When he finally arrived at the surnames that began with T, University of Florida President Bernie Machen paused his reading of the list of 2008 graduates. There was, he told the crowd, someone whom he wanted to stop and honor.
This student, Machen told some 8,500 graduates and their families, had learned to read and write at a Kenyan refugee camp. He’d come to Florida as a teenager with nothing, put himself through school, and, against all odds, worked his way into the hearts and minds of Gator Nation.
He asked Peter Ter to rise, and as the Sudanese man stood, Machen turned to the upper seats. “Could Peter’s family also stand?” he asked. There, for all to see on the Jumbotron, was Ter’s “family,” a motley collection of unrelated white Southerners—a dentist, a schoolteacher, a professor, and others—waving at him below.
The audience cheered. And Ter—who a few years earlier had never seen a movie or even a light switch and who years before had wondered if he would die in one of the world’s most heartbreaking exoduses—smiled shyly and walked to the stage. And then the “Lost Boy,” the title given to Ter and the other children from southern Sudan who’d wandered for years after being violently separated from their families, turned to the crowd and extended his two long arms in the Gator Chomp. The crowd went wild.
Ter’s journey has been remarkable, but he’s the first to point out that his story is only partially about him and equally about the friends and “family members” who adopted him throughout his global odyssey, from northwest Kenya to sunny Florida to the cold mountains of Azerbaijan and back to academia in Boston. It is a story of kindness. And it is the story, in its elemental sense, of thanksgiving.
“Being strong is a part of my nature,” Ter says in an interview. “Being able to learn without being held back by all the bad things. But I am talking with you today because people I didn’t know helped me survive.”
In 1988, Ter was tending cattle outside Nyanding in what is now South Sudan. He was about three years old, and he’d been going to the cattle camps for most of his life, riding on his father’s shoulders or carried by a brother who would plop him down to play with the other children. While the women were in the village or fields, the men tended the herds. Ter’s family—his parents and their nine children—were not educated, but they never went hungry. The area was a breadbasket, which was part of the reason for the brutal war that raged from 1983 to 2005 between the Christian South and the more politically powerful North, which was Muslim and less endowed with natural resources.
By 1988, the war had come to Ter’s village, with the North bombing the South in an effort to crush the emerging Sudan People’s Liberation Army. One day, the children heard rumbling in the sky and looked up to see jets. Ter remembers running and chaos. But there was kindness among the bombs. Someone—he doesn’t remember who—pulled him to safety. In the melee, he was separated from his parents; it would be years before he learned whether they’d lived or died. He eventually also lost track of his siblings.
Helping hands reached out to him again and again. “I had people who would grab me and run because they didn’t want me to die,” Ter says.
With a group of children also separated from their families, he walked for months toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Then, when the camp was attacked, they trekked 1,000 miles back through Sudan to Kenya. The more than 20,000 Lost Boys—and a large number of Girls—became the prey of lions and soldiers and starvation. Throughout their migrations, they walked until their feet bled, passing through a nightmare of shelled villages and corpses. Thousands died.
Today, Ter is matter-of-fact but shies away from discussing details of the ordeal. The memories still wake him up, he admits. But then, he says with a smile, he turns on National Public Radio, which soothes him. “I love NPR,” he says. “‘All Things Considered’—that is my favorite phrase.”
This attitude is a hint of what helped him survive in the UN’s sprawling Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Aid workers tried to arrange basic schooling for the Lost Boys and one meal a day, but the children largely fended for themselves. Ter vowed to become literate, and he learned to read by poring over the Bible and to write by tracing letters in the dirt.
Crime and disease were rampant—but there was also generosity. James Thak Dhiel, a man about ten years older than Ter who came from the same county, took an interest in him. Dhiel knew that the younger boy left for school in the morning without eating and came home dizzy with hunger, so he regularly slipped him money to buy food. He kept an eye out for the bandits and corrupt soldiers who preyed on the weaker residents.
“I will always be so humbled thinking of him,” says Ter, who has lost touch with Dhiel but knows the man was relocated to Australia in 2002. “There is always humanity. Everywhere, people will give, regardless of whether they have anything.”
After almost nine years at Kakuma, Ter was given refugee status by the U.S. government; he would be flying to a place called Florida. On his last day with Ter, Dhiel gave the boy a special present: a pair of orange-and-blue shorts from a used-clothing stand, emblazoned with the word Florida and the image of what Ter identified as a crocodile.
“I was a Gator when I was still in Kenya,” Ter says with a grin.