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Lost Boys of Sudan head back to school

Abraham Bul Aguer has been called a lot of things since he fled Sudan in 1987. "We used to be called unaccompanied minors," he said. "We have a lot of different names for children going places without big people. The name Lost Boys is just like a nickname."

"The Lost Boys of Sudan," as they are known in the United States, describes more than 27,000 boys who were displaced when civil war broke out in that northeastern African nation in 1983.

Auger first heard the alias from relief workers in 1999, when he was still a teenager. The name has become a kind of shorthand synonymous with the suffering of a civil conflict that lasted 30 years.

After fleeing war in his country, Auger lived in Ethiopia and Kenya before finding reprieve in America. Living as a displaced person, he said, was "like being taken down from 100 to zero."

"You are not living with your own people," he continued. "You are living in misery. Education was the only hope."

Auger turned hope into hard work when he came to the United States three years ago.

In four years, roughly the amount of time it takes an American student to earn a bachelor’s degree, Auger will have completed his unlikely journey from refugee to a college graduate. The 25-year-old is now a junior at the University of Utah and plans to get a double-major in business and finance.

He is one of about 25 refugees who receive money for tuition and books from the Chier Foundation, a nonprofit based in Park City. The organization is scheduled to host a free outdoor screening of "God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan" Saturday at 7 p.m. at Sage Creek Equestrian in Heber.

Auger and other refugees will be on hand to answer questions after the screening. Organizers encourage participants to bring picnics, blankets, food and drinks. The film starts at 7:30 pm Admission is free and donations will help pay for school supplies and tuition for refugees. "The purpose is really to connect with the community," said Kate Geogan, a member of the board of directors.

The documentary earned acclaim at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and inspired seven Park City residents to start the foundation to help Sudanese refugees start a new life in Utah.

The state is home to about 150 refugees.

"We were touched and really taken by the story of these men," Geagan said. She helped start the organization. In just three years, the community has raised $150,000 and sent 25 Sudanese immigrants to college at the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College and Westminster College.

Most refugees begin at SLCC with English language and composition classes. They earn associates degrees and, eventually, bachelor’s degrees in a range of fields. The road for refugees to pursue higher education is difficult, Geagan said, because the state stipulates that attendees who make more than $12,000 are not eligible for financial aid. The choice was an impossible one for young men forced to choose between jobs that pay for food and housing and earning a diploma.

"Most of these guys would not be going to school without us," Geagan said. "Sudan’s crisis is large and unstable, and we have the chance to make a difference in our corner of the world."

Godparents from a thousand miles away

Geagan met refugees Shadrack Ater and Amos Akot in Boston, where she lived before moving to Park City in 2004. She was touched by the pair’s effervescent and energy, she said, and they became fast friends.

She asked one and then the other to be godparents to her two children, Chase and Georgia, and each was given an honorary tribal name. Chase, who was born in December, was named after the snowfall that accompanied his birth. His name, Deng, means "Born in Time of Rain" because the Sudanese don’t have a word for snow.

Georgia, who is now three-and-a-half years old, is named Piath, which means truth.

"It’s an honor and a privilege to have [Ater and Akot] in our family," she said.

Jiel Michael Yai immigrated to the United States more than four years ago. When he first arrived, Yai attended two semesters at SLCC before he had to drop out. The refugee, barely 21, couldn’t afford to go to college.

With the help of the Cheir Foundation, Yai resumed his studies in the fall of 2006 and is in his final semester at the University of Utah. He plans to graduate with a degree in economics and a minor in math. He may have seemed like a long shot for a diploma, but he said that he was sure that he would go to college. "There’s much that I like about living here," he said. "I’m able to go to school. I’m able to sleep without fear of attack. I can look up to myself and pay my bills." Of the organization, he said, "it was a good thing to help someone realize their potential."

Yai works at the University Guest House and enjoys hanging out with friends. One thing he doesn’t like is the eight hours of homework he does every night.

In addition to going to school, Auger worked at the Utah Museum of Fine Art and at a call center before he landed an internship at a medical lab. Now he has time to hang out with friends, go bowling and play dominoes.

He said it will be "very wonderful" to graduate next spring. "To get to wear that crown and get your degree, that motivates me," he said.

For more information on the Chier Foundation or to contribute, visit http://www.chierfoundation.org.


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