Heart of Treasure Valley: Refugee hopes through education to help Sudan

As Reyada Atanasio graduates,

May 19, 2013 

She was born in Sudan, so she calls herself South Sudanese. She's lived in Boise for 12 years - way longer than she lived in Sudan, since her family fled as refugees when she was 4 years old - and she has also become an American.

She says: "I think it's kind of cool that I can call two different places home. … I identify with those two places and they've contributed to who I am today."

When Reyada Atanasio reflects on the 18 years of her life, it is this intermingling of cultures that has shaped her past and creates her future.

"I've always had a passion for helping others - especially since I came from a third-world country that still needs a lot of support … and also, I've been helped a lot to get to the point where I am in my life today.

" … I've always been encouraged by people surrounding me to value who you are and where you come from. My parents (remind me of) that."

Even though Reyada has few childhood memories of Khartoum, where she was born and lived for four years, South Sudan is where her family is from.

"We talk about Sudan as home. … My parents always emphasize, 'Don't forget how to speak Arabic because one day you will go back again and you will need to know how to communicate with your family members.'"

The trauma of the African nation's civil war didn't affect her as a child, but on an adult level, the violence was enough for her parents to consider their options. For their children's education - for Reyada and her older brother - the family fled to Egypt and then to the United States.

"It has always been drilled into me that if you get an education, you'll be able to go places. You'll be able to get a job, and when you get a better job, you'll be able to help your family members back home - and just (to help) people in general, to be able to give back to your community. ...

"Education is important, and it's just been ingrained in me so much that it's a lifestyle. … "

When the Atanasios arrived in Boise, they were surprised at its size. Based on movies they'd seen and books they'd read, they expected the skyscrapers of New York and Los Angeles.

"(My mother) is actually thankful we stayed in Boise … a small, calm city, good for raising a family. We were definitely focused on our education and the important things … like getting a job, your family, your education and doing what you can to try and live the American dream."

Their first home was an apartment complex filled with other refugee families all beginning their new lives: 40 families of nine ethnicities and seven languages, Reyada remembers.

"It was like a small melting pot."

Her first friends were from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, India. Reyada grew older, learned English and followed her brother to Riverstone International School in sixth grade on a refugee scholarship. There, she found an international community again.

"I have a friend from South Korea, a couple of friends from Vietnam, from China; a friend who was born in India. I have friends from Burma, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Ukraine. Where else? Congo. Germany. Sudan … "

For her senior art class, Reyada kept a yearlong workbook filled with sketches and descriptions of artistic explorations of a subject. Reyada chose "culture."

"In the beginning, I wanted to focus solely on indigenous culture, but as I went through, I became interested in incorporating American culture … kind of mixing it together.

"Then I made the relationship that I'm from Sudan and that's more like indigenous culture. And then I'm also American, so that's kind of interlaced together. ...

" I feel like when you look at me, it's really hard to define who I am, because I'm not one thing but the combination of different things, different experiences. I'm aspects of people (whom) I have met and who have contributed to the person I am today."

Her connection to Sudan has also given Reyada a sensitivity on a global scale.

"When I was little, I didn't like to eat a lot and (my mother) would be like, 'Oh, you have a lot of family members back home who don't actually have this food right now; you should be more thankful for what you have.' "

In seventh grade, she did a project on the genocide in Darfur, to understand the history of her country more.

"At the time, I was interested in conflicts and the mistreatment of people. I've kind of continued being very passionate about speaking for those who don't really have a voice."

She participated in a Model United Nations conference and has been a part of One Stone, a student-run service-learning organization, and the school's chapter of Amnesty International. One memorable activity included working in a homeless shelter.

"Giving back is not just my parents, but Sudanese culture. If you came to a Sudanese home, they always give you what they have, even if it's not that much. They're always willing to share with you. ...

" I feel like giving back not only makes people feel good about themselves, it makes you feel good, having helped someone."

On Thursday, May 23, Reyada will graduate from high school. She has a nearly 4.0 GPA, except for a lone B in math class last semester.

"Education has always been the first thing on my mind … the most important (thing), so it is my responsibility to do well in school, to give (my parents) a reason to have left (Sudan). … To do well here, so it wouldn't be … a waste of my parents' efforts and the things they had to risk or leave behind. …

"I always felt pressure to be the best and always do more than what was expected, to strive for perfection. But perfection doesn't really exist. I still try my hardest; I do my best and I think, in the end, that's all that matters. ...

"(But) I don't ever want to see another B on my report card again."

Reyada has been accepted into an impressive list of colleges, and she's chosen Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where she'll be on a premed track. After that, she hopes to be reaccepted at Johns Hopkins University.

"My mom was a physician's assistant in Sudan, and that influenced me. I want to go into the medical field. I want to travel around the world (and) to South Sudan and help people …

"The American dream means something different to everybody, but to me it's coming here, getting an education, getting a job … being successful (by) being independent; and also - once you've become independent and successful - helping others."

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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