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Lost Boys of Sudan, Part 1 - 2002-03-10


English Feature #7-34810 Broadcast May 14, 2001

People call them the "Lost Boys of Sudan." There are thousands of them. They were born in war-ravaged Sudan, and as children they fled their smoldering villages after their parents had been killed. They grew up in the vast Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Now about three thousand of them are gradually being resettled in the United States. Today New American Voices will introduce you to some of the boys, as well as some of the people who are trying to give them the opportunity of a new life in America.

Five of these Sudanese young men, who grew up battling disease, hunger and constant attacks by marauders in the deteriorating and overcrowded Kakuma refugee camp, flew into Washington, D.C.'s bustling Reagan National airport only three weeks ago. Although he is unsure of his future, 22-year-old Daniel Aquak feels ready for life in America.

"When I did my orientation in Kakuma camp, you know, I have been told that America is a land of opportunities. So whatever I will do when I arrive in this place, I hope I will do my best."

The five boys, all 21 or 22 years old, live in a sparsely furnished four-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Washington. It was rented for them by the Ethiopian Community Development Council, one of the ten voluntary agencies responsible for resettling the Lost Boys of Sudan in the United States. The agency's Vice President of Programs, Mitiku Ashebir, says that the Lost Boys pose unique challenges to the caseworkers because of their histories.

"These youths are really a special population. Their ages ranging from about four or five to fourteen, fifteen, they had to trek all the way from the Sudan to Ethiopia and then unfortunately back to the Sudan and then from the Sudan to Kenya. And you can imagine how long this trip and the hardship these young people were faced with. And they done this with the least support and guidance from adults and they have been kind of supporting each other. And really one of the challenges is how to counsel them, to support them to be independent and individuals looking out for themselves."

The State Department provides the voluntary agency with $720 per refugee to cover resettlement costs. This sum is expected to last for 30 to 90 days. And so, says Mitiku Ashebir, his agency's role is to help the refugees become self-sufficient as soon as possible.

The Ethiopian Community Development Council has assigned the boys a case worker, Agar Mayen, who, for their first few months in this country, will introduce them to the details of everyday life in America. Ms. Mayen is herself a refugee from Sudan, and speaks Dinka, the boys' native language.

"My job is when they come to the United States I have to go to the airport to receive them and bring them to ECDC. I have to take them to apply for a social security number, then I will take them to the Department of Human Services where they can apply for food stamps and Medicaid, and then they will be transferred to ESL classes, which is English as a second language. I help them with a lot of things, like shopping, and how to use money, how even to cook. Even basic things, how to use the water. Because all these things are new for them."

Sitting on second-hand couches in their spare living room, the young men whisper to each other in Dinka, and talk with visitors in the English they learned in Kakuma refugee camp. Their ebony features, highlighted by a yellow ceiling lamp, contrast starkly with the white walls. The only personal items to be seen are small pictures of Jesus Christ in each room, taped to otherwise naked walls. One of the boys, David Aboymadjok, is currently studying hard to get a high school equivalency diploma while working nights at a fast-food restaurant. He says that he is certain that he and his fellow refugees will succeed in America.

"We are the Lost Boys, as you term us. We are actually going to make it because we have led the life, this miserable life, for almost 14 years. And maybe a person can choose this life again here in the U.S., but I think that man is not mentally okay, because that life you have led for so many years - and there's no benefit. I don't see how somebody could choose it again. When I came, I was having a dream of maybe becoming an electrical engineer. And I hope circumstances will not prevent me, I will one day make it to be an engineer."

Next week on New American Voices, the Lost Boys and their caseworker describe the world the boys left behind in Kakuma, and talk about what they expect of life in the United States.

This script is courtesy of New American Voices intern Richard Hagerman, a student of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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