SUWANEE -- Abraham Nhiar appears to be a quiet, unassuming man, but when he speaks of the civil war in his home country of Sudan, the passion in his voice is palpable.
Nhial is one of about 35,000 "Lost Boys" of Sudan, boys who sometimes were as young as 5 years old when they were forced to leave their homes and walk 1,000 miles to find safety in a refugee camp in Kenya. The trek has been long and deadly.
"I came here (to the U.S.) in 2001. The U.S. government selected 3,800 boys to come here to live, but the process was interrupted by 9/11," Nhiar said.
He does not know how many young men actually made it to the U.S. from the refugee camp in Kenya, but he estimates 3,000. Nhiar's message is one of hope and perseverance, not hate and revenge. About 2 million people have been killed as a result of the ongoing war; Nhiar himself has lost his mother, two brothers and two sisters because of the violence.
Speaking to an audience of about 175 Collins Hill High School students Wednesday afternoon, Nhiar urged them to take advantage of their educational opportunities and "easy life" they have as Americans. He told the young people that some boys carried books with them on the long and dangerous walk to Kenya, saying again and again that "education is our mother and our father now."
The young boys faced starvation, dehydration, lions and crocodiles during their perilous journey that lasted for years through Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. Many died along the way.
"The oldest of us tried to protect the younger ones from lions," said Nhiar, who also spoke of a river crossing during which boys drowned, were shot and were eaten by crocodiles.
Nhiar is a priest in a Sudanese church now, traveling and speaking to schools and churches about the plight of the "Lost Boys" and the Sudanese people. He wants the United States and other nations to speak out against the civil war and its atrocities. In fact, Nhiar and others want to see a January 2011 referendum giving people in the south of Sudan the choice to become their own nation. A recent vote was, in Nhiar's words, "unfair." His book, "Lost Boy No More," chronicles his experience in Africa and here in the U.S.
Hayden Angay, a language arts teacher at Collins Hill, said her students have been affected by Nhiar's story and others they have heard about the "Lost Boys."
"I think it has made them think, maybe not all of them, but most of them. They tell me that when they complain about it being too hot or about being mad at their mom or something, now they stop and think," she said.
Thousands of young men and some women still live in the refugee camp, surviving on food and water that the United Nations provides and waiting for their chance to somehow improve their lives.
For information on how to help the "Lost Boys" and those still in Sudan or the refugee camp, contact the Red Cross.