WORTHINGTON - Seeing Michael Ajith in his JBS work uniform - white jacket, blue hard hat, hairnet, safety goggles - is to see a man who takes his job seriously and does it well.
A JBS employee since 2010, Ajith has risen through the ranks; for the past 18 months he has been the plant’s Night Ham Supervisor, a position he achieved after being tapped for JBS’ Internal Talent Program.
Along with three other supervisors, Ajith is responsible for supervising 150 people six days a week on an eight-hour shift that runs precisely from 3:42 p.m. to 12:36 a.m.
“There are always challenges,” Ajith said of his supervisory role. “If a machine is broken, or employees don’t show up because of weather, or if someone is sick and we have to fill in for them.”
Ajith, however, is rarely ill - “I’ve been blessed with good health,” he assured - and is quick to flash a bright smile when something amuses him or he shares an ironic piece of information.
Such as this one: The challenges he faces on the job are literally nothing compared to those he survived between the ages of seven and 20, when he was one of the 20,000-plus “lost boys of Sudan” and each day’s dawning meant another 24 hours of struggle to simply stay alive.
“If you are born with a very strong heart, you keep going; you never look back,” Ajith said by way of explaining why he is still standing and, indeed, thriving at age 37.
Born the youngest of seven children to loving parents in 1980, Ajith’s family is part of the South Sudanese ethnic group known as the Dinka.
As Christians, the family lived happily in a small village - Ajith estimates it was home to between 300 and 500 people - that was part of a larger community (roughly the size of Worthington, he guesses). He has warm memories of his life up to age 7.
But Sudan, among the largest countries on the African continent, achieved independence from Britain in 1956. Its peace and governance were uneasy because its northern portion is populated primarily by Muslims and the smaller southern section is home to Christians like Ajith’s relatives.
When the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out in 1987 (it continued through 2005), Ajith’s life was disturbed and would never again be the same.
“Really, it started before I was born but the war had not come to our village,” said Ajith, noting that by the 1970s the Muslim blocs had asserted their dominance by imposing Sharia law, restricting educational opportunities for Christians and forcing other lifestyle changes on the South Sudanese who wished to live according to their own beliefs.
Ultimately, more than two million people died as a result of the conflict between the different religious factions in the country - and more than 20,000 children, who came to be known as “the Lost Boys of Sudan,” were displaced and/or orphaned.
A unique yet universal horror
As Ajith remembers it, his world crashed in a single day when North Sudanese soldiers suddenly and violently invaded his village, forcing him and his family members to literally run for their lives.
“I was 7 years old,” Ajith emphasized.
In the chaos and confusion, he ran one way, fortunately alongside an older sister who was in her late teens; his parents, he later learned, ran and hid in the bush, or jungle, until the North Sudanese army finally departed.
Ajith estimates that as many as 1,000 other children (approximately aged 5 to 20) were in his group. For at least a month, they walked on foot with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
“We had no food or water,” he smiled wryly.
How did he manage to survive?
“We ate the leaves and bark from trees when we could,” he said.
Mostly, he was hungry, thirsty, weary and very, very frightened.
“I was really scared, being in the jungle with my sister and the other kids,” he said. “I asked my sister over and over, ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘Where are mommy and daddy?’
“I didn’t have my mattress or my mommy, and a lot of kids were crying all the time.”
The trek was perilous, and Ajith saw some children die of illness, injury, dehydration or starvation along the way. Some others were eaten by wild animals or died from snake bites.
“When we would run into South Sudanese soldiers, they told us which direction to go,” he said. Eventually, the exhausted and depleted group managed to make it to an Ethiopian refugee camp in Panyidu.
There, Ajith was separated from his sister (although he was reunited with two of his brothers) - and with thousands of people, mostly children, living in a makeshift camp, conditions were far from excellent.
“For the first year or two, there was no school or education,” he cited. “The U.N. tried to help by building shelters and bringing food and clothes, but there was chicken pox and cholera and we lost a lot of people there.”
Ajith remained at Panyidu for about four years until fresh horrors were visited upon him and the other young refugees.
“In 1991, the Ethiopian civil war started,” said Ajith. The refugee camp was no longer a refuge as the fighting approached. The children were again on the move.
“We tried to go back to Sudan,” he explained, but instead he wandered on foot with another large group along the borders for about a year - again with little to no life-sustaining resources - before landing at a second refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.
Ajith praises the efforts of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N.’s refugee agency) for its work at Kakuma.
“The UNHCR came to the camp and made schools and hospitals,” he said.
Eventually, the UNHCR was also able to assist Ajith and other lost boys in migrating to the United States and other countries, since returning to war-riven Sudan was not an option.
A new life in the U.S.
Ajith’s first stop was Phoenix, Ariz., where the 21-year-old whose life and education to date had consisted of whatever he’d been able to glean on the run and in two overburdened refugee camps was enrolled in the ESL program at Phoenix College (one of the nation’s oldest community colleges).
Ajith had been taught English at the refugee camps, but because his teachers there were mostly British or Australian, he had a pronounced British accent. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment with four other former lost boys; their rent was $1,200 a month.
“I was working for $6 an hour in Phoenix, making about $120 to $130 a week,” he said, shaking his head.
Word reached him via the Sudanese refugee grapevine that pay was better further north, so a few years later Ajith moved to Lincoln, Neb., where he worked at a Farmland Foods plant making about $400 a week - a vast improvement.
But then, Ajith learned his mother back in South Sudan was ill. He sent as much money as he could to provide for her medical treatment but no miracles occurred.
“I never got to see my mother or father alive again (after that day I fled when I was 7),” he said.
Ajith wasn’t at all resentful about sending money home; instead, he saw it as his familial duty.
“We benefit from our parents while we are young, but I didn’t get to pay them back,” he lamented. “We’re supposed to feed and care for our parents.”
Ajith’s new “family” in the U.S. were other refugees who had endured similar hardships, and after he’d worked over five years in Lincoln, he was again referred by friends to the Worthington area.
“They said there were jobs here,” he said, even though initially he earned a dollar less per hour than he had in Nebraska.
Still, Ajith persisted, lived cooperatively with friends in apartments and managed to save enough money to visit Africa annually from 2007 through 2015. While there, he married a South Sudanese woman, Mary, but it took over a decade for him to save the necessary funds and navigate the path of forms and paperwork for her and their children to join him in Worthington.
“We married in 2007,” he said. “It took a lot of money to get my family here.”
Family man on the job
Today, Ajith approaches his JBS employment with renewed purpose; his wife Mary is here, learning English, and the couple lives in an apartment with their four daughters (ages 11, 7, 2 and nine months).
The Ajith family attends an Episcopal church in Sioux Falls, S.D., with a congregation of about 500 (primarily other Dinka immigrants) when they can, and Ajith appreciates it as a chance for his daughters to be exposed to his native language and cultural elements.
“I hope for better things and try to keep doing better for myself and my family,” said Ajith, who says personal “fun” or hobbies are non-existent with a six-day work week and four young children.
He is grateful for his good health and for the JBS administrators who have supported and encouraged him.
“They could see me on the line, doing good, and they said I’d be a good supervisor,” he said, adding that he is now on the JBS safety committee as well.
He hopes to someday be able to afford a house for his family; he and Mary plan that she will also work when their children are all in school.
Meanwhile, Ajith shares his story with his children and urges them to study and do well in school.
“I want them to get an education and go to college,” he asserted. “I tell them to read books and not watch too much TV.”
Looking back, Ajith isn’t entirely sure how he managed to survive the dire situations in which he was thrust as a child - one of his brothers died in the Sudanese civil war, and his remaining siblings all still live in South Sudan - but when he considers the 150 employees he supervises and sees how they all get along despite their origins from various countries around the world, he feels hopeful.
“I didn’t die as a little one, and I was chosen for the process to come to the United States,” said Ajith.
“I’m the lucky one.”