Death of 'Lost Boy' saddens those who knew him
Peter Biar was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the group of orphaned, displaced children who trekked more than a thousand miles to escape the soldiers in Southern Sudan who had killed their families and destroyed their homes.
In Pittsburgh, Mr. Biar, like many of those youths, found himself again. He learned English and found a good job, paid for his younger brother's first years of vocational school and became an American citizen, returned to Africa to get married and fathered a son he never got to meet, or even see in pictures.
Because on Wednesday, Mr. Biar, whose beaming smile and gentle heart lifted the spirits of everyone he met, died of lung cancer. He was 31 and had never smoked.
Even among the hardworking, unfailingly grateful members of the Sudanese community in Pittsburgh, Mr. Biar stood out as a sort of quiet ambassador to the American people, his friends said.
"He was so innocent and sweet and kind," said Ann Talarek, who helped Mr. Biar find a job after he arrived in June 2001 and become a U.S. citizen in November 2007. "I don't know one person who wasn't touched by Peter everywhere we went."
Mr. Biar was born Jan. 1, 1981, in a village in southern Sudan that he -- like millions of other Christian and animist residents of the region -- was forced to flee after government soldiers from the Arab North attacked.
During the war, in which approximately 2.5 million people were killed, thousands of orphans walked more than a thousand miles to Ethiopia, then to the Kenyan refugee camps where they would spend the remainder of their childhoods. About half the 20,000 "lost boys" who began the journey died along the way from starvation, dehydration, illness and attacks by lions, crocodiles and enemy soldiers.
After enduring those horrors, Mr. Biar arrived in Pittsburgh with three dozen other young men, part of a group of 3,800 people who were among the first to arrive in the United States as part of a resettlement program by Catholic Charities and other aid organizations.
Like generations of immigrants before him, from countries around the world, Mr. Biar and the other Sudanese learned English and started job training. He started janitorial work at the St. Joseph House of Hospitality, where he worked for six years. Later, he found a job as a janitor at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Bethel Park.
In 2002, Mr. Biar also began a part-time job -- on New Year's Day, his 21st birthday -- at the Duquesne Club, where he worked as a dishwasher. On his first day at work, the club served 1,500 meals but Mr. Biar never flagged or complained, human resources director Irma Thornton said.
His attitude, in fact, was unflappably upbeat during all 10 years Mr. Biar worked for the club, where he took on full-time hours in January 2008, she said.
"He was just universally known by his big smile," she said. "He was always so kind to everyone and always such a positive individual."
Many of the club's employees contributed money, she said, after they learned that Mr. Biar -- who roomed with three other men in the Prospect Park apartment complex in Whitehall to save money and sent most of his earnings to relatives back in Africa -- hadn't had time to set aside money for burial after his diagnosis in November.
All the Sudanese are hard workers, Ms. Talarek said, but Mr. Biar just loved going to work.
"He loved to talk to people, he loved riding the bus and seeing his co-workers, and I know when he got sick he missed the Duquesne Club so much," she said. "It must have been so hard for him not to be able to work."
In June 2008, Mr. Biar married a Sudanese woman, Angok Akoi, after a visit home in which he also reunited with his parents, who survived the war. In June 2010, the couple had a son, Nul Biar, named after Mr. Biar's younger brother.
Mr. Biar, however, didn't get a chance to travel back to Africa to see his son before he got sick, and no one there had a camera to take a picture of the boy, Ms. Talarek said.
After his diagnosis in late November, the cancer moved quickly through his body, erasing any hope of a final trip to meet his son, she said. But Mr. Biar -- who had never taken medicine before -- fought hard to survive, enduring rounds of chemotherapy, injecting himself with blood thinners and following every doctor's order.
Even after he got sick, she said, Mr. Biar still thought almost entirely of helping his family, skimping on food for himself to pay for his little brother's tuition at the vocational school in Uganda where he is learning to become a mechanic, or to buy food for a cousin who had her appendix removed in a Ugandan hospital.
Through it all, Ms. Talarek said, Mr. Biar always gave far more than he took, and wanted nothing for himself -- only that his wife and son would be safe, and that his brother would finish school.
"I'm really grateful I got to spend that time with him, and the people who know Peter know how privileged we were to know him in the time we did, for the short time -- the too-short time -- he was here," Ms. Talarek said. "I'm a better person for having Peter in my life, and I know I'm not alone in that one."
A visitation will be held from 10 a.m. until noon today at D'Alessandro Funeral Home & Crematory in Lawrenceville, followed by a prayer service at the funeral home and burial at Calvary Cemetery.
First Published March 31, 2012 12:00 am