Former “Lost Boy of Sudan” and islander, Jacob Acier, is raising money for his nonprofit organization in an effort to fulfill a long-held dream of providing dental care and educational scholarships to the people of the war-ravaged villages of his home of South Sudan.
Acier’s South Sudan Village Development is now a state-recognized non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Juba, South Sudan, and Nairobi, Kenya. With a board of directors and legal advisors already in place, Acier needs funds to register his organization as an international NGO, and to set up an office from which to operate.
“These ideas came to my mind to help my people when I was living on Vashon,” Acier said in a recent conversation with The Beachcomber. “Cavities are a big problem for people in the villages where I come from, so I am establishing how to get a mobile dental clinic around to them. And we want to provide scholarships, particularly for girls, to go to school. It is very expensive to go to school here, and most can’t afford it, so they don’t go.”
The scholarships specifically would be for young Sudanese women living in Kampala, Uganda, and Nairobi — both places have far more education opportunities than South Sudan, and are where many Sudanese refugees now live.
Acier’s journey from young boy fleeing for his life from civil war in Sudan and rebellion in Ethiopia, to running a soon-to-be international nonprofit, has been long and filled with trials many might only imagine as the plot of a book or movie.
In 1987, the country of Sudan fell into its second civil war — a war that lasted 22 years, took the lives of over 2 million people and resulted in the formation of the country of South Sudan. The violence there has resulted in the largest loss of civillian life since World War II.
It was during the early years of this war, when Acier was just a boy, that his village in what is now South Sudan was attacked by a militia from the north. His father, a local chief, was killed. He escaped, and along with hundreds of others, ended up joining a group of roughly 26,000 fleeing men and boys on a month-long walk — with almost no food or water — to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Three years later, Acier and the others found themselves on the run once again when the government was overthrown by rebels and the camp was attacked. Only about 8 years old at the time, he and the thousands of other young boys that had escaped war twice, set out through the African desert to Kenya. The unforgiving and deadly journey took nearly a year. The trek took the lives of almost half of those who began it because starvation, dehydration and attacks from wild animals and militia were constant.
Still, nearly 16,000 of these young refugees reached Kakuma, Kenya, where the United Nations set up a camp and provided food, shelter and schooling to the boys for almost a decade. As most of the residents of this camp were orphaned or at least separated from family and parents, they became known around the world as “the lost boys of Sudan.” Ultimately, there were 20,000 of them.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the U.N. worked with the U.S. to bring about 3,800 of these boys to the states to resettle, and Acier and his cousin, Peter Dut, were among them. Dut was one of the “boys” featured in the 2003 documentary “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” which followed Dut and another refugee from the Kakuma camp for a year after they reached the U.S.
Acier was in a group that was brought to the Seattle area. Though initially supported by Catholic Relief Services and other groups, after just a few months the “boys” were left to make their own way. As was clear in the documentary, the transition was difficult for most of them, and many struggled greatly.
Acier managed to find work on Vashon while still living with several other “lost boys” in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood. He eventually moved to the island in the mid-2000s.
A group of islanders came together to create a support community for Acier, calling themselves the Jacob Acier Group. Acier began working at Sawbones, and the group continued to work with him in getting an education and his American citizenship. It’s something Kevin Joyce, a member of the group, called “a pivotal moment” in Acier’s adult life.
When Acier discovered that his mother and sisters were alive and in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the group helped get them relocated back to their village in South Sudan, and helped Acier travel back to Africa to see them for the first time in about 15 years since he fled his village during the attack that killed his father.
Between 2009 and 2015, Acier continued to work at Sawbones, took courses in accounting, and made the trip back to Africa to visit his family several times. In 2013, he was married there to a girl from a village near his, whom he’d met at the Kakuma refugee camp when they were both young teens. She was attending school in Uganda. That same year, Dut found his way to the island to live with his cousin.
During this time, Acier had expressed his desire to help the people in the villages of South Sudan, which continued to experience instability and violence even after it officially became an independent nation in 2011. According to Joyce, the group helped him take the initial steps in forming the SSVD nonprofit before he and Dut left the island in 2015.
Dut married and moved to Australia with his wife. Acier went back to Africa to be with his wife, who was giving birth to their son. But as difficult as adjusting to life in the U.S. was, the adjustment to life back in Africa proved difficult as well, and Acier returned to Washington — the Tri-Cities area this time — in an effort to find employment to support his family.
When his mother died last year, he was struggling to find work and regular housing. This was an extremely stressful and difficult time for Acier, who was despondent over the loss of his mother and his inability to get home to his family.
But Joyce, who remained in regular contact with Acier even after he left the island, was there for his friend.
“He saved my life,” Acier said of Joyce’s assistance in getting him on a plane back to Africa to be with his family and help bury his mother.
Joyce, for his part, said that he believed getting Acier back to his family was the best way that he could help him. And Acier’s subsequent establishment of what Joyce called a “stable and successful life” with his wife, their now 4-year-old son and extended family, has seemingly proven that to be the case.
Acier and his family now live in Kampala, Uganda, which makes his progress even more remarkable.
“This is a great accomplishment,” Joyce said, “even in Kampala, which, while hugely more developed than South Sudan, still offers very little in the way of jobs and potential livlihood for a Sudanese, who suffer from significant racism and systemic discrimination in Uganda.”
Acier’s determination to help the people of South Sudan stems from the country being one of the poorest in the world after suffering decades of violence and instability, with minimal infrastructure or opportunity. According to Joyce, most of its people survive on less than $1 per day. So the dream that began on Vashon is now just steps away from realization.
“Jacob wanted me to send a message of greeting and well-wishes back to his adopted home of Vashon,” said Joyce, who has set up a GoFundMe site for those who would be interested in helping. “He would be so touched by support from islanders for his work there.”
Acier told The Beachcomber that he is in contact with Dut, who is still in Australia, but the two have been talking about Dut and his wife moving back to Africa to work with Acier and SSVD. He is grateful to Joyce, everyone in the Jacob Acier group , Foss Miller and the island community as a whole, for supporting and encouraging him.
“I am always happy to hear of the people of Vashon,” he said. “I give so much thanks to everyone. I do want to come visit and bring my son someday. I want you to think that I am always a part of your community.”
— Kevin Joyce also contributed to this story.
For more information or to contribute to Acier’s South Sudan Village Development NGO, see www.gofundme.com/jacob-acier039s-south-sudan-village-development for a video and donation page. The campaign is set to end on Monday, May 20.