The Lost Boy—An Interview with Santino Athian*
Just looking at him, he seems like any other man. Of course, his accent tells you he is from an African country and probably didn’t grow up in the U.S., but other than that, he seems your typical hard-working young adult. You might find him at the Baylor Medical Hospital where he has faithfully worked the past eight plus years. And currently he is working in the patients transport department. Or perhaps you might cross his path at Richland Community College where he is studying to be a medical assistant. But you would not be able to pick him out from the crowd—that is, unless you had seen him in newspaper articles over the past decade telling his story.
This young man’s name is Santino Athian, and at 29 years of age he takes every opportunity he gets to tell his story and to give thanks to God who saved him and preserved his life from years of war and destruction. The kinds of suffering and devastation he has seen and endured in his relatively short life would make the best of us grimace and shield our faces in horror.
The world knows Santino as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Yet the words of God have proven true in his life: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
At age nine, Santino could not see this future─which he now lives. His reality was government dropped bombs on his Dafur tribe in Sudan─the only country he had ever known as home; men and boys targeted for killing; women raped or sold into slavery, children not spared. Santino had to run for his life, and along with thousands of other young boys, he began a trek across the African continent. It was a 90-day trek–– hiding by day and sleeping when possible, then walking by night and hiding from wild animal predators who ruled the terrain looking for trespassing human creatures to fill their hungry bellies.
Starvation was the fiercest enemy. Eating leaves and drinking water from muddy puddles was standard for nourishment. An occasional grain of corn would feed one for days. The sun and sand storms beat down mercilessly during the 90-day trek without shoes, and watching fellow travelers die daily was harsh on the human psyche. When would it end, and would he be one of the ones who survived, one of the ones left standing when this brutal trek was over?
Santino’s first solace came when he made it across countries to a refugee camp on the border of Kenya. Here he found a safe place to rest, occasional food or water, and no more miles to trek. Some boys were being offered the option of going to the United States as refugees, to begin a new life.
But who could he trust? Governments and strangers alike had been harsh and cruel. Why take this chance? Yet, after hearing the stories of a few boys who had braved it to that foreign American world, it seemed it might be worth the chance.
So Santino came, and now he is in Dallas, TX, a world away from the Sudan, telling his story. He is asking those moved by God to care for the suffering of others to continue to share their food, their water, and their safety—and to keep praying for the freedom of the people of Sudan.
Santino’s story is no myth. He has lived it. Now, rescued by a God who is great, he lives the plans of a hope and future God has for him, and he welcomes others to help him share this life with his people. So how did Santino make it? Here is what he has to say.
Challenger: What was the hardest thing for you on your trek across the continent of Africa?
Santino: The hardest thing was seeing my friends die. One was eaten by a wild animal and another bitten by a snake and died. Besides having no food or water, I felt my life was always threatened because I saw so much death around me.
Challenger: Have you been able to find out what happened to your parents or relatives?
Santino: Yes, I have learned some of what happened to my parents and my relatives. I was separated from my family in 1988 and did not hear anything about them until 2002, after I had come to the U.S. At that time, a friend went back to Sudan to look for his family and mine. He learned that my mother, brother, and uncle lost their lives during the war. Last month I got word that another uncle had died and that my dad is sick. In October, 2010, I plan to go see my dad so I can help with his medical needs. I have two brothers and two sisters, but I am the only one who has been to school and who is able tohelp my dad.
Challenger: How did you come to faith in God?
Santino: My suffering and the things I experienced in life led me to God. From the time I was separated from my parents at age nine, when I often had to sleep under a tree and eat leaves for food, I have not been sick. I feel surely I would not have survived had there not been God protecting me, guiding me through everything. I always sensed God’s presence with me, and I could trust Him to take care of me.
Challenger: In view of all the suffering you’ve seen, what kinds of doubts about God have you had and how have you overcome these?
Santino: In Sudan 75% of the people are Muslim, 15% claim no religion, and 10% are Christians. The Christians sometimes live with fear because the country is under Muslim government, but the only way to overcome this fear is to remember Jesus’ words. He told His disciples not to fear because He was with them. So when I fear, I say the name of Jesus and through His power, I can overcome.
Challenger: What is the greatest desire for those still enduring suffering back home?
Santino: What people need most is faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, they need support from other Christians too, but most of all they need people to tell them about Christ. If we don’t tell them, where can they get faith in Jesus?
Challenger: We sometimes hear questions like, “If God is good, why does He allow so much suffering?” Have you asked these questions, and what kinds of answers have brought you understanding and comfort?
Santino: I must say, God is good, but He allows suffering to bring us to Him. In the beginning God created Adam and Eve like Himself and told them the rule to follow to do the right thing, but they fell, and since then everyone is in the line of sin. When man became too sinful, God led Noah to call people to repent, but they refused, and God cleansed the earth with the flood. Later God sent His own son, Jesus Christ, to show us the way to live, but sinful men killed Him. But God’s plan was that through Christ’s death, all our sin would be taken away. This shows how good God is. He always provides a way for people to know Him, and sometimes that’s through suffering.
Challenger: There are many people who have not yet met Christ. What can you share from your life story that might help someone understand why they should choose to walk with Jesus?
Santino: A person should know that life is not controlled by man on earth but is controlled by God in heaven. Jesus was once confronted by a rich young man who asked what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to sell all his wealth and give to the poor, then come follow Him. This story tells us that nothing should keep us from choosing to walk with Jesus—not riches or lack of riches. In my life, I know that even my suffering became a pathway to walk with Christ.
(*Santino Athian was born in Southern Sudan and is from the Dinka Tribe. He came to Dallas, TX, in 2001 from the refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. He currently works in the Patients Transport Department of Baylor Medical Hospital in Dallas, TX, and is studying at Richland Community College to become a medical assistant. Challenger is grateful to have been able to speak with Santino and to share his story with our readers.)