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This Lost Boy of Sudan is proving that resilience conquers all

Spirit, Inspiring Stories

On September 11, 2001, Jacob A. Ayuen was on a plane headed for New York City. After spending much of his young life as a refugee in a war-torn country—walking over 1,000 miles towards safety along with 20,000 other Sudanese orphans, known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan”—Jacob was searching for peace, freedom and to follow his dream of working in medicine in the United States.

While he does not know his exact age, Jacob estimates that he was 8 years old when he was separated from his parents in 1987. After spending four tumultuous years in Ethiopia, Jacob and the other children were forced to leave when civil war broke out. They walked from Ethiopia, back through Sudan, to Kenya. The adults guiding and protecting the children often used tactics to keep them motivated to keep moving—they’d tell them that they were only a few miles from safe places with water, food and electricity. It was never true. They often ran out of food and had to sell their own clothes to buy more. “We were surviving, not thriving,” says Jacob. “We had to be careful not to eat more than one meal per day, or we’d run out of food very quickly.”

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped build classrooms for the children and they were able to start studying again after settling in Kenya. Jacob completed his education there and went back to Sudan to teach for a year. “It was a way I could give back to the community,” he says. “I taught a little bit of everything—they didn’t have a lot of teachers.”

That selfless spirit of “giving back” would follow Jacob on his journey to the U.S. on that fateful day in 2001. His plane was diverted to Canada because of the World Trade Center attacks in progress. “When the pilot came on the intercom and told us that New York was under attack, we didn’t know what was going on—we were all so confused and worried.”

When Jacob finally made it to the U.S., he became part of the Vermont Refugee program, which brought some of the Lost Boys to the U.S. to help them find work. After graduating from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont in 2006, he worked for the American Red Cross, which took him to Boston and then to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Jacob enrolled at Seventh-day Adventist school Union College, to become a physician assistant. After graduating from the program, he earned his certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

In the midst of all this hard work, Jacob had a family to support in Nairobi. He’d married his wife in Kenya in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2008 that she—and their two sets of twins—were able to join him in the U.S.. In 2014 Jacob moved his family to Hanford, California, to work for Adventist Health Hanford. He wanted to work for a system that had a faith-based mission that aligned with his own personal beliefs and goals.

“Religion is a very big thing where I come from,” Jacob says. “I identify with the Adventist values—compassion, love, giving back and helping the underserved—that’s how I was brought up. Church was, and still is, a huge part of my life.”

Working as an outpatient behavioral health physician assistant, Jacob sees about 12 to 15 patients per day. He encounters many people struggling with depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar behavior and eating disorders. His job is to rehabilitate patients to be productive members of society that can take care of their families and keep their jobs. Because he has such a powerful personal story, he calls on it often to reach patients that are at their lowest moments, encouraging them to find strength and resilience despite their suffering. Jacob emphasizes that each of us are fighting our own battles, and how we approach life varies from individual to individual. “You have to be committed, and work hard,” he says. “Hard work pays off.”

Jacob is now blessed with six children: Two 12-year-old twin boys, two 9-year-old twin girls, and two girls, ages 7 and 3. While his kids are being raised in California, Jacob instills in them the importance of not taking their lives here for granted. He shares his story with them to encourage them to do well in school and later, in their careers. According to Jacob, they’re already planning to become doctors.

What’s next for Jacob? In 2018, he’s planning to travel to Uganda to see his mother for the first time since 1987, and to meet family members he never knew. After his wife completes her licensed vocational nursing degree, he plans to obtain a doctoral degree in health sciences. He hopes to stay with Adventist Health for a long time. “I love my team—this is a great place to work for someone like me,” he says. “They’re so accepting and there’s so much love and compassion here. I love it.”

To learn more about the Lost Boys of Sudan check out this resource. Are you a medical professional looking to apply your passion to a mission like Jacob’s? Check out the Adventist Health Provider Careers site.