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A Long Journey Back Home

Achier Mou saw public health horrors first-hand when violence erupted in his home in Sudan. Now, the Tufts graduate student hopes to bring the lessons he learns here back home.

Boston [03.18.09] Separated from his family at the age of five while fleeing violence in Sudan, Achier Mou traveled with thousands of displaced children through Ethiopia and Kenya, seeking refuge for more than a decade. The journey, he says, was traumatizing.

"We had to walk for months, some of us didn't know where we were heading. There were not many safe places, as attacks were looming everywhere," recalls Mou, who studies in the master's in public health program at Tufts School of Medicine concentrating on global health. "A lot of the kids died from diseases. There was a lot of malnutrition."

Even when the children found relative comfort in refugee camps, the situation was far from safe.

"There were not many adults around," Mou recalls. "A lot of these kids were able to take care of themselves and use common sense to survive, but from the beginning to the end there were public health issues that required a response."

As he pursues a career in global health, Mou believes his experience can help inform strategic responses to such situations in the future.

"I had instances where I almost died of thirst, because finding water was a problem. I went for a long time without even a drop of water. When these issues arise, the victims are not always aware of what they can do," he says.

His path to Tufts began in 2001 when he was one of nearly 4,000 Sudanese "lost boys" resettled in the United States. Despite an uneven elementary and secondary education, he passed the GED exam and enrolled on scholarship at the University of Vermont, where he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in community and international development.

With that accomplished, his next goal was to track down his mother and brothers.

"Reunion was key," he says. "Every single time I read reports that there were attacks, I would wonder if [my mother] was the victim they were reporting."

Mou returned to the Sudan in the winter of 2006. While he held little hope in reports that his family was alive in a displaced persons camp, he wrote a letter just in case. A few months later, Mou spoke with his mother by telephone for the first time in over 20 years.

"I wouldn't say I was nervous, but I certainly didn't know what to say," he reflects. "I remember saying 'Hi' to my mom and everything went blank. Here is someone I had vague memories of from when I was two or three years old, but that's it. It was quite an experience."

Having located his family, Mou's thoughts turned to the future.

"I was thinking, 'Where can I make a big difference?' Public health came through because we don't really have a lot of public health people back home," he explains.

Last year, Mou became the first recipient of the Dr. Robert Cade Medical Scholarship. Administered by the Sudanese Education Fund (SEF), the $1,000 award is given to a student from the Sudanese community who shows promise of entering a health profession. 

Mou's acceptance to Tufts coincided with another milestone: a reunion with his family last winter.

"The timing was good because in [fall 2008] I was to start this program," he says. "It was real; it was like, finally, it was reconciled that they were actually alive and I was with them."

Though glad for his family's safety, the fact that they are still struggling weighs on his mind.

"I would love to have my mom come for graduation, but reality checks in, and I don't think it's going to happen," Mou says. "There's still times where she goes without food, which is difficult to think about. Sometimes it affects my studies."

Still, Mou keeps working, hoping to use his education and experience to improve health education and awareness, which he sees as critical to global public health since "we live in a world where we're all connected."

"The public health infrastructure is pretty much in place here," he says, noting that is not the case in the developing world. "I have seen lots of disconnect in relaying public health information to the people; the approach is not grassroots," he says. "Integration of the subject into the strategy is essential. They have to be part of the plan; they have to be part of the decision making. That's when global interventions can be carried out."

Despite past adversity, Mou says he is looking forward, not back.

"I have always felt like there is no reason to dwell in the past. I don't think that because things were difficult in the past they will be difficult in the future," he says. "I think it's discouraging if you think things are going to be difficult. Somehow, you have to find something to look forward to."

Profile by Molly Frizzell (A'09). Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.

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