One of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Ateny Ajak has found life, love, family, and freedom in America.
As a child, he and tens of thousands of children historically known as the Lost Boys fled their villages in Sudan to escape war and genocide.
For more than 10 years, Ajak survived treks through deadly terrain, military attacks and combat, refugee camps, hunger, and disease, before finally being rescued. He was among nearly 40 Lost Boys who were relocated to Las Vegas in 2001 through a joint program of the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and Catholic Charities.
“I went through so much adversity and saw so many terrible things when I was young. Yet I was determined to just keep going,” he said. “Honestly, I never thought I would survive to come to America. But I just kept on believing, with God’s help, things would somehow work out.”
Things have indeed worked out for Ajak, 42, now a Wells Fargo mortgage specialist who lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Abeny, and their four young children.
“Despite the great hardships they faced, the Lost Boys are a population that has shown a tremendous drive to do well here,” said Carisa Lopez-Ramirez, vice president of Immigration and Migration Services/Nevada State Refugee Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada. “Many are very involved in their community. They have tremendous hope, appreciation, and loyalty. They want to give back to the country that welcomed them.”
A friendship leads to Wells Fargo
While working his way up through a series of hotel service jobs — from housekeeping staff manager to hotel financial analyst to assistant dining manager — Ajak earned his high school GED, a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and a master’s degree in finance.
Two years ago, Ajak became friends at work with Eddie Salton, a full-time Wells Fargo home mortgage consultant who also worked part time at the hotel. Ajak confided in Salton that he had wanted to work for Wells Fargo since 2012, when the company’s NeighborhoodLIFT® housing assistance program provided him and his wife the down payment help they needed to buy their first home. More than 13,200 across the U.S. have become homeowners since 2012 with help from the LIFT program, a collaboration of Wells Fargo and the NeighborWorks® America nonprofit.
Salton, impressed with Ajak’s determination, knowledge, grace, and humility, recommended him for a position with Wells Fargo Home Lending.
“He’s really good with people,” Salton said. “That served him well in the hotel business and also helped him a lot as he applied to get into the mortgage business.”
The timing couldn’t have been better for Ajak’s application, said Jason Schaaf, manager of Home Lending in Las Vegas. Wells Fargo had just launched Next Generation HMC to attract diverse, new talent into the mortgage industry. It created the position of mortgage sales specialist, which did not require a mortgage background, offered extensive training in the field, and would lead to a home mortgage consultant role at the end of the program.
“Ateny had a great interview; he’s highly qualified, well-versed in business, and has a wealth of experience, having worked in finance for years in Las Vegas,” he said. “He’s a nice guy who genuinely cares about people, which is the biggest plus in this business.”
Ajak began working for Wells Fargo in August 2016 and should complete the program to become a home mortgage consultant this fall, Schaaf said.
‘Most momentous trip’
Ajak has experienced many milestones since arriving in the U.S., including becoming a permanent resident in 2002, a full citizen in 2008, and, in 2007, returning to Sudan for the first time since he was rescued.
For years after fleeing his village in 1987, he thought his parents had been killed. In 1997, a Red Cross letter correspondence program helped Ajak and many other Lost Boys find their families, but another 10 years passed before he could save enough money for a trip back home to see them. Ajak calls that visit to his native country the most momentous trip of his life.
“I went back to that same village where I had grown up, and they were still there, just like I remembered,” Ajak said. “It was a wonderful celebration. There was dancing and singing. My mother was crying and she embraced me. She wanted me to sit on her lap, the way I did when I was a little boy. I said, ‘Momma, I can’t sit on your lap now. I’m a grown man.’”
While in Sudan, Ajak met and married Abeny. He worked for a year after returning to Las Vegas to complete the U.S. immigration process so Abeny could join him in the U.S. and they could build a life together.
The culmination of an odyssey
Buying a home in the U.S. culminated his long odyssey from the refugee camps of South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya, Ajak said. He has always believed in America, he said, from the moment U.S. government officials visited the Lost Boys so many years ago and delivered badly needed food and supplies.
“When we were able to get our house here, I say ‘thank God,’ and thanks to the American people for their generosity that helped bring us to this point in our lives,” he said. “We will never forget you. The Lost Boys of Sudan will never forget the American people.”
Ajak’s joy at owning a home in the U.S. led him to a career that helps others experience the same thing, said Michelle Merced, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Southern Nevada, a Las Vegas nonprofit that works with the LIFT program.
“He has a wonderful, inspiring story,” Merced said. “And he takes it a step further. He believes in homeownership so much, he’s making a career out of it. You can’t get any better than that.”