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Survivor's Story

Student Ater Malath wants you to know that he, and the world's newest country, have a future worth getting inspired about

Story by Peter Jensen ('10)

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At 9, Ater Malath fled his home in what is now South Sudan and spent his childhood in refugee camps and slums before coming to the U.S. Now 35, he’s on the verge of completing his Business degree at Western. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Ater Malath at 18, when he was living in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in the world. Malath’s uncle took this photo to Malath’s family in Sudan to prove to them that he had survived the Sudanese civil war. | Photo by
Western business students Nick Maguire, left, and Justin Huerter, right, take a study break with classmate Ater Malath, center. Malath says Huerter was his first friend at Western. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Business student Ater Malath stops between classes near Red Square. | Photo by Rachel Bayne

Ater Malath wants you to know his story.

Malath, a 35-year-old business student at Western Washington University, was born in South Sudan, which gained independence in July after a civil war that spanned more than two decades, killed 2 million, and displaced more than 4 million people like him.

Malath is full of vivid stories. But if you ran into him between classes in Parks Hall, he might be quiet at first. Malath has lived in the U.S. for 16 years and has citizenship, but English is his third language; he speaks articulately but simply. He is quick with a smile that seems effortless and a laugh that comes easily – gestures that do the talking when words fail.

Malath wants to meet you and tell you about his life – about his war-torn childhood, about the refugee camps and slums, about the deliverance of emigrating to the U.S. followed by the drudgery of low-wage jobs, and ultimately about how his hunger for a college education led him to Western. And he wants to tell you how he yearns to invest his degree in economic development in South Sudan.

He wants you to know that he, like South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has a future worth getting inspired about.

A Healer’s Son

With his imposing physical presence and long limbs, Malath’s animated movements bolster his narratives in ways simple sentences can’t. The story of how he hunted a cheetah as a child becomes captivating when he demonstrates what happened when the cheetah rushed at him.

“The cheetah jumps to my right – I was scared – I just swung,” Malath says, swinging his arm down like a hammer, “and CRACK! I hit it in the nostril and it fell to the ground and started scratching itself.”

Malath was hunting with a group of older boys in a forested area outside his hometown of Rumbek when the cheetah attacked. After their hunting dogs subdued and killed it, one of the older boys determined that Malath deserved its pelt – a prized possession in his culture.

But when he talks of other, violent aspects of his childhood, he gets quiet. Malath and his mother and father began to feel the brutal fallout of rebellion in southern Sudan in the early 1980s, before it became a full-fledged war against the Arab government in the north.

The rebels wanted independence, and the government violently cracked down, Malath says. He remembers a boy in Rumbek, who was in a wheelchair because of polio, was abducted and tortured to death in a government camp. Troops drove through town dragging the boy’s mangled body behind an armored personnel carrier to scare people from joining the rebellion.

Malath’s father, who had studied nursing and worked at a hospital in Rumbek, decided to escape the growing bloodshed by quitting his job and moving his family to a small village nine miles away called Yar.

Malath, inspired by his father to pursue an education, had attended school in Rumbek. Now living in Yar, Malath instead devoted his days to helping his family tend goats and grow crops.

That childhood ended one day in May 1985, when Malath was 9 years old. Government troops came to Yar and began shooting and burning everything. Malath grabbed his uncle’s hand and fled with one group of people; his parents fled with another group. He never saw his parents again.

Malath spent the next two months walking with his uncle and a growing group of other refugees to a U.N. camp in Ethiopia. They crossed the Nile River and the Sahara Akobo desert to reach Ethiopia.

Malath would spend the next 10 years in refugee camps, cities held by the Sudanese rebels, or slums. He continued his education whenever possible, attending makeshift classes taught by other refugees.

“They said, ‘You are the seed of Sudan,’ ” Malath says. “You need to be educated to help the future of Sudan.”

Passage to the U.S.

Malath is quiet when he discusses how close he came to starving to death in 1995. He was 18 years old and living in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in the world. He can show you a photo of him then, but you almost can’t recognize the gaunt, emaciated face staring back.

He and another boy rented a shack for $1.25 a month. He was malnourished and sickly, but also hopeful. A cousin had moved to the U.S. the year before; that meant once Malath cleared a medical screening to prove he did not have HIV, he would be allowed to move to the U.S. as a Sudanese refugee.

Meanwhile, Malath’s uncle, now working with the U.N., informed him that his father had died, but his mother was living in a village in Sudan – and had given birth to three of Malath’s siblings, Mary, Martha and Peter. The uncle took Malath’s photo to them; it was the only way his mother, brother and sisters would know he was alive.

Malath passed the medical screening and boarded a flight to the U.S. in September 1995. His first stop: Fargo, N.D., and a grueling job at a meat-packing plant. He bounced from Nashville, Tenn., to Mississippi, where he enrolled in Job Corps, got a GED and graduated from a trade school.

He moved to Seattle in 2000 and began studying at a community college, relieved to be once again following in his father’s footsteps to an education.

But the war again caught up with him. The following year, Malath learned his mother had died and Mary, Martha and Peter were fending for themselves in a Ugandan refugee camp where rape and other violence were common. Malath dropped out of school to support them in an apartment in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

Read more: 'Mary, it's not over...' How Ater Malath reunited his family

While he worked 90-plus hours a week, Malath struggled to bring his siblings to live with him in Seattle. It would take five years of frustrating bureaucratic confusion, tearful long distance phone calls and a heartbreaking “No” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before he would first lay eyes on his sisters and brother at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Peter now tall and lean like his big brother.

The family reunited, Malath resumed his studies at Seattle Central Community College and transferred to Western in 2008. The transition was tough, but he found help from Student Outreach Services, which provides academic advising and support for underrepresented students at Western. They helped him register for classes, get adjusted to university life, and overcome his struggles with timed testing.

“They helped me through,” Malath says. “Without that office I didn’t know (how) I would handle everything.”

A business student, Malath says one of his most valuable classes has been operations management, which he took in spring 2011 from Instructor Scott Roberts.

Malath says Roberts offered students his personal phone number and email address; as an ESL student who often needs additional instruction or explanation, Malath says he really appreciated that gesture.

“As a professor, you don’t have to give your personal phone and email,” Malath says. “(Scott) said, ‘Don’t hesitate to call me in your free time.’ He was awesome.”

Malath says he has adjusted well to college life in Bellingham, and he enjoys Western’s multiculturalism, environment and atmosphere. While he had only one friend at first, his quick smile and easy laugh have helped him make many.

And following the path Malath blazed, his siblings are also pursuing college degrees. Peter is a student at Central Washington University, while Martha and Mary are studying at community colleges in south Seattle.

The Future

Malath’s painful memories from southern Sudan are growing distant, depicting a country that no longer exists. The war ended with a peace agreement in 2005. In January, Malath traveled to Seattle to cast his vote for independence along with millions of other South Sudanese people voting in the U.S. and Africa.

After the vote, Malath was glued to CNN for the election results, talking excitedly of the hardships he had overcome to witness this moment, of the potential of his native country, and of his future there.

The results were announced in February: More than 99 percent of citizens approved independence. After hearing the results, Malath’s body language embodied the confidence and excitement shared by millions of his fellow citizens.

“We won!” Malath shouted, pumping his fist in the air.

South Sudan is taking its first steps in self-governance, and while the country remains one of the poorest and least literate in the world, its people are full of hope.

Malath’s hometown of Rumbek is now the new country’s administrative capital. As soon as he graduates in 2012, Malath plans to return home and visit relatives he hasn’t seen in decades.

If South Sudan remains stable, Malath says he hopes to use his degree to own or manage a business there. He says he has something that will put him apart from other businessmen – an education from Western Washington University.

“Even now, if I go to South Sudan I will see an opportunity there,” Malath says. “I can create a small business and it will be successful because of my critical thinking skills. People there have money but they don’t know how to invest it.”

Now that you know Malath’s story, hear why he’s so ready to tell it.

“So other people can put themselves in my shoes,” Malath says. “I want to inspire people. When I’m about to give up, I just push myself harder. It’s at that moment you are so close to success.”

Peter Jensen (’10 Journalism) has helped Ater Malath document a portion of his story in a book about his life. He also counts himself as one of the friends Malath made in Bellingham.