleeping in trees and surrounded by wild animals, with nothing to shield him from the thorny foliage that tore at his skinny frame and left him with scars. On the fourth day, he found other groups of wandering boys. This cohort, ultimately amounting to 27,000 displaced or orphaned males, later became known as the "lost boys" of Sudan. Together, they trekked approximately 100 miles a day with no shoes, clothes, water or food. They ate wild fruit and dead animals to stay alive and drank their own urine. It took two months for Simon's group to reach a UN refugee camp in Dimma, Ethiopia.

Simon barely survived the next eight years. In 1997, after a year of difficult living conditions in the refugee camp, the Ethiopian government was overthrown and the rebels wanted the boys to return to Sudan. When they didn't move quickly enough, the rebels began shooting at them. Simon, in his soft voice, thick with an African accent, recalls, "Running back was hard. Many were shot or eaten by crocodiles in the river. Coming to Ethiopia had been hard. Going back to Sudan was harder."

Thousands died along the way. When the remaining boys eventually reached the Sudanese border, armed vehicles met them and forced them to turn around. They trekked through the desert for another month before reaching the refugee camp. Simon spent the next few years moving among refugee camps in Sudan and Kenya until finally, in 2003, the Canadian government approved his visa. UN representatives lied, saying Simon was 21 to aid his application. He was 15 at the time.

Now a towering 19-year-old with sunken cheeks and jutting bones, Simon remembers his first airline flight four years ago. Along with 50 other boys, he boarded a plane heading to Canada. He didn't sleep the whole way: part excitement and part vigilance. He insisted on keeping a close watch on the flight path on his TV so he could "see where this one goes." When the inflight meal arrived, Simon ate the chicken and rice and pushed aside the "strange" foods like salad and dessert, not realizing they were edible.

When Simon arrived in Winnipeg, immigration officials greeted him with jackets and boots for the snow he was about to experience. The learning curve was steep, but Simon was a quick study. After a few trials and errors, he soon understood that, unlike in Africa, you couldn't stand anywhere in the street and expect the bus to pick you up. Simon has since moved to Calgary and is in his final year of high school. He lives in the basement of a house owned by another Sudanese family.

He hasn't seen his own family since the day his uncle was killed. He couldn't run back to his village after the attack because it was too dangerous. For many years, he had no idea whether or not his family had survived. Then after a decade, Simon heard through friends that everyone in his family was alive. He spent a year trying to make contact, and finally, in December of 2006, he was able to arrange for his mother to make the four-day drive to a phone in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Now he's able to speak to family members once every three months. That first call lasted three hours. "We were just crying for an hour," Simon remembers. "They thought I was dead. They had two burial ceremonies for me. But no, Simon is alive!"

As he eats chicken fingers and onion rings, Simon comments, "I don't blame the soldiers who did this." He's wearing a striped, collared shirt and trendy, faded jeans with a thick parka. "I blame the government that caused them to do that."

Simon refuses to succumb to feelings of rage against his attackers. "I could be angry at the Muslim soldiers because of what they did to my people and me," he says. "I could hate them, but if I did, then I would be just like them." Instead, Simon chooses to focus on his story of survival, which he feels a pressing need to share. "I don't have a business card to give, so I give my story to people," he says. "The more I talk about it, the more people will learn about what others go through."

Simon found integration easy. He is outgoing and has no problem meeting people. But his past is always with him, and not just when he shares his story. He still has nightmares about his "lost boy" days. Luckily, he has other dreams as well. "One day, I was sleeping in my room and something came as a human," Simon explains in a matter-of-fact tone. "And he was just sitting in front of me and talking to me, saying, 'Simon, there is something you have to do. You have to build a school. You have to build a shelter for young people. You have to teach people how you have gone through difficulty in life.'"

When Simon was 6, he had one such dream, which became the inspiration for his current project--building a school in his home village, Aweng. In Sudan, children learn under a tree and often write in the sand because there are no books or materials. They have no curricula and the teachers are mothers and fathers, with little or no schooling themselves, who volunteer for the day. Simon wants children to be able to use their minds and be taught to distinguish between right and wrong. "If you are not educated, people will come to you and tell you to take a gun and go fight. You don't know what is going on. So I need young people to get an education so they will be leaders for today, not tomorrow."

Within his first week at Father Lacombe High School in Calgary, Simon set about garnering support for his fundraising ideas. He convinced the fast-food chain Tim Hortons to donate coffee and doughnuts for monthly "coffeehouses" at his school, with all the proceeds going to his Southern Sudan Canadian Education Fund, and he's constantly working with the school on other fundraising ideas like dinners, cookbook sales and a Mother's Day Run for Peace. He travels around Canada speaking to fellow students and works with the organization YOUCAN--a student-run organization that encourages youth to create peace in their communities and their hearts--and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Michéal Montgomery, a children's-rights advocate who met Simon at a CIDA conference, says, "Simon's gift is pulling action from other people. Once he has decided that you are someone important to him, he is amazingly consistent and persistent. He is not using us, just working us. We are part of Simon's project. And that is quite incredible of someone of his age." He laughs as he adds, "He must have an amazing phone bill."

Simon received a welcome surprise recently--a check for $3,000 from an American businessperson, whom Simon had met for less than 30 minutes. This brought the charity's tally to about $11,000. Simon's goal is to reach $60,000 this summer and return to Sudan to start building the school. Then Simon will be reunited with his family for the first time since their separation--and one lost boy will finally have returned home.

He flashes his infectious smile when asked if he ever lost hope in the midst of his journey. "Even though I go through difficult things, God is still there," he says. "God is trying to see how strong am I."

Stacey Kalish is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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