On Sunday morning, Peter Ajak will don cap and gown and walk across McCarthy Field, where he will receive a bachelor of arts degree in economics and international studies from La Salle University.

The graduation stroll is one he never thought he'd be making.

Eight years ago, he was fighting for survival, trekking hundreds of miles across the hot and dangerous terrain of Africa.

Ajak, 23, is one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan." In 2001, he was one of more than 3,000 African males brought over from refugee camps in Kenya and settled in cities throughout the United States.

Lately, the plethora of books and films about the Lost Boys has given them a brand-name recognition, like the Fab Five or the Talented Tenth.

But these days, lost boy is everything he's not. Ajak knows exactly where he's going - straight into the hallowed halls of Harvard University (yes, Harvard), where he will pursue a master's in international relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Ajak plans to return someday to the homeland he once fled, determined to make a difference in his country, which is now besieged by the Darfur crisis.

"It has indeed been a long journey," Ajak tells me, his lean, 6-foot-5 frame, so indicative of the Dinka, folded into a chair at La Salle's student center. "It's something I never would have imagined eight years ago."

Ajak exudes a certain serenity, a peace that comes with a sense of gratitude from surviving so many horrors that there is nothing more left to shock him.

Even when he recounts the abominations of his flight to freedom, he does so matter-of-factly, as if he were discussing the details of a prolonged field trip.

He explained how his family and other Sudanese villagers from the Christian south were forced to flee the Khartoum-based government of the Muslim north. Ajak trekked hundreds of miles from Sudan to Ethiopia in 1989, then back through Sudan to Kenya in 1992. All on foot.

Walking took months. Along the way, he saw brutal atrocities no child - no person - should have to see. He saw his village burned down. Murder and rape. Kidnapping and looting.

"There was not enough food. Sandstorms in Kenya. It was crazy diseases. People had to use the bathroom in the bushes, so the flies would come. . . . People started dying off," he says.

The wages of a sinister civil war that spanned 22 years.

Still, Ajak considers himself one of the blessed ones. He survived. And while many of his friends were killed, Ajak's family remains intact. His mother lives in Kenya while his father, a brigadier general in the national military, lives in southern Sudan with the youngest of his seven wives, a Sudanese custom.

Separated from his dozens of siblings, Ajak was the only one in his family designated by the American Red Cross to come to the United States. He arrived willingly, not speaking the language but intrinsically understanding the importance of education, and having a desperate need to succeed.

"There are all kinds of opportunities here to change your life," says Ajak, an honor-roll graduate of Central High.

Listening to him, I wish I could take Ajak on a speaking tour throughout Philadelphia so he could share his story with the city's lost boys.

There's an urban war being waged on our streets. The soldiers are emotionally scarred youth living in poverty, undereducated and ill-equipped to achieve in society.

They are our lost boys.

How did they become so invisible? Where is their hope? How do they become found again?

After eight years of living in Philly, Ajak has had time to ponder these questions.

Black youth need mirrors of success, elders who aren't afraid of them and will push them to succeed. "There is a failure to encourage ambition. There is no one to help develop their interests," Ajak says.

He rattles off the names of the people who helped him along the way. There was Dale Long, his South Philly sponsor. Mary Yee, of the office of Family Engagement and Language Equity Services. The generous folks at the United Negro College Fund, which is helping finance his education.

Not to mention a much higher power in whom Ajak has always put his faith.

"Some of my friends look at it as a matter of chance, but I thank God, because there was a 99 percent chance that I would never have been here," he says.

"I believe he has a plan. I'm just letting him carry it out."

Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette.