Lost Boy comes to Vashon from Sudan

Jacob Acier was maybe 7 when he fled his small village in the high plains of southern Sudan and joined a stream of humanity attempting to escape one of the most devastating civil wars in modern history.

Now an adult on Vashon, he talks of seeing lions nab an occasional child from the line of refugees that made its way through the southern Sudanese grasslands. He recalls the time he nearly perished for lack of water. He mentions the night he arrived in Seattle and attempted his first escalator, an incident that left him in tears.

But it is the story of his rediscovery of his mother that is now garnering attention on Vashon and in Seattle — a story that makes this “Lost Boy of Sudan” stand out among the thousands of orphaned refugees who are piecing together lives in the United States.

Last year, Jacob spoke to his mother for the first time in 17 years. A friend — another Lost Boy who had returned to Africa — had found her in a Ugandan refugee camp, snapped her photo and brought it back to him. With help from a Seattle doctor, Jacob called her in Uganda. The tearful conversation that followed — a conversation that ended abruptly when his mother, overcome by emotion, could not continue talking — changed his life.

Jacob, 25, is now trying to find a way to get back to Africa. He wants to see his mother and three of his six siblings who also landed in the Ugandan camp. He wants to take her back to the Sudanese grasslands that once nurtured their subsistence lifestyle and give her a chance to rebuild the life she left behind.

And a handful of Islanders, amazed by his story and touched by his determination, are beginning to work with him to see if they can help, too.

“He’s just beaten all the odds already,” said Constance Walker, who recently met Jacob from her volunteer work with St. Vincent de Paul. “I think for him, it’s a doable kind of dream.”

Walker, her husband Jim, Kevin Joyce and other Islanders plan to meet later this month to begin discussing how they might help Jacob find the funds and an organization that could make his dream come to fruition. They say they’re motivated not only by his remarkable story but also by who he is — a gentle young man with a radiant smile.

“He’s got a strong personal charisma to him that’s very quiet and very real,” Joyce said.

move to vashon

Jacob moved to Vashon two months ago, after landing a job at Pacific Research, where he works full-time as a molder. In two long interviews, one at the Walkers’ home and another at the Vashon Tea Shop, he described the epic journey that brought him here — a story familiar to a growing number of Americans who have read some of the recent books published about their saga or watched the new, award-winning documentary, “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Jacob remembers the day he fled from his village. His father, the village chief, had already been killed; his mother, one of his father’s 10 wives, sometimes grabbed her children and fled to the woods near their village because of reports of marauding insurgents. One day, he was alone in the woods gathering wild fruit and leaves when he heard shots and screams from his village. He ran the opposite direction, away from the only place he’d ever lived. He didn’t know how old he was. Age was not something his tribe, the Dinkas, recorded.

He joined hundreds of other Sudanese making their way to Ethiopia. They crossed scorching deserts and swift rivers where the tall carried the smaller ones on their backs. They lost people to lions, crocodiles and starvation.

He finally made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia — a sanctuary that was short-lived. Three years after landing there, he and hundreds of others had to flee again because the civil war spilled over the border into Ethiopia.

The journey back into Sudan and south to Kenya was even more arduous. Without food or water for days, many perished. One of his friends gave up and collapsed in the desert, and finally he did, too, until he heard shrieks of joy and realized water had been found. He pulled himself up and made it to the water — a huge drum air-dropped by a relief agency. Once he’d had his fill, he got water for his friend, backtracked until he found him and revived him. That friend is the man named Peter featured in the documentary “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Jacob spent the next 12 years — the longest stretch of his short life — in Kakuma, a dusty, makeshift camp in Kenya, with hundreds of other boys. There, he learned English; he became a Catholic; he played soccer with his “family,” the scores of other motherless boys who hung together, as tight-knit as a college fraternity.

coming to america

In 2002, after the crisis of Sudan had captured the world’s attention and the United States agreed to resettle hundreds of displaced Sudanese, Jacob boarded a plane and headed to America, traveling with other Lost Boys who got off at stops along the way — New York and Denver — until he was the only Sudanese left on the flight. When the plane landed at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he remained in his seat, unsure what to do, until the flight attendant came up to him and told him this was the end of the flight and it was time for him to get off the plane.

In the five years since his arrival, Jacob has pieced together a life with other Lost Boys, working at Costco and sharing an apartment in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Those closest to him say it’s not been easy for him, and he has struggled to find his way financially and emotionally through his new urban existence. He ended up on Vashon after he got to know Jayne Simmons, who has an herb farm on Vashon and worked at Costco for a time with him. Last fall, he came out to the Island to help her on her farm, and on the ferry ride back to Seattle, he met three young men who told him he should apply for a job at Pacific Research, or the Bone Factory, as most Islanders know it.

Days later, with help from his three new friends, he showed up at Pacific Research at 6 in the morning; later that day, he was offered a job as a molder, where he makes $11 an hour. The commute from his Rainier Valley apartment was difficult, and shortly after getting his new job, he moved to the Vashon Hostel. A few weeks later, Jim and Constance Walker — in their capacity as volunteers for St. Vincent de Paul — helped him move to the room in a home in Burton, where he now lives.

Jacob, the only Lost Boy on the Island, said he’s comfortable on Vashon. It reminds him of his home, he said, where “we lived away from the city.”

Shy but warm, he also said he’s grateful to be in a place that’s safe, a place where people are friendly. He’s grateful, he added, to be alive.

“I’m just happy,” he said in his careful, accent-rich English. “I try so hard. I never lose my smile.”

helping his mother

Now, he said, he wants to help his mother.

He has talked to her several times on the phone since that first eventful call a year ago, when she couldn’t stop crying. How did he know for sure it was her when he saw the photo last year? He smiled and said it was easy, even though he hadn’t seen her since he was 7. He recalled the small tattoos that lined her forehead, he said, and recognized the smile on her face as his own.

With help from Simmons and the Seattle doctor, Anthony Barnett, he’s already made a difference in his mother’s life: He’s been able to get her out of the refugee camp where she lived, a place many considered unsafe, and into an apartment in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. For financial and family reasons and the complexity of getting money to a woman in Uganda, he and those supporting him in his effort weren’t able to keep her in the apartment, and now she’s back in a refugee camp — but it’s better than the previous one, he said.

Those close to the situation say the difficulty of trying to get her into a safe place in Uganda underscores the complexity of what they’re now attempting to do.

“It was bigger than what we could help him handle,” said Barnett. “I have a friend who’s done some work in Darfur, and he found that it’s really hard to do individual family support. You really have to find the backing from a larger organization or agency.”

But Barnett, Simmons and the Walkers say they’re moved by Jacob. Like other Dinkas, he’s tall and very dark — a striking young man who possesses a grace that seems to belie the hard journey that brought him here. And Barnett said that if Jacob can get clear on what it is he wants to do, he’ll again work with him and others to try to make it happen.

Jacob said he’s close to figuring it out.

He’s working overtime at Pacific Research, saving every cent he can to fly to Uganda. Once he’s there, he’ll decide what’s best — if he should try to bring his mother to the United States, to a better place in Uganda or, her dream, back to her homeland in southern Sudan.

“If she wants me to take her back to her land, I will take her back to her land,” he said. “But life is really hard there. So I don’t know.”

Jacob is certain about one thing, however. This Lost Boy, who said he couldn’t sleep after that first telephone conversation with his mother, so deep was his joy for having found her, wants to hold her hand, hear her laugh and look at her face.

“I just want to go and be with her,” he said.