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

boy with family

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images, Photograph by Kang Kim for Reader’s Digest

When Ter was accepted in 2004 to the University of Florida, Dr. Schellhase paid for his room and board. The Sudanese man fit in with everyone from old-school racists to star University of Florida basketball players. His friends laugh at the memory of Ter telling them, very matter-of-factly, that he’d met some guy named Noah, who had offered him tickets to a basketball game—he was talking about campus celebrity Joakim Noah, who now plays for the Chicago Bulls. Ter accepted, but when Noah invited him to party after the game, Ter politely declined, saying he had to study.

Still, when Ter, a political science major, traveled to Israel for a summer course, Dr. Schellhase was “a nervous wreck.” He says, “I mean, Peter doesn’t exactly blend in. But the first picture I get? Peter with his arm around a guy with a machine gun.”

That first photo was with Israeli soldiers. And the next? With Palestinians. “That’s so Peter,” Dr. Schellhase says, laughing.

The border crossing was tense, Ter recalls. The Israelis were wary about a Sudanese man entering their country, despite his American passport. (Many Sudanese have attempted to flee to Israel.) So Ter asked if he could take his photo with them. They were curt, but he persisted with what Biery calls his “God-given gift with people.”

Ter was polite. He joked, and he listened. He radiated respect as well as humble self-confidence. After all, as one of his friends explained, there was nothing left for Ter to fear. One woman soldier sharply rebuffed his request, saying that her husband would kill her if she had her picture taken with a strange man. “Kill you?” Ter asked. “But you’re the one with the gun!”

Everyone laughed. They took the pictures and waved the car through.

Ter’s story is a perfect example of what scholars say is now a scientifically recognized fact about the human condition: People reach out to others and often do so across great divides. For centuries, social theorists have explained human behavior through a grim lens, declaring that people were inherently violent and territorial. But in the past few years, academics in a variety of fields have produced evidence bolstering an alternative perspective. Central to our existence is what researchers call prosociality: a complex mix of empathy, gratitude, kindness, love, altruism, and cooperation. They’ve also found that prosocial behavior often spreads, with recipients doing what we call paying it forward.

With college graduation looming, Ter was considering exactly that. He wanted to give back to the country that, as he puts it, restored his dignity, and he thought about entering the military. He told a favorite professor, Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, who suggested another idea: the Peace Corps. Jett says, “I thought he had the kind of adaptability to get through it. He’s a sweet kid and a fine young man; it’s hard not to like him.”

Ter applied and was accepted. He was assigned to teach English in Azerbaijan. As was his nature, he jumped fully into the job. He learned Azerbaijani, at that point his third language.

In that country, he found himself defending the United States to the skeptics he met. He says, “I would tell people, ‘Look, I was not born in America. I was born into war, poverty, disease. America adopted me. How can you think of America as a bad society?’”

In the small town where he lived, he caught the attention of local security forces. They taunted him, but in his way—polite but firm—he pushed back. “They’d shout, ‘Why is America killing Muslims?’ I’d say, ‘That is not a good question.’” He suggested that there were criticisms he could raise about their government and that perhaps the two sides could treat each other’s homelands with respect.

One day, the security officials asked him in for tea. They became friends—across layers of cultures, attitudes, and languages. Ter extended his two-year stint in Azerbaijan to three years.

Today he is a graduate student at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, working toward a dual master’s degree in sustainable international development and in coexistence and conflict resolution. Someday he might return to Sudan to see his biological family. (In 2004, Ter discovered that his parents and siblings had survived the war. He spoke with his father, who’d walked 400 miles to find a telephone to call him.)

At the moment, however, his life is here. He wants to continue giving back, perhaps through work in the State Department. In May, he will move to Turkey as part of a State Department–sponsored study program.

There, he hopes, the map of kindness will continue to grow.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images, Photograph by Kang Kim for Reader’s Digest

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