The “Lost Boy” Who Built a Family

One of the lost boys of Sudan, Peter Ter came to America with nothing—except a remarkable gift for turning strangers into friends.

By Stephanie Hanes from The Christian Science Monitor
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine May 2014

people at graduation

Courtesy Peter Ter, William Brinson for Reader’s Digest

Adam Lohse remembers getting a phone call in the fall of 2001 from his friend Meg Young. She had run into these Sudanese guys at the grocery store, she said, and she was hosting a party for them. She wanted Lohse to be there—he was a fellow churchgoer, interested in missionary work, and here were people their own age who needed a welcome. Lohse was pleased. Jacksonville was a growing destination for refugees, and he felt it was God’s work to reach out.

Young’s generosity came at a time when Ter needed a friend. He’d arrived in Florida a few months earlier. None of the Lost Boys had ever been on a plane, and many were airsick. Ter recalls feeling disoriented and depressed. After they landed, a representative from Lutheran Social Services escorted him and another Lost Boy to an apartment. They didn’t know how to use the lights; running water was new to them. Ter remembers sitting there in silence, even though he and his roommate had known each other for years. They were in shock.

The boys stayed inside for days. But soon Ter realized he had to get out: He needed to find a job. According to documents, Ter was 21 years old—too old for high school or to be placed with a family. He’d have free rent for three months, and then he was on his own. That age, however, was arbitrary. Officials gave many of the Lost Boys ages based on height. Ter was tall, so it was decided he was born in 1980. (Years later, after he reconnected over the phone with one of his brothers, he learned he was actually five years younger.)

Ter was very happy to accept Young’s invitation. And he eagerly accepted when Lohse, whom he’d met at Young’s gathering, invited him out for ice cream. “We thought this would be a great way to introduce him to something of the United States,” Lohse recalls. “He took one bite, and said, ‘Ugh, too sweet!’”

They kept talking, though, and when Lohse asked Ter what he needed, he said a GED study guide. So they went to a Barnes & Noble, where Ter, a book lover, was amazed. It would become one of his favorite spots in the city.

Lohse also called a friend, fellow churchgoer Mark Biery. Biery runs a warehouse that packages and distributes shredded Mylar, and he’d been hiring refugees since the 1980s. Biery says, “It was a place for them to get a minimum wage and get started, and then after six months to a year, I’d encourage them on to other jobs.” He hired Ter, and the young man from Sudan with the wide smile quickly became one of his favorite employees.

“Peter was thankful to God to be alive,” Biery recalls. “He found thankfulness in everything he did.”

Ter loved the job. He manned the forklift, moving large packages from one location to another. “I learned how to drive a forklift before I could drive a car,” he recalls. “It was amazing. I’d drive through the aisles … it was like dancing.”

Meanwhile, he and Lohse became closer friends. Lohse taught him how to play football and brought Ter books on history, which Ter loved. Lohse invited him to Thanksgiving at his mom’s house. Meanwhile, Ter taught the American a few words of his Nuer language. When Lohse proposed to his girlfriend, Ter was one of the first people he told. At some point, it was clear that the relationship was no longer about one man helping the other.

Sandy Fane was teaching a citizenship class at a Jacksonville school when a polite young man stopped her in the hall in April 2002 and asked where the GED class was. Fane, a friendly woman who had retired from teaching, was struck by his bearing.

“He was very quiet, very soft-spoken, but his posture was gorgeous,” she recalls. She talked with him for a few minutes and found out his name and background. Fane and her husband, Gary, had recently returned from a vacation in Tanzania and Kenya; they’d also just seen a documentary about the Lost Boys. Something moved her to offer Ter her help. She says, “I’m a mother. I said, ‘If you ever need anything, if you have even a simple question, give me a call.’” She also dropped off a spare computer for him at the refugee services office.

The Fanes invited Ter and his roommates to their home. Gary Fane, an accounting professor, was also impressed by Ter. He offered to help him study for the GED test, and he later connected him with a local junior college. He saw something of himself in Ter—Fane had worked his way through college and graduate school. “He’s like just another one of our kids,” Gary Fane says. “Our kids were all grown. He’s the fourth.” He helped Ter with his taxes and got the phone calls when the younger man had car trouble.

Ter’s friends multiplied. The Fanes helped him find a job at a natural food store, which had better hours for school than the warehouse (and turned Ter into an organic-foods devotee). There a friend said she would pay for him to get his teeth fixed by Daniel Schellhase, DDS, a local orthodontist. But Dr. Schellhase, who had supported other low-income youths, agreed to do the work pro bono. Ter wrote him a moving thank-you note, and the two became friends. “We could be having the worst day, with everyone grumpy, and when Peter came into the office, everyone was happy,” Dr. Schellhase recalls. “He is just a delightful person.”

Courtesy Peter Ter, William Brinson for Reader’s Digest

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