Jacob Mach gets a hug from his 6-year old son Mach Mach (yes, his actual name!) after he arrives home from work on Jan. 8, 2014, in Atlanta. Mach is from South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011 after more than 20 years of civil war, only to begin descending into its own civil war. But Mach and his family have been able to realize the American dream — in metro Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com / AJC 2014 file
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘Lost Boy’ now a man on Thin Blue Line | Bill Torpy

If ever there was a guy you’d want to root for, it’s Jacob Mach, ardent survivor, eternal optimist, rookie cop.

Mach was one of the refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, the band of perhaps 20,000 boys and young men who were displaced or orphaned in the late 1980s and endured untold horror and hardship as they wandered the harsh plains of Africa.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Photo: AJC

His back story is legend — surviving war, starvation, bandits and even lions and crocodiles. It’s the stuff of movies, although script writers would have to back off on the drama because Mach’s reality seems unbelievable.

Now the 36-year-old is a newly minted, ramrod-straight Atlanta police officer, one who is set to patrol the streets of Zone 5, which makes up downtown and Midtown.

The unlikely story of him wearing the blue — or even surviving to get to the U.S. — is told in a matter-of-fact rendition by a fellow who somehow did not sour on humanity after all that he’s been through.

“I’m a very perseverant person,” he said. And that was him talking about making it as a police officer. Forget the bombs, starvation and crocodiles.

His journey to join the Atlanta Police Department was one that took three tries and finally ended in success because, as he said, he’s perseverant and, as I said, you want to root for him. And, therefore, a lot of folks along the way stepped up to help.

It’s just what the force of an unstoppable positive attitude does. It wears down others’ leery disbelief.

Have a problem with cops? His smile and demeanor could disarm an angry ex-con. Have a problem with refugees? This guy has worked harder and endured more than anyone you know.

His father, a rebel soldier in a civil war, was killed when he was a youngster. He was a barefoot refugee walking hundreds of miles at an age when American kids are fretting over first grade. He saw his friends drop from exhaustion, starvation and violence. There were stays in refugee camps in Ethiopia, in Sudan and in Kenya, the latter where he lived for a decade. His mind didn’t venture far into the future. It was day by day, looking forward to the next meal.

“I’d pray, ‘God, let me survive and find me a way to safety,’ ” he recalled. That’s all he wanted — to live. Anything after that was gravy.

Finally, in 2001, Mach and nearly 4,000 other refugees came to the U.S. and he found a home in Clarkston, a town near Decatur that has become a refuge for many nationalities, races and religions.

A 2001 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article focused on one of Mach’s friends, calling him a “bewildered time traveler in a strange new world.”  

The new immigrants knew almost nothing of their new country but were motivated to learn quickly. The U.S. government, the story said, would pay rent and utilities and give the refugees $200 a month for four months. Then they’d be on their own.

Mach got the hang of an electric stove, negotiating MARTA and filling out job applications, which he had never done. In fact, he had never worked before. He absorbed English, worked at Publix and the Hilton, AND went to Georgia State University, where he studied criminal justice because he worked as a security guard at the hotel. That’s where he got the bug for police work.

“America is a great country; if you work hard you will succeed,” he said, stating the oft-recited credo. “It comes with applying yourself. You have to start somewhere. Work two jobs. Work three jobs. You’ve got to grab it.”

Editor Kevin Riley talks to three South Sudan natives about violence in their country and what they would like to see the United States do to help.

Mach tried grabbing it in 2012, when he was hired on at the APD as a recruit but failed the obstacle course because of his weak upper-body strength. He spent weeks as a gofer at the Zone 6 precinct, where officers quizzed him on laws and police knowledge and urged him to do push-ups.

“He had charm and charisma, and we knew he really wanted to succeed,” said Officer J.C. Stephens.

Mach passed the fitness test and was admitted to the academy, but was forced to leave during the second week because of a stress fracture in his leg.

The following year he was back and sailed through the 22-week academy before struggling at the end in the marksmanship test, and then ultimately washing out on the driving exam — a sequence of events that was captured in a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece and video.

Mach was obviously devastated by the failure, and the scene of his farewell was like that of a young ballplayer having his dreams crushed when he’s cut by the team.

Last week he recalled the moment.

“I said, OK. I knew they have the best feeling for recruits, so I thanked them for their help and for the opportunity,” he said, before adding: “What is bad for a person is to give up and be pessimistic.”

Mach talked about doors closing and others opening up. That happened here. Someone at the academy liked his drive and spirit, and the next thing you know, he got a call: “Would you like to be a codes enforcement officer?”

Why not? he said.

Jacob Mach, a former “Lost Boy of Sudan” who’s an eternal optimist, now wears the Atlanta blue. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And then last year he was back at the academy, successfully finishing and graduating last week. His 9-year-old son, Mach — yes, he’s Mach Mach — was on hand to proudly watch his dad receive an enthusiastic round of applause.

The 5-foot-11, 150-pound rookie knows it can be rough on the streets of Atlanta and realizes many people have a caustic view of cops. On the day of his graduation, police finally released, after public pressure, the name of an officer who shot a man to death in January.

He said he is confident his training will help with interactions with the public. “You approach them professionally and treat them with respect and dignity.”

Also, he figures his demeanor will help.

“I relate to people whether they are rich or poor, maybe because of my background,” he said. “You try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Keep an open mind, you assimilate other people’s points of view, whether you agree with them or not.

“You have other cultures, you have to get along,” he said, “That’s the way I have to live my life.”

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