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Improving refugee health

Jacob Atem, former Lost Boy of South Sudan, now works to prevent deaths of children in refugee camps

When he was a boy, Jacob Atem told himself that if he heard shouts of, “Lion! Lion!” he would run for a bush, where he could hide.

He was one of South Sudan’s Lost Boys — one of thousands of orphaned boys escaping civil strife in the country during the 1990s. More than 2.5 million people died in the conflict, which lasted until 2005.

One night, the calls warning of a lion finally came.

“When I was young, I thought it would be safer to hide in the bush, but the lion was coming out of the same bush I was running toward,” he said. “So I ran. I was really scared and I went so fast and I was so skinny, there was a branch I didn’t see. I ran right into a sharp tree.”

Atem narrowly escaped a lion attack, but he suffered a deep puncture wound to his left leg and he could see his bone.

“I told myself, man, I wish I was a doctor,” he said. “There was no doctor to help me.”

Atem thinks of that injury as a life-changing moment when he knew he wanted to someday help other refugees to receive health care. During the Lost Boys’ long trek he had seen many boys die from treatable illness and injury.

With assistance from his cousin, who carried Atem part of the way, Atem was able to keep walking with the group. He eventually made it out of the bush and away from the threat of lion attacks, and then spent nine years in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. In 2001 the U.S. government arranged for Atem to come to Michigan where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Spring Arbor University and a master’s degree in public health from Michigan State University, all the while building Southern Sudan Health Care Organization in his home village of Maar.

Now a UF doctoral candidate in the PHHP department of environmental and global health, Atem hopes to improve the health of young children in the same refugee camp where he spent much of his childhood. His dissertation research focuses on determining risk factors for diarrheal disease among children age 5 and younger living at Kakuma Refugee Camp. The World Health Organization estimates that diarrheal disease kills 760,000 children a year worldwide. It is the second-leading cause of death in children under 5.

“This research means so much to me,” Atem said. “I’m no longer a Lost Boy. I’m a young scientist contributing to the body of knowledge of refugee health. I have not been to Kakuma Refugee Camp since I left in 2001 and going back to conduct research that would improve the health of children in refugee settings would be a great honor.”

To support the work of Atem and other PHHP students, please contact Lindsey Stevens, director of development, at lmstevens@phhp.ufl.edu or 352-273-6540.