English Feature #7-34846 Broadcast May 21, 2001
About three thousand young men from Sudan, who were orphaned and grew up in a squalid refugee camp in Kenya, are being resettled throughout the United States. Today on New American Voices two of these young men talk about their adjustment to their new life, with its modern conveniences and fast pace.
The five tall, lanky young men walked off the plane single file in their new sneakers, looking straight ahead, their only luggage the small packs on their backs. They had just arrived in Washington's bustling, modern Reagan National Airport from Nigeria. Only when they were greeted by their caseworker, who spoke to them in their native Dinka, did they begin to relax a little and look around. One of the boys, David Aboymadje, says that everything they saw - the cars, the escalators, the moving sidewalks - was new and strange to them.
"Actually, the place was very beautiful. I look around and the airport was very busy. I saw a lot of machines that were running here and there, I saw the ground somewhere running, which I had never seen before, also I saw there were stairs, they were running up and down, those were also exciting, because in my life I didn't see them before."
The young men had learned English at the Kakuma refugee camp, where they spent almost 10 years. Before arriving at Kakuma they had suffered unimaginable hardships as they fled the war in southern Sudan. Refugee agencies call them "The Lost Boys of Sudan." Officials estimate that as many as 17,000 young boys, separated from their families, had started the trek from Sudan to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan and finally to Kenya. Only about half made it. On the way they were attacked by bandits and northern Sudanese soldiers, the weaker ones fell prey to lions and crocodiles. Many died from starvation and thirst. David Aquak says the teeming Kakuma refugee camp, set on a hot, arid plain in northwest Kenya, was only a little better.
"The way people are living there is really terrible. The medicals and the food what they have given to people is a disgrace. So the life is really, really, really very miserable for the people. Some people are crying always in the compound, the ladies and the children."
David Aquak and his four friends are now living in an apartment rented for them by the voluntary agency that is overseeing their resettlement. Their caseworker, Agar Mayen, is herself a refugee from Sudan. For the next two or three months she will be their teacher, mentor, and friend.
"In camp they don't have no stove, not any refrigerator, no running water, all these things they don't have so I have to explain each of the things to them. I showed them how to open stove and how to close it. Even, you know, how to flush the toilet. But I am really happy to have them because I was like them when I came here, I don't know nothing about all these things."
Agar Mayen says the boys are constantly amazed by things that most Americans take very much for granted.
"When I went to the airport, they saw many cars. When I got out with them I just went straight to my car. 'Oooh, in all these cars you know your car. How do you distinguish your cars?' So it was fun. (laughs)"
The resettlement agency's aim is to make the boys self-sufficient within two to three months, so the first priority is to find them jobs. In fact, three of the boys are already working, in a grocery store and a fast food restaurant. Three are already studying to get their high school equivalency diplomas, so they can go on to college. Daniel Aboymadjok has specific career plans.
"I hope I will do my best and not be like other people who are remaining in Africa. I hope to learn and get what I need. When I get my diploma from high school I hope I will be a politician sometime. Political science, I like that. To know how world is administrated. Especially in Africa, people are mistreated, there is no democracy in Africa. So I have to learn how Americans administer people."
For all their hopes and optimism about the future, the present can be lonely for boys used to living in groups, constantly helping and supporting each other.
"Because people are working, sometimes you can come home and get nobody. So sometimes if I put tapes on and I'm alone, I put my language and nobody is with me, I feel lonely because I reflect on my situation, I begin to reflect on everything that I was in before."
Caseworker Agar Mayen came to the United States from Sudan via Egypt five years ago. Next week on New American Voices she talks about how she, her husband and their six children are faring in this country.
This script is courtesy of New American Voices intern Richard Hagerman, a student of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.