Sudanese 'Lost Boy' Atem Aleu fought anguish with art. Photo by Adam Finkle.

At 33, Atem Aleu seems like the typical Utahn: raising three kids, working a full-time job, volunteering in his community and still carving out time for creative pursuits. In fact, Aleu's a successful artist, exhibiting his paintings at galleries, universities and cultural centers around the country. But this life of stability and accomplishment has been built on a past of unimaginable tragedy, mapped by fear and fortitude, through the power of art and the improbable kindness of strangers.

Aleu is one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, who grew up during a harrowing period of prolonged civil conflict between the country's Muslim government and the predominantly Christian South. As a young child, he witnessed his mother and baby brother brutally killed, lost his father and eventually fled his village on foot, running in the only direction in which there was no gunfire. He joined other orphaned children on a long march during which thousands died—eaten by wild animals or starving to death—on their way to refugee camps, where many more continued to suffer.

A simple, fatalistic mantra kept Aleu going: "If you don't die today, you will die tomorrow. So it doesn't matter. You have to keep moving until your time comes," he recalls. "That's what many people were thinking."

Children in war-ravaged Sudan

By night, terrifying images haunted his nightmares. At 14, in a Kenyan refugee camp, he found a way to get them out of his head. Making art, he discovered, could relieve his anguish and help strangers understand his life.

"I can share 100 words of history in one painting," Aleu says. "The only way to share this was to become an artist so other people, who can't communicate with me, can understand what happened."

In 2001, Aleu was resettled in Utah—a name he had never heard and couldn't pronounce. He had to learn to cook on a stove, to use electricity and to adjust to the cold and snow. An aid agency paid refugees' rent for only the first three months, he says, and jobs were located far from home, requiring long, complicated commutes. He got on the wrong crosstown bus once and, not knowing his own address, finally navigated his way home on foot, a three-hour trek, by way of landmarks.

"It was very hard," he says. "You realize you have to make something for yourself. There's not anyone who can care for you."

Soon after arriving, Aleu gathered the ten paintings he'd created in Africa and walked the several miles from his westside apartment to the Utah Arts Council downtown. He asked for a woman he'd never met: Jean Irwin, the council's arts education manager. Spreading his artwork before her, he said, "Somebody told me you can help."

She introduced Aleu to Art Access Gallery, where he exhibited for the first time and sold most of those 10 paintings. He eventually got a scholarship to study art at BYU, earning his BFA in 2007, and went on to attain master's degrees in cultural production and in coexistence and conflict at Brandeis University. Now a leader in Salt Lake's immigrant community, he helps other newcomers transition to life in the United States. But he has a bigger dream: to use art for peace-building by opening a center in South Sudan that will encourage members of the country's 64 different tribes to understand and value each others' cultures.

In the meantime—on weekends, in the middle of the night—he paints his memories. Reliving his childhood trauma is difficult, however, he explains, "When I'm doing art it makes me happy, because I'm not feeling these things—I'm releasing them!'

Global Artisans

Ze Min Xiao, Refugee Liaison with Salt Lake County, originally created Global Artisans to provide entrepreneurial refugees the resources, tools, and experience needed to begin their own micro-enterprise. The organization encourages local refugees to earn supplemental income while preserving their cultural traditions and crafts-baskets, greeting cards made from paintings and artwork, weavings and textiles, ceramics and jewelry are some of the products made by Global Artisans, available online at and at various craft fairs during the year.

Back>>>Read stories of other refugees in Utah.

Back>>>Read other stories from our December 2013 issue.