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The Lost Girls of Sudan Try to Tell Their Story - 2004-08-31


Sudan has been in the headlines recently, as the world responds to the violence and humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region. Ten years ago, another conflict in Sudan was in the news, as thousands of children arrived in refugee camps, fleeing a then-decade old civil war between the Arab-dominated government in the north and the Christian and animist south. Negotiations are still underway to reach a comprehensive settlement to end that conflict. The fighting is over, though, for those children, the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, who were brought to the United States five years ago. They're the subjects of a new movie called "The Lost Boys of Sudan" and their experiences form the plot of a series of graphic novels. But they're not all boys. Less noticed and vastly outnumbered are the Lost Girls of Sudan. At a refugee reunion in Phoenix, Arizona in late August, the young women held their own mini-conference to discuss their particular plight and tell their own stories.

The girls meet early on Saturday morning, before the main conference. Leading the group is Sudanese activist Julia Duaney. She escaped her home 19 years ago and is now a researcher at Indiana University. Wearing a cheery, African-style dress, she coaxes the young women to speak up.

"This is your time," says Ms. Duaney. "This is your moment of fame. You have to get out here and tell your story. So don't be shy, you are in America. You have to behave like Americans, so be strong and talk."

The women agree that being strong and talking is not part of Sudanese culture.

The term "Lost Boys" refers to children who fled the civil war in Sudan, which began in 1983. They arrived, most of them orphaned and alone, in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp in the early 1990's. In 1999, the U.S. State Department allowed these teen-agers to resettle in the United States. About 4,000 young men made the trip. But only 89 women did the same. Aduei Riak was one of them. The Brandeis student came to the reunion from her home in Boston. She says resettlement authorities who came to the camp focused on the orphaned boys who had formed their own communities. The majority of orphaned girls had been placed with families in the camp and were therefore overlooked.

"In Sudanese culture, a young woman is not allowed to stay alone, but for the guy it's okay," says Ms. Riak. "So what really happened was the young girls were placed in foster homes, and while they were in foster homes they became mothers and housekeepers and got lost along the way."

The ones who didn't get lost have vivid stories to tell, like Veronica Abbas, 20, who shares her story after the Lost Girls meeting. She was only about 6 when she fled Sudan for Ethiopia, then eventually, Kenya. But details stay with her.

"I lived in a place called Yuro and there was bombing there," she says. "So at 6 o'clock in the morning, we'd have to run out and hide in the bushes, you know, and come back at 8 o'clock at night because [otherwise] the bombs will hit people and cut people's heads off. I saw a person whose head was cut off and only the body was running. So my mom figured out she couldn't handle that life anymore so she decided to move us to Kenya."

Veronica now lives in a Seattle group home, with her 11-month old daughter, Grace. She says she came to the conference to call attention to the situation of young Sudanese women still living in the Kakuma refugee camp.

"I decided to come here and give people my idea that the girls at home need help," she adds. "They need education. You know, they don't want to be in the kitchen, they don't want to get married when they are 14, they don't want to have 10 kids when they know that they're not going to raise those kids. Five of those kids are going to die of disease and they're not educated."

But Julia Duaney worries that stories like these are not being heard, partly because there are so few Lost Girls, and partly because Sudanese culture does not encourage women to discuss their suffering.

"It's the male power thing," Ms. Duaney explains. "'Oh, I suffered so much and I have carried the gun and fought in the war?' But the women, we don't say that. Some of the young women have fought in the war but they don't go out and tell it. But they need to say it and culturally we need to break that barrier to tell our part of the story."

Ms. Duaney says not much was done toward that end during the conference, which was hosted by the city of Phoenix and the Arizona Lost Boys Center, the country's only center for young Sudanese refugees. Most of the proceedings were devoted to organizing the Lost Boys and Girls across the country. The single meeting just for lost girls was originally going to be held Friday afternoon. It was rescheduled for 7:30 on Saturday morning. And while it resembled a cozy coffee klatch, only about two-dozen people showed up.

"I have been complaining all the way along. Here they go out and organize a three day conference and they just give the girls one hour. I am mad as hell. I am very mad. They should have been given an hour in the main conference, where even the Lost Boy should listen to these girls' stories," adds Ms. Duaney.

There were a few men in the audience who heard the stories. One of them wrapped up the meeting with an idea that met with much agreement. He suggested a tactic that could perhaps only work in the United States. The Lost Girls could ensure their stories would be heard by millions by contacting popular TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

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