A Lost Boy Grows Up:From Sudanese Lost Boy to Atlanta Police Academy (Documentary)

Jacob Mach1

Jacob Deng Mach stood 25 yards from a row of torso-shaped targets, his hands numb and twitchy in the March morning chill. It had been seven months since he entered Atlanta’s police academy, and things were not going so well. Despite three days of practice, he had failed on each of his first four tries to pass the firearms qualifying test, and his scores were largely trending in the wrong direction.

Jacob knew that if he did not pass the test twice, he would have to start over and repeat the entire grueling curriculum. If he then failed the firearms test again, he would be dismissed from the academy altogether, quashing perhaps his best shot at an unlikely ascension from war-ravaged Sudan into the American middle class. Suddenly, his hopes for supporting a family on two continents, for paying down his credit-card balances and student loans, for keeping the Georgia Power bill collectors at bay, all hinged on obliterating those targets.

Jacob, who is 33, had been shot at plenty of times as a boy. But he had never handled a gun before joining the academy, and he was proving largely immune to instruction. All elbows and knees, he lacked the fluid coordination of more athletic recruits and sometimes struggled to unholster his weapon or to get shots off in time. He confused sequences of commands, paused inexplicably before reloading, even fired occasionally at the wrong targets.

The instructor positioned behind him, a former Marine named Jason Overbaugh, grew so exasperated that he literally threw up his hands. “Mach, you cannot follow simple instructions, son,” Overbaugh told him. “I can’t say it any other different way. That’s why you’re screwing this up.”

A more seasoned academy hand, Officer Meredith Crowder, sensed that Overbaugh and Jacob needed a break from each other and suggested she give it a try. With her set jaw and spiky hair, Crowder could be as hard-nosed as any academy instructor. But she had developed an easy rapport with Jacob over the months, and she figured a familiar touch might help. She started by rubbing his back and then spoke to him in a soothing voice.

Jacob Mach, as a young man at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Jacob Mach, as a young man at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

“Now, you were chased by lions and tigers, right?” she began in her West Georgia twang.

Jacob grinned. The part about the lions was right enough, and he was too preoccupied to explain that there are no tigers in Africa. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“So,” the instructor cocked her head, “what is the big deal with this?”

Jacob realized that Officer Crowder had a point. He certainly had overcome more. There was the death of his father, a rebel soldier, in the Sudanese civil war; the bombardment of his village by government tanks and planes; the barefoot trek at age 7, along with thousands of other tiny refugees, to a camp in Ethiopia; the loss of comrades to lions in the bush and crocodiles in the Gilo River; the starvation so severe that he ate leaves and watched friends drink their own urine.

He lost track of his mother for four years after new strife forced the boys to flee on foot back to southern Sudan. At 12, he had to escape the shooting again, this time hiking to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, where he managed for 10 years on one meal a day. In 2001, after the United States granted refugee status to nearly 4,000 people who had been christened the Lost Boys of Sudan, Jacob was deposited in a drab apartment in Clarkston, Ga., just outside Atlanta. He arrived at age 21 with one change of clothes and a three-month guarantee of government support. There he confronted an alien world of flush toilets and microwave ovens, of impenetrable job applications and accents barely recognizable as English.

It did not take long for Jacob to realize that the streets were not, in fact, paved with gold. “All I knew was that America was the greatest thing in the world,” he recalled. “Nobody knew how people struggle in America.”

This new life would require new thinking. There was no such thing as ambition back in the village, where each generation of boys tended their families’ cattle and crops just as the last did. But in Georgia, Jacob felt he had little choice but to buy fully into the American dream. Traversing Atlanta’s sprawl by bus and train and foot, he worked the evening shift at a Publix, unpacking produce, and then the night shift at a Hilton, stocking minibars, at $7.50 an hour. He often found no more than four hours for sleep and snatched naps when he could. Once, regrettably, it was while he was stopped at a red light behind a bus, and his foot slipped off the brake.

God delivered him through all of this, Jacob believed. And while he often questioned why he had been chosen for such testing, he now had a degree of confidence that God would reward his faith by steadying his quivering trigger finger. In Philippians 4:13, it says that all things were possible through Christ, and so between rounds, he bowed his head. “God, you are the powerful God that gives us strength and abilities,” he prayed in the clipped, formal English he learned in the camps. “I am going to do this in your name.”

Surely a loving God would recognize how important this moment was to his goal of becoming perhaps the first Lost Boy to be sworn in as a police officer in the United States. Like past generations of immigrants, he dreamed that a badge might provide a way up and out. The job would pay him $42,000, more than he could imagine. After escaping one of the most anarchic regions on earth, he aspired to walk the streets of Atlanta as the very embodiment of American law and order.

But that morning on the firing range, it all was at risk. “I don’t know, ma’am, what I am doing really,” Jacob told Officer Crowder.

“You just relax,” she said. “That’s your problem.”

“Is that what it is?” he asked.

“That’s exactly what it is,” she reassured him. “Just listen to me. I’ll get you through it.”

I first met Jacob in 2005, four years after his arrival, when my wife, Dina, volunteered our family to mentor several Lost Boys who had been resettled in Clarkston. One night, Jacob and two Sudanese friends showed up at the house for an introductory dinner of baked chicken and Fudgsicles. He arrived in pressed jeans and an olive dress shirt, his lanky frame and narrow waist making him seem taller than his 5 feet 11 inches. As the evening progressed, Jacob related the story of the Lost Boys’ journey, which was no less riveting for sounding well rehearsed in the telling. While grateful for his escape to America, he made it clear that his daily routine — working two jobs while attending community college — left him exhausted. He seemed not the least intimidated by our suburban comforts and engaged our children with questions about their schools and activities. He laughed with an uninhibited cackle that evinced none of the post-traumatic stress we were told afflicted many of the Lost Boys.

Although his struggles were very much of the moment, his sights were set on the horizon. When Dina first asked our three guests how we might help them, one said he needed a car, while another wanted a computer. Jacob said he wanted braces, because he feared his imperfect teeth might hold him back in America. (Dina soon found an orthodontist to do the work pro bono, and the doctor was so impressed that she offered Jacob a part-time job in her office).

Looking back, I realize that we were drawn to Jacob by what I’ve watched draw others since: not just the trauma of the Lost Boys’ dislocation, which may have been as wrenching as any in modern times, but also his indomitable determination to prevail. We marveled as he won repeated promotions during a decade at the Hilton, becoming a security guard and then a security shift supervisor. He brought his wife, Lith Nhial Chol, to Atlanta from Kenya, bore a son, gained American citizenship, earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgia State University — with a 3.3 G.P.A. — and supported family members in Africa and the States on an income of about $25,000 a year.

Jacob was sophisticated enough to manage an immensely complicated life in a strange land yet so naïve he did not realize that polygamy was illegal until we disappointed him with the news. Illiterate until age 13, he now communicated through endearingly florid emails and texts. The notes arrived on every occasion from Father’s Day to the Fourth of July: “Dina/Kevin, I do hope the weather keeps to both of you and the children.” He was not above flattery, writing Dina after our first meeting that she was “blessed with witty, talented and humorous gentleman.” So witty was her gentleman, in fact, that he “could even make the dog laugh.”

But unless prompted by us, Jacob never asked for a thing beyond our advice. He was as financially burdened as anyone we knew, but he had enough self-respect — and I suppose sense of style — to turn down most of the castoff clothes I offered from my closet.

It was Jacob’s job as a Hilton security guard that sparked his interest in police work. He majored in criminal justice at Georgia State and did an internship with the Atlanta Police Department during his senior year. Given his background, the gravitation toward law enforcement intrigued me. I knew that the police in Sudan were considered corrupt and that the refugees in Clarkston sometimes felt harassed by the local cops. I also knew that among the South Sudanese in the United States, there remained a strong imperative to resolve disputes internally. Involving the authorities or courts was considered almost taboo, and when circumstances warranted, councils of elders would convene to negotiate solutions.

Jacob had felt these crosscurrents in his own marriage. He arranged to marry Lith, a schoolmate at the Kakuma refugee camp, shortly before departing for Atlanta. He returned to Kenya two years later for their tribal wedding and then waited another three years for her to clear immigration hurdles. She is two inches taller than he is and strikingly beautiful, and after their extended separation, he prepared for the arrival of “my queen” by purchasing an ornate wooden bed that nearly filled his small bedroom. Lith became pregnant almost immediately after landing in 2006.

Lith is bright, well spoken and hardworking but also can be headstrong. After being confined to a refugee camp, she found her new freedom — and gender equality — intoxicating. When their son was 18 months old, she took the child to Australia to visit family and, two months later, informed Jacob that they would not be coming back.

Distraught about his child, Jacob agonized for weeks about whether to consult with diplomatic officials and lawyers, knowing it might not sit well with his Sudanese friends. Ultimately a combination of legal and community pressure influenced Lith to return after six months, and she and Jacob have patched their relationship for the sake of their 6-year-old son. She declined to let me interview her.

Despite the community’s ambivalence about the law, Jacob explained that the chaos of his youth provided much to admire about the clear-cut lines of American justice and those who enforce it. After three robbers broke into his apartment in 2006 and menaced his roommate at gunpoint, he was impressed that the police actually captured them. “It is a way of helping people who need help desperately,” Jacob said of policing. “Some will always have that feeling that the police are not trustworthy, but when they are in trouble, who are they going to call?”

By the time Jacob began applying to the Atlanta Police Department in September 2011, the city’s unemployment rate was more than a third higher than the national average, and any recovery seemed remote. Opportunities were particularly scarce for African-Americans and immigrants, and Jacob was both. Although the city’s sizable black middle class embodied the possibility of upward mobility for Jacob, that hope was tempered in neighborhoods close to his home, where poverty seemed inexorable.

Jacob knew he would be fortunate to get into the police academy, which accepted only one of every 15 applicants. His application emphasized his degree and work experience while neglecting to mention his rather extraordinary background. He declared in a handwritten essay that he was “proud, prepared and willing to join gallant men and women in uniform who put their lives in harm ways [sic] by fighting crimes and helping innocent citizens honorably.”

His file contained testimonials to his work ethic from employers and character references from friends, including myself. His only blot was the notation of five traffic violations in five years, including the collision with the bus. None involved alcohol or drugs, but a recruitment investigator singled out Jacob’s driving history as an area of concern.

In April 2012, Jacob was hired as a recruit but first had to pass a fitness test to gain a seat in the academy, which was housed in a former elementary school. Blessed with an effortless gait, he easily ran a mile and a half in less than the required 14 minutes 30 seconds. But his schedule had allowed little time for strength conditioning, and without the muscle to scale walls or drag a sand-filled dummy, he failed to finish the obstacle course in the allotted two minutes. He spent the next six weeks doing grunt work at the Zone 6 precinct while training to retake the test.

The officers in Zone 6 typically would disregard an underling like Recruit Mach. But after hearing snippets of his story, precinct commanders and officers dedicated themselves to helping him pass. “We knew he didn’t have much upper-body strength,” Sgt. Caroline Tanksley said. “So every time he saw one of us — and there are seven of us — we would make him do 10 push-ups. But we’d all get down and do them with him.”

On the morning of the next fitness test, Jacob’s head was tightly shaved, per regulations, and his arms showed the sinewy beginnings of muscle tone. Despite the early hour, he noticed that Sergeant Tanksley and three officers from Zone 6 had come to cheer him on.

Although a humble man, Jacob is not without ego, and when the run started he sprinted off to an early lead, burning energy that might have been better conserved. “I have to represent,” he explained after finishing second among 30 recruits. But it left him with little gas for the obstacle course, and by the time he had climbed and crawled and hurdled his way to the finish, his bloodied knees were so wobbly he could barely stand.

“One fifty-seven,” an instructor announced. Three seconds to spare. “That’s a pass.”

Jacob was in. Spattered with mud and sweat, he managed an unsmiling fist bump with a fellow recruit. “I didn’t think I had made it,” he gasped. The cops from Zone 6 were exultant and later presented him with $80 sneakers to replace the clunky black shoes he had worn. Jacob found himself almost without words. “You are my very good friends,” he said.

After wandering hundreds of miles and outlasting captivity in the camps, the Lost Boys arrived in America with deep stores of trauma and resilience. The story of their resettlement in places like Clarkston and Fargo and Phoenix has been poignantly documented by journalists (including in this magazine in 2001), filmmakers and authors, notably the novelist Dave Eggers, who ingeniously captured their voices in his 2006 book, “What Is the What.” There have been fewer assessments of how the Lost Boys have fared over the longer term, as their struggle to assimilate gave way to a search for economic security.

A few of the Sudanese refugees have achieved striking success, becoming teachers and engineers and pursuing graduate degrees. But many others have resigned themselves to low-wage work like parking cars or mopping school floors. A few have run afoul of the law. Their numbers in the area, roughly 150 at first, have dwindled by perhaps half, as men have migrated to other states for work or returned to South Sudan.

Jacob, who was elected head boy of his high school in the Kakuma camp, was considered a leader among the refugees. Eight years after arriving in the United States, he moved out of Clarkston and into a small house he built with Habitat for Humanity in a tidy low-income neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. As he entered the academy, he was completing a term as chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the political party that has governed South Sudan since its independence from Sudan in 2011. If he had a grand dream, it was to use his police career as a springboard to law school, so he might go back to a homeland he barely knew and teach his countrymen the ways of American justice.

On Sunday afternoons, Jacob gathered with other South Sudanese immigrants at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church for a service that fluctuated between English and Dinka, often in the same sentence. As drummers beat out a welcome, Jacob joined the men in shiny suits and buffed shoes who occupied the pews on the left. Their statuesque wives, swathed in boldly colored head wraps, split off to the right along with the children, some of whom slouched in tight jeans, N.B.A. jerseys and Spider-Man T-shirts.

Immigrant backgrounds are not unusual among police recruits in Atlanta. But few in Jacob’s class were as new to the country, and certainly none had been reared in a mud hut or paid a matrimonial dowry that included 30 cattle. His South Sudanese friends worried that his heavy accent and ebony skin might make him vulnerable and wondered whether he had the swagger to be an American cop. His own mother, Mary Ayen Kur, who lives in Kenya, said he had stood out among her seven children for his turn-the-cheek gentleness. During a visit to Atlanta, she told me: “He was born like a pastor.”

Jacob’s first term at the academy was short-lived, as he pulled up lame during a fitness test on Day 6 with what was later diagnosed as a stress fracture. Such setbacks are not unusual; three of 10 recruits do not make it through on their first try, either because they are injured or fail the tests of firearms skill, emergency driving or physical fitness. After recuperating for four months — while answering phones for the fugitive squad — Jacob joined a new class last January. He showed up both confident and anxious on the first day of the 22-week course for a crack-of-dawn session euphemistically described as orientation. For two hours, the academy instructors demanded push-ups, jumping jacks, stress positions and bear crawls, often with weighted duffels held overhead. Paramedics were positioned nearby to haul away the wounded.

“Get that bag up, Mach!” one sergeant hollered. “Solve the problem, son.”

“You look like a bunch of future Best Buy employees,” Officer Hardy Carrow said with a smirk.

Jacob’s face showed equal parts exhaustion, humiliation and fury. But as sometimes happened at such moments, his thoughts drifted back to Africa, to the two-month walk from Sudan to Ethiopia. “That was worse,” he told himself. “There is nothing more difficult than what I have gone through. They’re only trying to see whether you quit, whether you’re strong, whether you can deal with the stresses.” His ability to adapt to a hostile environment was one thing he liked best about himself.

The first week was devoted to exercises in controlled aggression, with recruits paired against each other in boxing and wrestling. The purpose was to measure heart rather than skill, which was fortunate because Jacob’s style was more jerk-and-flail than bob-and weave. With his long reach, he held his own, at one point sending a boxing opponent’s headgear sailing.

But Jacob was at his best in the concrete-block classroom, where he spent hundreds of hours learning criminal procedure and the Georgia code, writing mock incident reports and role-playing hostile scenarios. He almost always scored above 90 on tests and proved a valuable teammate in a game-show-like drill that required recruits to stand before the class and answer questions correctly or drop and do exercises. One day he was asked which constitutional amendment provided protection from eminent domain. Like a slugger who starts his home-run trot before the ball clears the fence, Jacob took a confident step toward his desk before responding: “The Fifth Amendment.” Other recruits high-fived him as he passed.

He spent part of his lunch breaks repeatedly drawing his unloaded Smith & Wesson, trying to build muscle memory for the firearms test in March. Once on the range, which was nestled between a landfill and a sewage-treatment plant, he would have to pass the test twice. It required him to shoot from a variety of positions, in particular sequences. Speed was vital, as a timer flipped the targets sideways after just a few seconds.

Over two days, Jacob failed his first four attempts. The night before his final tries, he gave up on sleep at 2 a.m., put on his uniform and strapped on a BB pistol he had bought at Walmart. He stood in the kitchen and practiced drawing on a target tacked to the living-room wall. “Things are falling apart,” he told himself. “I am doing something wrong.” He wondered if he needed to tilt the barrel down a hair.

It was the next morning that Officer Crowder intervened and started talking about the lions and tigers. “All right, remember, two right, two left,” she said. “Here we go, big guy, come on.” As the rounds exploded out of Jacob’s weapon, circles of daylight opened in his targets. “I need that every single time,” she told him.

When the guns silenced, Crowder tallied Jacob’s score and scribbled it on the target in black marker: 242 of a possible 300. He passed by two points. On his next attempt, Jacob squeaked by again with a score of 244. A broad smile spread across his face as his classmates whooped. “Good job, Mach,” Crowder said. Ignoring academy protocol, he embraced her full on.

Like all recruits, Jacob lived in fear of being recycled, of failing a required test and having to repeat the training. His biggest worry had always been the Emergency Vehicle Operations Course, or EVOC, which accounted for almost a third of all failures. He did not learn to drive until he was 26 and managed to get a license without any driver’s ed. Even now, a brief trip in his black Isuzu Rodeo might include moments of speeding, unsignaled turning and rolling through a stop sign. He had particular trouble driving in reverse.

The multipart driving test began two weeks after the firearms test in a pair of parking lots. First, drivers had to accelerate to at least 35 miles per hour, slam the brakes when a light turned red, zig left into a box outlined by cones and then zag right to a clean stop. The second part required precision driving through a narrow lane outlined by 900 plastic cones, with a timer running. Smacking a cone brought automatic disqualification.

On the first of four days of practice in the department’s Crown Victorias, Jacob regularly toppled cones while backing into a parking spot. On the third day, he somehow depressed the brake and gas pedals simultaneously and sent the car careering toward other recruits. The instructors had never seen that one before. The next day he managed to do it again. This time, the wheels shrieked as they spun in place.

“O.K., son, just stand down,” said Officer Karmen Williams, ordering Jacob out of the car. “We’ve got some concerns, O.K.?” She patted his wool cap.

The instructors huddled and called Jacob over. “It’s hard for me to explain,” he told them. “I never have this problem with my car.” They huddled again just beyond Jacob’s earshot.

“I wouldn’t recommend him getting back in the car,” Williams said, her thick dreadlocks pulled back tightly.

“We’re probably going to have to recycle him,” said Officer Michael Carter, the class coordinator. It was Jacob’s second safety violation in as many days, and there was no time to address the problem before the next day’s test. Precedent called for him to be removed from the class. “It’s very serious what happened,” Carter told Jacob. “It may take some more practice.” Jacob stood expressionless, then said, “I’m sure if I’m given another chance, I’ll learn from my mistakes.”

The next day, Friday, every other member of the class passed EVOC. Jacob spent the weekend terrified that the instructors might terminate him instead of letting him start the academy a third time. It seemed a bit overblown to him that they had not even let him try the driving test. He started to dwell on his mortgage and credit-card debt and student loans. “If they make it hard for me,” he said, “where do they think I can get a job? McDonald’s?”

On Monday he took action, emailing the recruit supervisor, Sgt. D’Andrea Price, to “profoundly apologize” for his troubles on the course. He said he recognized that the decision to remove him was “reasonable and necessary” and said he was determined to improve.

“I know practice makes perfect,” he wrote, before adding that he was the sole breadwinner for his “young, beautiful family.”

The following day, Price informed Jacob that she would give him one last chance in a new class. The schedule was such that he would have to wait only a month before getting his final shot at EVOC. Jacob couldn’t really pinpoint why he had so much trouble with the driving, but he attributed much of it to not being familiar with the bulky Crown Victoria. So on the May weekend before the next EVOC test, he went to the Thrifty outlet at the airport and rented one for two days of practice. “It’s a lot of money for me,” he said of the $151 he charged to his credit card. “I would have used that money for other things like buying food, sending money to my mom in Nairobi, even paying some of the rents. But this is a big deal. I’ve got to graduate.” It was clear that he felt the weight of the moment, but when I asked if the pressure was getting to him, he denied feeling overwhelmed.

Yet at practice that week he knocked down cone after cone. Each night I’d go home and tell Dina it was befuddling to watch. As on the firing range, Jacob seemed to get jittery when the clock was ticking. His face contorted as he maneuvered around the circles and curves, as if a dentist were drilling his molars. It was curious to us that Jacob seemed to handle mental stress well but became flustered by physical tasks that required hand-eye coordination. Perhaps the adrenaline flooded his system. Whatever the explanation, it was making the instructors crazy. “Mach, do they listen in the motherland?” Officer Williams, an African-American, asked at one point.

When test day arrived, Jacob felt he had done everything he could to prepare. Each recruit would get four chances to pass the braking test and, if successful, would then get four runs at the precision-driving course. Jacob failed his first braking attempt by nicking a cone. On the second and third attempts he accelerated too fast and finished outside the box. He was the only recruit of 35 to not move on. “This boy is coming down to his last darn time,” said Officer Williams, who, like other instructors, had become invested in Jacob’s success.

Williams turned her back as Jacob sped toward his final approach. When he hit 38 on the straightaway, it seemed there was no way he could keep the car in the box. Somehow it stopped just within the lines. “It’s good,” Carter declared, offering Jacob a fist-bump as Williams exhaled.

Now a clean run on the cone course, within 3 minutes 45 seconds, was all that separated Jacob from advancing. His first two tries ended quickly. First a toppled cone. Then an improper parking job. Williams hopped in the car for a practice run and peppered him with instruction. “Gas, I need some gas,” she agitated, clearly frustrated by her pupil’s failure to improve. By now Jacob seemed thoroughly rattled, and on his third try he backed into the parking space and again hit a cone. As he awaited his final attempt, he glared out the driver’s side window with his head sunk into his left hand.

Williams peered back and saw that Jacob was drenched. “You’re sweating, man, you’re sweating,” she said. He wiped his face with a broad sweep of his hand.

“Trying to get that time, ma’am,” he said.

“I know,” she said, “but you got to clean it up.”

Then it was Carter’s turn. “You got the air on in here?” he asked through the passenger window. “Do you need to take a breather?”

“No, I’m good, sir,” Jacob answered.

“Do this damn thing,” Carter urged.

“Yes, sir,” Jacob nodded. “I don’t want to let you down.”

Jacob accelerated with a grimace and a deep breath. He slapped the car into reverse, his mouth agape as he began backing into the space. Williams could see from the car’s angle that he was going to flatten a side cone with his left rear tire. “O.M.G.,” she said, glancing down as he rolled over it. After nearly a year of training and all the setbacks, it ended in an anticlimactic 15 seconds. “All right,” Williams said faintly, “that’s over.”

Jacob was momentarily stunned. Hanging both hands over the steering wheel, he let out a high-pitched wounded yelp.

Later that afternoon, Price and Williams summoned him to the library and made it official. They explained that he could reapply to the academy in a year if he wanted. Price told him how to turn in his gun belt and uniform, then asked if he had questions.

“No, ma’am, I do not have any questions,” Jacob said, “but one thing I would like to say is that I appreciate the opportunities given to me here. The instructors worked very hard to try and help me.”

Price’s voice softened. “One thing I want to say to you is you’ve been a positive light,” she said. “I know you’re down now, and I know you’re going to beat yourself up. I know it. But like I tell all the other recruits: There’s a time and a season for every reason.”

Williams encouraged him to try again. “Just know that you do have a family here,” she said. “You know that, right?”

Jacob offered to shake her hand. “Am I going to get a handshake or a hug?” she asked.

“I will give you both,” he smiled.

Jacob’s hair had already started to grow in when we had lunch four days later. He had explained the situation to his friends at church, and fielded condolence calls from fellow recruits. He felt he had let people down, especially his family, but took some solace in the notion that his failures had been of inexperience, not of intelligence or character. Perhaps, he suggested, the God who had so tested the Lost Boys was still challenging him.

“I mean, life is an obstacle course,” Jacob said, “and you don’t expect to win all the time. Even LeBron James sometimes loses, you know? The people who qualified, who passed EVOC, it’s not that they are any smarter than me. No. Not in the classroom, not in doing physical training. You just realize you might not know everything. But I still have given it my best shot.”

He told me he was already exploring next steps. “As you have seen, since I came to this country I never stopped doing something,” he said. “So if this door is closed for me, I think God will open another door.”

Two days later, Jacob was at home, studying the application for another police department, when an Atlanta Police personnel officer called. He had been recommended to the code-enforcement division for a civilian job inspecting substandard housing and illegal dumps on private property. There was an opening, and it was Jacob’s if he wanted it.

Jacob could not contain his glee when he called to tell me. The job paid almost $39,000, he said, just $3,000 less than he would have made as a cop and $4,000 more than he made as a recruit. What a country: He had been fired and gotten a raise. “We work from 8 to 4, Monday to Friday, can you believe it?” he exulted. “I never get a job like that before. I am glad God has made it happen.”

It occurred to Jacob that God truly must work in mysterious ways. “I couldn’t understand why my foot was hitting the brake and the gas at the same time,” he said. “It had never happened before, so maybe God was doing it. Maybe I was going to get killed in the line of duty, and God was saying, ‘No, it’s not time.’ ”

On Jacob’s first day in the code-enforcement office, the commander, Maj. Cerelyn J. Davis, wandered by and asked if he was her new inspector. “Yes, ma’am, I am,” he answered, “and I am so ready to help you with these bad houses.” It made her laugh that he did not sound the least bit facetious.

Jacob and the more than two dozen other inspectors would handle 10,000 complaints a year, seeking compliance from property owners and issuing citations. He wore a silver badge on the belt of his khaki cargo pants but was armed with only a flashlight, a radio and an iPad.

Early in his training, Jacob helped inspect a complex of dilapidated apartment buildings where vagrants were squatting. As his partner tested the plywood, the new owners of the complex, Glenn and Cyndi Green, stood beside the silver Mercedes they were driving and made small talk with Jacob. They eventually asked about his background, and as his story unfolded, Cyndi Green began to wipe away tears.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “You should talk to these deadbeats out here that don’t want to do anything and tell them how hard you had it to make it where you have.”

Jacob told the Greens he was sure they had struggled as well. “What matters,” he said, “is your determination, your dedication, your ability to move your own challenges.”

Over the next few weeks, as he crisscrossed Atlanta in his white city truck, Jacob saw just how bad things were. For every ramshackle house he inspected in response to a complaint, there were another dozen properties nearby with collapsed roofs or shoulder-high pokeweed. He photographed and documented the blight with his iPad. “Going to these ’hoods, wow,” Jacob said. “I thought in America you would not see people living like this.”

The job kept him very busy, and for the first time he was able to pay his bills and send money to relatives in Africa without piling on debt. He thought he would like the job just fine for a while. Then, who knew? He could not shake the desire to give the academy one more try or maybe go to graduate school. He did not want to be complacent, he told me. “You know,” Jacob observed, “American dream is a continuous process.”




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