Abraham Deng Ater, a public health researcher for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, slowly meanders through a new exhibit at the CDC, pausing at every photograph, piece of art and story illustrating the life and challenges of starting a new life in America.
Around noon on a recent day, you could easily mistake Ater, wearing a turquoise oxford shirt and employee badge, as a staff member simply visiting the new exhibit on his lunch break.
But Ater, 36, is in fact a key part of the exhibit at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum called “Resettling in America: Georgia’s Refugee Communities.”
He is one of five CDC employees who are former refugees from Asia and Africa featured in a section of the exhibit called “Faces of the CDC.” Large black-and-white photographs of Ater and four others hang side by side, along with captions about their experiences as refugees, as well as embracing a life with hope and purpose in the United States.
Ater fled his home in Sudan during the country’s civil war when he was just 9 years old. One of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan,” Ater, separated from his family, walked thousands of miles in brutal conditions seeking refuge from the conflict in an area that is now an independent country — South Sudan. Many children died along the way from starvation, thirst or attack by wild animals.
After years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, Ater eventually settled in the United States in 2001. By then, he was a young man, about 22. (Most of the Lost Boys don’t know for sure how old they are; aid workers assigned them approximate ages after they arrived here.) Living in Arizona, he enrolled in college, completing a bachelor of science degree followed by a master’s degree in public health. He moved to Atlanta in 2012 to work for the CDC’s Global HIV/AIDS Division.
The exhibit, which is free and open to the public and runs through Dec. 30, focuses on Clarkston, where thousands of refugees live, resettled by the U.S. government from countries such as Somalia, Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kali-Ahset Amen, an assistant director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, and co-curator of the current exhibit, said the goal of the exhibit is to help visitors better understand why — and how — refugees come to Georgia and the challenges they face once they get here.
Another goal is to put a spotlight on the critical role the CDC plays in screening refugees before and after they arrive in the U.S. The CDC also advises the Georgia Department of Public Health and other state and local public health agencies about health screening and the health care of former refugees once they settle here.
While refugees are on a path to citizenship upon arrival to the United States, Amen said the exhibit is designed to show just how much is involved in becoming a new American — from learning English, getting a driver’s license and getting a job, to enrolling kids in day care, making friends and learning how to use the stove and dishwasher.
The exhibit highlights the work and support of organizations that help ease the transition, including the Somali American Community Center, Clarkston Community Center, the Global Growers Network (a group of community gardens farmed by refugees from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East) and Sagal Radio (a community-based nonprofit that broadcasts radio programs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in six different languages — English, Somali, Amharic, Karen, Bhutanese/Nepali and Swahili).
Also on display are hand-woven kudzu baskets by a Bhutanese artist as an example of how refugees use their traditional skills to be entrepreneurial and make a living.
Other items showcased include wedding baskets from Somalia and ritual objects from Burma. They represent precious, sacred cultural practices that allow refugee ethnic groups to celebrate their history and customs while making room for new American traditions in their lives.
In 2008, Ater was leaning toward going to medical school, but a trip to his village in which he was reunited with his mother changed his career path. He was struck by the high numbers of children dying from malaria, and how many families didn’t realize malaria was caused by mosquitoes. After the trip, he started raising money for mosquito nets, and decided to pursue a job in public health.
As the lanky man walked around the exhibit on a recent afternoon, he both smiled, and turned serious. At every turn, he felt a connection.
“I hope everyone sees that everybody wants to be somebody,” said Ater, who lives in Tucker with his wife and their 4-year-old son. “People struggle to come here, and once they get here, they struggle. But when given a chance, they can do well. They just need a chance.”