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'Lost Girls' of Sudan Left Behind? - 2002-08-16

After Sudan's civil war escalated in 1988, thousands of children who were orphaned or separated from their parents fled the country. No one knows how many died in their trek across the desert into Ethiopia and finally Kenya. Aid workers named those who miraculously survived the ordeal the "Lost Boys," after the fictional Peter Pan's lost boys who clung to each other to escape a hostile adult world. More than 3,000 of these boys were admitted to the United States last year as part of a special resettlement program.

But not all those who fled the fighting were boys. Thousands of girls also miraculously made the trek. So far, only 89 of them have been offered resettlement. The rest remain displaced and forgotten.

Sudan's lost girls suffered the same trauma as the boys - losing parents, brothers and sisters and homes. They walked the same distances, faced the same perils. Grace Anyieth, a tall, pencil-thin 17-year-old, said she is not bitter that the boys got a chance at a new life, a life with a future. She would just like to know why the boys were taken and the girls left behind. "I am not feeling jealousy because of those who have gone," she said. "I like also to be fair, but why are we forgotten? That is my question."

Sudan's lost girls made up less than a third of the estimated 30,000 children who fled the destruction of their families and villages. They were made even less conspicuous since Sudanese culture does not allow girls to live together communally as the boys did.

So the girls were adopted by families in the larger refugee community at Kakuma camp. This was both a blessing and a curse. For once inside these foster families, the girls became little more than unpaid servants - cooking, cleaning and fetching water.

There is further incentive to keep the girls because they can bring a valuable dowry to their foster families when they are married off. Community leader Gideon Kenyi said the situation often makes it hard for a girl to get permission to leave the foster family. "She is now in the family just to do the things, to do the work. And so the family is expecting something from her because 'we are keeping you, we are buying you clothes, buy you soap, maybe sandals. We give you soap,'" he explained. "Now what is next? 'You are not my daughter. You are not my relative.' But I think that, 'OK, when you reach a certain age you have to be forced and get married because how long am I keeping you?'"

Another Sudanese community leader at Kakuma camp, Joseph Maker Kur, said although these traditions run strong in the community, the Sudanese diaspora is slowly beginning to change its attitudes. Mr. Kur said it is starting to place more emphasis on education and the need to free girls from housework so they can go to school. "If they get education, it will bring more income than this dowry," he said. "The dowry is paid in the form of what? In the form of animals. When people were running, you cannot run with animals. They have left them. But whatever the little knowledge they have with them, they are the ones who are getting the incentives now. We need our girls to get a proper education. We need for them to get a chance of resettlement."

So far, the United Nations refugee agency and the U.S. immigration service have done little to identify more lost girls that could be resettled in the United States. They say it is difficult now to locate many of the girls because they are married and have children.

But community leader Joseph Kur said this is not so. He argued that most of the lost girls in Kakuma camp can still be identified and are single, so they are eligible for resettlement in the United States or elsewhere.

UNHCR spokesman Emmanuel Nyabera agreed. He said although no Sudanese lost girls have been resettled as a group, the agency still wants to work on identifying individuals who could start a new life, in a new land. "There are a number of them who can be identified and we definitely will be taking this as a priority," he said. "Some of them feel let down. Some of them feel even then they should be given an opportunity to further their lives, their education."

"If we get any country that is interested in resettling these girls," said Mr. Nyabera, "definitely the UNHCR would move on to identify these cases and have them resettled. The challenge is definitely in terms of traditions. I know the Sudanese community is very, very protective of their girls. And this is where now we will have to find out to do it in such a way that we do not interfere with the traditions of the community."

Meanwhile, Grace and some of her other friends at the camp said they will continue to resist efforts to marry them off to the highest bidder. They said they are not afraid of traveling away from their community to another place, because they have set their sights on completing their education and acquiring new skills. They say the want the same chances that the Lost Boys they walked with are now experiencing.