SIOUX FALLS, SD -
In the last decade, nearly 4,000 Sudanese boys ravaged by war and living in refugee camps ended up in the United States. About 100 ended up in Sioux Falls.
Now they are preparing to go back home for the first time for a reunion. South Sudan became a free nation in July.
One local Sudanese man isn't just going back home to see his remaining family members, he's also on a mission to give back.
These Sudanese Lost Boys, now grown men, spent their days playing chess in African refugee camps. But their experience certainly wasn't all fun and games.
The first memories Atem Juowei has of the civil war in his homeland was when he was five years old and his village was being burned.
"That time it was really very dangerous for us. Some of us were crying because we looking for something to eat. We were told you don't have to go back home. If you go back home, you will be killed," Jouwei said.
Atem's father was killed and he was forced to walk a thousand miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He watched his uncle die along the way. But the worst he says was when the boys tried to cross the River Gilo, which separates Sudan from Ethiopia.
"I wouldn't expect I'd be alive by that time because behind me somebody shooting people with a gun and in front of me was a river with crocodiles. It was so bad for me. It was really horrible. It was a dangerous river," Jouwei said.
While thousands of children died, somehow, Jouwei did make it across that river and was able to carry a two-year-old girl on the other side back to her family.
"I find the mother she is crying, she is really crying. She said my daughter is dead, left behind when we were running. Then I told her I brought her; I brought your daughter. She was happy. That woman and her daughter are in Canada," Jouwei said.
"I think Atem and the lost boys like so many in the history of the world these are livings saints. They are heroes and they are saints," Lisa Marie Johnson said.
Johnson works for the Catholic school system in Sioux Falls and met Atem at a prayer service and heard his story.
"My heart was moved. I was also heart broken. It's just absolutely unbelievable," Johnson said.
Johnson wanted to help and Atem had ideas on how she could do that.
"They all want to contribute back to their motherland and some of the things they were saying is medical center, school, elementary school, education centers and it was Atem's idea: library; and I thought that was fantastic!" Johnson said.
So Johnson and Atem set out on a mission of hope; a quest to bring a library to Atem's village where his mother still lives; whom he hasn't seen in 20 years.
"All of us want to go see the country, what does it look like and how are the people that we left before. Some of us don't even know who we are. We would like to go and see them, this is who we are. We would like to go and see the country,"Jouwei said.
And just in time for the Lost Boys reunion over Christmas when Atem will see his country once again. Johnson will accompany him to secure the land for the library. The two have partnered with Holy Sprit Church in Sioux Falls to collect thousands of school supplies, books, and hundreds of backpacks to take along with them to give to the children. It's just the start of a long process.
"A lot has to go into this. There has to be water wells. There's no water; there has to be water wells built to mix cement. We already have companies contacting us that want to donate brick makers and tools. We have someone who is going to put together a blue print for us, specifically for the soil and land in South Sudan. There's a rainy season, so we can't build then. It's really exciting," Johnson said.
Atem has one more mission when he returns to Sudan; to get his brothers, ages 16 and 17 out of a refugee camp in Kenya and bring them to Sioux Falls to go to O'Gorman High School.
"That is my dream. I am thinking if they come over here they will get a better education and they will get a better life," Jouwei said.
Atem and Johnson know that bringing his brothers to the U.S. and building a library are big goals, but they think with the help of others, they can accomplish both.
"I think this is a miracle and it's going to make all the difference. I'm so proud of the Lost Boys and so proud of Atem and what they've done. They're a witness of hope, courage and faith," Johnson said.
Mission Hope South Sudan is part of Mary's project. So far a little more than $9,000 has been raised, but $255,000 is needed to build the library.
Mission HOPE South Sudan
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