By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Any parent would be happy to have a doctor in the family, or an engineer or a lawyer. By that measure, the Ater family stands to be triply happy, since it looks like they could have all three.
The Ater siblings — Ater, Ajak and Achab — have big dreams for their futures. Ater wants to be an engineer so he can build houses for his family and friends. Ajak wants to be doctor so she can help people get better when they’re sick. Achab wants to be a lawyer so she can help people out of trouble. Currently fifth, fourth and second graders, respectively, at Cathedral Academy at Pompei (CAP) in Syracuse, the kids are working hard at their studies and are on track to acheive their goals. And their parents Chol and Mary are working hard to support their children’s dreams and ensure they have every chance to chase them. That hopeful freedom, after all, is why the family moved to the U.S. in the first place.
Chol and Mary were born and raised in the northeastern African country of Sudan. For many years, Sudan has been torn by violent civil wars and internal conflicts, with the northern and southern regions of the country clashing over rule, resources and religion. (Just this summer, the southern region officially became an independent state, the Republic of South Sudan.) Violence, draught and famine killed millions of Sudanese people and forced the displacement of millions more. Reports of human rights violations were widespread. Refugees poured into neighboring countries.
By 1995, Chol was working for an international nongovernmental organization to manage a health care center in northern Sudan that served people displaced by conflict. The site provided primary and maternal health care, health education, a pharmacy, even a school. In 2000, Chol said he was asked by the government to turn over supplies and food from the center. Chol refused, asserting that the supplies were meant to serve the center’s clients, not the troops waging war against his fellow citizens. Chol said it became clear that he and his wife would not be safe if they did not comply with the demand, so they fled Sudan for Egypt.
There were no separate refugee camps in Egpyt, which meant Chol and Mary lived among the Egyptian people. Though they speak Arabic, it is with an accent Egyptians don’t have. This and other cultural differences made the move challenging but, Chol said, fitting in “depends on your personality and your attitude.” Chol soon found work as a church assistant and interpreter for an Anglican church. The priest there helped Chol and Mary apply to the United Nations for resettlement.
For more than a year, they filed paperwork, sat for interviews and navigated screenings with multiple agencies. In 2001, the couple’s application was accepted; they would be coming to Syracuse, where Chol’s cousin Antoni Makour lived. The events of September 11, 2001 delayed their arrival significantly, but finally, in November of 2002, Chol and Mary — now with Ater and Ajak in tow — landed in Syracuse.
Cousin Antoni was at the airport to pick the family up. Luckily, he had brought some jackets.
“I saw this white stuff on the roofs,” Chol recalled. “I asked, ‘What is that?’ I had only ever seen snow on television.”
Antoni was indespensible in those first weeks and months, renting the couple the second floor apartment at his house, helping them with job hunting and directing them to Cathedral School (which later combined with the school at Our Lady of Pompei to form Cathedral Academy at Pompei).
“My son started at the refugee center for kindergarten,” Chol said. “But I heard Cathedral School was a good school, so I went for a visit and got the applications.” Chol received a Christian education in Sudan, so it was important for him that his children have the same. Ater was accepted at the school, his sister Ajak started there the following year and his youngest sister Achab followed two years after that.
“Not only will my children have academic skills, they will also have religion,” Chol said. “Religion is very important. It has always guided us. And that is what I like about this school. My daughter is getting instruction, but she is also learning to read the Bible and pray. These are abilities she can only get from this school. This is why I encourage my friends to send their children there as well.”
Today the Aters are part of a CAP student body that is 120 members strong and reflects 17 different nations. They are thriving on the school’s progressive model of culturally responsive teaching, an approach that integrates students’ backgrounds and experiences into the classroom.
“To address learning effectively, we must consider the spiritual and the academic,” said Dr. Patricia Schmidt, director of development for CAP. “With our faith-filled environment, we can successfully implement culturally responsive teaching and learning. We are an international school in the Roman Catholic tradition.”
The Aters all play instruments, thanks to the school’s El Sistema music program that brings in teachers from the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. They’re sports stars, too; Ajak helped the girls’ basketball team drive to an udefeated season last year.
Chol and Mary work hard to keep their children at CAP. In addition to his studies in criminal justice at Onondaga Community College, Chol works full time in patient transport at St. Joseph’s Hospital to support the family and send the children to CAP. Mary cares for the family, which also includes three-year-old Aroupiny, and the new house the family was recently able to buy. But financing a Catholic education for three children is a challenge and a sacrifice for any family, and the Aters are no exception. CAP meets the needs of its students by offering a sliding payment scale that allows families to pay what they can reasonably afford, and it also offers discounted tuition to families with multiple students enrolled. CAP is also generously supported by parishes in the diocese, the Guardian Angel Society and local institutions like St. Joseph’s Hospital and Le Moyne College, among other donors. Schmidt estimates about 80% of the students receive some type of tuition assistance, which includes scholarships like those received by the Ater children.
CAP has given a lot to the Aters, not just academically, but also socially and spiritually. They are eager to give back to the school and the community and Chol is already at work helping to plan an upcoming fundraiser for the school.
“Syracuse is different,” he said. “We don’t see discrimination. The community sticks together to support the hospitals and the schools. God has sent people to help us in different ways. It is such a blessing. And now we will go help others.”
For more information about Cathedral Academy at Pompei and how you can help support a student’s Catholic education, visit www.capsyracuse.org or call (315) 422-8548.