Abraham Atem was just a boy when he arrived at Kakuma, a Swahili word meaning “nowhere,” and also the name of the refugee camp in northwestern Kenya that would become his home. His parents had been massacred by northern Sudanese soldiers, two casualties among an eventual two million who would forfeit their lives in Sudan’s civil war. Fleeing for his life along with thousands of other orphaned children who are now known as Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” Abraham walked more than 1,000 miles to reach safety in Kakuma. It was 1992.
Abraham hoped that his stay at the camp would be short, but weeks turned into months, then months into years. Kakuma swelled into a sprawling desert slum of 70,000 African refugees who weathered dust storms, malnutrition and malaria, locked in a prison of hopelessness.
After almost a decade, some 3,000 among Sudan’s Lost Boys were relocated to the United States, and I had the privilege of helping a number of them acclimate to a new life in my hometown of Pittsburgh. But after 9/11, the flow of Lost Boys to the U.S. came to an end. Abraham was left behind.
Abraham made the best of his situation. He married a Kakuma refugee named Dorcas, and before long they were a family of 6, blessed with 4 children. Both believers, Abraham and Dorcas also opened their tiny Kakuma shack to ten orphaned children and did their best to care for them. The family of 16 all survived on camp rations consisting of rice and lentils that usually provided them just one meal a day. The U.N. and various NGOs offered some educational opportunities in Kakuma, and Abraham completed high school and received some Bible training. His dream was to shepherd God’s flock.
After 14 long years at Kukuma with still no hope in sight, Abraham and Dorcas decided to seek a better life elsewhere. They moved to a Kenyan city named Nakuru where other Sudanese refugees—who were in need of a pastor—had also relocated. Abraham rented a tiny house for $125 per month, and he and Dorcas moved in with their 4 children and 10 orphans. There were no jobs available in Kenya for Sudanese refugees, so they survived by Abraham returning to Kakuma every three months to collect their U.N. rations. Dorcas also had a relative living in the U.S. who periodically sent a little money. His untimely death, however, ended that flow of charity. Still, Abraham and Dorcas trusted God to continue to provide for them and their 14 children.
I learned about the compassionate hearts of Abraham and Dorcas from one of the Lost Boys in Pittsburgh, and I began corresponding with them by email. I told them that our goal would be to help them become self-sufficient rather than dependent. Through gifts to our Christian Refugees Fund, we paid for Dorcas to attend a sewing school. After her training, we provided her with a treadle sewing machine and an embroidery machine. She now sews and sells decorative furniture coverings, providing her family with much-needed income.
We also supplied the means for Abraham to rent two acres of farmland so that he and the other Sudanese refugees in his small congregation can grow their own food. After sending Abraham to a Heaven’s Family-sponsored Farming God’s Way seminar, he and his flock planted maize, beans, potatoes, peas and other vegetables. They are now on their way to a harvest of self-sufficiency.