Lost boy of Sudan grows into Gator

Published: December 9th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Peter Ter

Peter Ter

Graduating senior, political science

Before he could walk, Peter Ter bounced on his father’s shoulders across their cattle farm in southern Sudan. Afraid of falling, Ter pressed his tiny fingers against his father’s forehead. When his hands covered his father’s eyes, his father would laugh and say, “please, son, I can’t see.”

It is one of Ter’s only fond memories of his childhood. Cast adrift from his family when his village was bombed, 3 1/2-year-old Ter walked from Sudan to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan and finally to Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp until he was 16. In 2001, He came to the U.S. as one of about 3,800 Lost Boys, a group of refugees who were separated from their families during the Sudanese civil war that killed almost 2 million people.

On Ter’s sojourn, he dodged soldiers that would either recruit or kill him and lived in fear of lions, crocodiles and hyenas that, after years of war, were used to feeding on human corpses.

At the refugee camp, Ter grew up on one meal a day, uneducated but desperate for knowledge.

At 12 he learned to read and write, first with his fingers in the dirt and later with bits of burnt wood on cardboard. He developed a fascination with U.S. history.

Before Ter left the refugee camp, his home for about half his life, one of his friends gave him a pair of shorts—orange on one side, blue on the other, with “Florida” written across one leg.

At the time, Ter knew nothing of the school he now calls his “public Ivy League,” or that the shorts would be the first piece of his new identity.

“America, I think, has restored my dignity and hope,” he said. “Before that, I was hopeless.”

Now 23, Ter wakes up at 5 every morning to drive from his home in Dunnellon to the University of Florida, where he’ll graduate this month with a political science degree. He loves to see the cows on his way to school.

“I still think of myself as a cowboy,” Ter said with a laugh.

After he graduates, Ter plans to join the Peace Corps. After a lifetime of depending on others to survive, he said it’s his turn to help.

Despite his past, or perhaps because of it, Ter refuses to succumb to bitterness or disappointment. His experience has shown him that no struggle is too great to hold him back.

“If I were not positive, I would not be able to survive,” he said. “When things go wrong, I just smile and take it easy. I say ‘things are going to be all right.’”

Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography

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