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Lost Boy survived Sudanese civil war but died alone on streets of Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — As an 8-year-old, Phillip Deng Aguto fled his home on foot to escape death or induction into the northern army during Sudanese civil war.

For 13 years, he and thousands of other Sudanese children, mostly boys, were displaced, first in Ethiopia and then Kenya. They endured hunger, dehydration and exposure. Many drowned in rivers or were killed in rebel attacks. Some even fell prey to attacks by wild animals.

But Aguto survived and in 2001 was resettled in Utah from a refugee camp in Kenya. He completed some high school classes and worked for Deseret Industries and the LDS Church Distribution Center. Most recently, he worked for a firearms manufacturer.

Amram Musungu, a friend of 10 years, said Aguto struggled with the trauma he experienced as a youth but longed to have a family of his own. At one point, the men were roommates and regularly attended of LDS Church services together.

Aguto, who joined the Episcopal Church as a boy in Ethiopia, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after arriving in Utah.

"Phillip never insulted anybody. Phillip was always happy. He never even offended anybody. This is a young man who was just happy. He'd say 'How you doing, brother?' " Musungu said.

In the past month, the men had lost touch, Musungu said.

On Aug. 14, an acquaintance telephoned Musungu with "heartbreaking" news, he said. Aguto, 36, had been killed in a suspected hit-and-run collision along North Temple in the early hours of Aug. 13.

According to press accounts, several vehicles stopped and then left the scene. No one was with Aguto when police arrived.

"It is hard for us. Our family knew him really well," Musungu said.

Remembering a friend

Musungu was among about 50 people who gathered for funeral services Friday for Aguto at All Saints Episcopal Church. The traditional Episcopal service included two Dinka hymns and personal stories offered by friends and extended family.

Scott Jenkins met Aguto while serving as an inner-city service missionary for the LDS Church. Although the calling ended shortly after the men became acquainted, Jenkins continued to help Aguto and other Lost Boys.

Once, Aguto called Jenkins from jail after he had been arrested for driving without a license. Jenkins said he told Aguto that he should have known that he was supposed to have a driver's license.

But Aguto told him that when he was in Kenya and did something bad " 'the Kenyan police would beat us with sticks within inches of our lives. The police here in Salt Lake are always so polite with me and respectful of me. I really didn't realize it was a serious thing,' " Jenkins recounted.

Jenkins said he was always struck by Aguto's immense gratitude for being resettled in the United States and his love for America.

Aguto's last job was working at Cobra Firearms in the Salt Lake City International Center. Co-workers tried to help him with donations of clothing, even a bicycle that co-worker Keith Nielsen gave him when he learned that Aguto walked to work.

"I had a bike and I sort of fixed it up to ease his journey and to get around," he said.

Aguto was "a good-hearted person. Even when he had a setback in life, he always had a smile. He never seemed like he let things get to him. (He was) always willing to help out, a good person to talk with," Nielsen said.

Concern for others

Brianna Gentry, whose husband owns Cobra Firearms, said she was struck by Aguto's concern for other people, particularly as he struggled in his own life, which had included periods of homelessness and hunger.

"He had a very difficult life, a lot of challenges. Some days he wouldn't even have any food. Just through the kind-heartedness of everybody in the company, we would see he needed food or shoes or whatever. He'd be so gracious about it. Every single day he'd say 'How are you?' and he'd make sure he'd shake my hand," Gentry said.

When the two would part, Aguto would always end the conversation with " 'I will pray for you.'

"That touched me so deeply because I have so much in my life and here he had very little and he was always willing to give more," she said.

Aguto's funeral services were conducted by the Rev. Trace Browning and the Rev. Gabriel Atem, himself a Lost Boy of Sudan who was ordained as an Episcopal deacon in December 2015.

Following the funeral, Aguto was interred in Mount Olivet Cemetery. His father, Aguto Jok Adol, preceded him in death. He is survived by his mother, Atit Kurwel, a brother and two sisters who live in South Sudan.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com