People in South Sudan are subsistence farmers; they depend on the crops they grow for survival. But drought and societal disruption — as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee violence — has the country facing a terrible famine
THE land of my birth is filled with desperate people. Because of America, I am not one of them.
The United Nations Security Council recently heard that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since formation of the U.N., with 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria facing famine and starvation.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration budget recommends reducing the U.S. contribution to U.N. food relief. The administration also is seeking a temporary ban on refugees from six countries, including Sudan, Yemen and Somalia.
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Earlier this year I traveled to the world’s newest nation. When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, there was so much hope. What I saw firsthand is an impending human disaster.
After many years of bloody civil wars, first between the peoples of the South resisting genocide from the North, and then between competing ethnic groups following independence, South Sudan is facing unimaginable suffering.
People in South Sudan are subsistence farmers; they depend on the crops they grow for survival. But drought and societal disruption — as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee violence — has the country facing a terrible famine.
The U.N. estimates that as many as 1 million South Sudanese could die if substantially more aid from the international community doesn’t arrive soon. More than 1 million children are acutely malnourished in South Sudan, including 270,000 children who face imminent risk of death.
The issue of foreign aid and refugees is politically divisive in the United States. But the overwhelming majority of the people America does help overseas simply yearn for a place where they and their children won’t starve or die from violence. I know how they feel; I was born in what is now South Sudan and came to the United States as a refugee.
My name, “Ater,” in Dinka has several meanings, but my favorite is “perseverance.” I am a tenacious person — an attribute that helped me survive war, starvation and the trials of refugee camps. Throughout all my ordeals in Africa, the possibility of one day immigrating to America for a better life drove me on.
When I was 9 years old, the village where I was living with my parents was wiped out by Sudanese military. I never saw my parents again. With my uncle, I fled barefoot over hundreds of miles of war-torn countryside. I lived in four different refugee camps.
Hopeless, I was given a chance at new life and resettlement to the United States. In 1995, I was part of a first wave of children allowed into the U.S. from Sudan by the Clinton administration.
I arrived as a teenager, alone, in Fargo, North Dakota. Life as an uneducated immigrant in America is arduous, without the cultural supports from home. With few options for work, I worked at horrid meatpacking plants, and a long series of filthy, backbreaking jobs. But I was grateful to be in a country not wracked by warfare, famine, extreme poverty and hopelessness. Fortunately, I also was able to bring over to America my two sisters and a brother, who had been living in a refugee camp.
But so many others have not been so fortunate. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R -Florida) and nine other senators recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stating that the U.S. has a “strategic and moral imperative” to initiate an emergency international effort to stave off famine in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria.
My siblings and I are all now U.S. citizens. I completed my education, earning a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Western Washington University. My sister Mary got a bachelor’s degree from Central Washington University. My brother Peter received both a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a master’s degree in Information Technology from CWU. They live in the Seattle area, and I live in Bellingham; we work hard and have good jobs. My sister Martha returned to South Sudan, where she runs a small market. We are living proof that refugees can be productive citizens who make positive contributions to American society.
Millions of people in the world now are exactly as I was 20 years ago — desperate for a compassionate hand to reach out and pull them away from a nightmare. The United States must continue to live up to its longstanding generosity helping the least fortunate in the world. To step away from that legacy of compassion will doom untold numbers of fellow humans.