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.

friends at sports game
Courtesy Peter Ter, William Brinson for Reader’s Digest

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.

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.”

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest