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Sudanese 'Lost Boys' Find a New Home in Atlanta - 2002-07-02

The United States is home to several thousand young men who are known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. They escaped their homes in Sudan as that African nation entered a civil war in the late 1980's, a war that continues to this day. The boys trekked hundreds of kilometers to refugee camps in Ethiopia where they stayed for years. Over the past 3 years, more than 3500 of them immigrated to the United States. A new organization in Atlanta, Georgia is helping some of them deal with their special needs and establish the stable lives they never had.

Dominic Arou is told that he's 24 years old, but he thinks he's 21. The U.S. government could only estimate his age when he arrived here last year; he has no documents from his youth. Dominic Arou was born in the Sudan. When the civil war broke out, his town was set on fire. Everything was destroyed. And he says the government sent in forces to enslave people, including young children. He was about 7 years old at the time.

"During those attacks I had got separated with my family," he recounts. "And given the fact that all the houses and everything was destroyed, I could not get along to meet with my parents again. And I eventually decided to join the multitudes of people who were flocking to Ethiopia for refuge in 1987."

Among the children, it was mostly boys who escaped. Along the way, thousands of people died. Planes dropped bombs on them. Some people drowned crossing the Nile River. And Dominic Arou says some were killed by wild animals. "You can see your friends being eaten by lions," he says. "At the same time we faced, that was during a bad famine in the country. There was nothing to eat. We fed on wild leaves of trees and fruits. And we had no beddings. That was an outdoor survival."

Dominic Arou was among those who made it to Ethiopia. The few girls who made it were absorbed into foster families, but boys like Dominic Arou lived in refugee camps. He spent more than a decade there. Given what he and others had been through, rescue workers dubbed them the "Lost Boys." Then, in 1999, word came from the United Nations that Washington had approved conditions for some of the Lost Boys to resettle in the United States. Since then, about 3800 Lost Boys have immigrated here.

About 150 came to Atlanta, Georgia. Dominic Arou was among the 150, he came to Atlanta in late 2001. Resettlement agencies here work with refugees from all over the world. Mary Williams, who used to work at one of those agencies, became frustrated that she wasn't able to help the Lost Boys as much as they needed. "When they came in, I realized that they were going to need a lot more support than the average resettlement agency was offering,' she says. "Usually it's 3 months of support, rent assistance, and job search kind of things."

Given all they had been through, Ms. Williams says the Lost Boys of the Sudan needed special attention such as additional medical help. "A lot of them have chronic, major illnesses as a result of starving for a very long time or being without medical care for a very long time," she explains." And they needed special counseling.

"They have mental health issues," Ms. Williams continues, "post traumatic stress disorder, some depression, and culture shock." She says the Lost Boys' special needs make it especially difficult for them to get the things they want most, education and jobs. So she created the Lost Boys Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses exclusively on them. Ms. Williams was able to get it started with the help of her unofficial adoptive mother, the actress Jane Fonda. Ms. Williams met Jane Fonda when she was a young girl.

It was a very abusive home I grew up in, a very neglectful home. As she learned more about that, she finally just snatched me and brought me to be in her family. I've been living with her ever since.

Ms. Fonda donated $100,000 to help get the Lost Boys Foundation started, and with the help of volunteers and people who contribute services, the foundation is making an impact. The Lost Boys are getting free medical help and psychological counseling. They're taking classes to obtain a GED certificate, the equivalent of a high school degree. They have help finding apartments, and they're getting jobs with free training.

Dut Majak works in the receiving office of a logistics company. He helps coordinate product distribution for popular department stores. "Everybody is nice to me," he says. "They ask me how you come to America and how you feel now. And I tell them that now I'm in a settled place, the land of opportunity."

People who work with the boys are impressed by their positive attitudes, despite all the hardships they've experienced. Volunteer Milton Clark spends time with several boys each week. "They're wonderful young men," he says. "It's just amazing that everyone I've met has been so polite and so well adjusted."

Some volunteers, however, say the young men sometimes seem afraid to ask for help when they need it. Foundation head Mary Williams has big hopes for the future. Currently, the Lost Boys Foundation only helps the Lost Boys in Atlanta, but she's hoping to take the program nationwide.

"We're forming partnerships with other people around the country who also care about the Lost Boys because it's not just the 150 in Atlanta we want to help," Ms. Williams says. "We want to help the 3800 across the United States who aren't privileged enough to have an organization that's getting them volunteers and mentors and are concerned about their well-being."

Ms. Williams says in most other cities, the Lost Boys are grouped in with other refugees and not getting help from organizations focused specifically on them. She's doing a good deal of fundraising to expand her program. As part of that effort, many of the Lost Boys plan to talk with people throughout the United States about the ongoing civil war in the Sudan. Dominic Arou is one of them. He wants to gather support not just for the Lost Boys here but also for his countrymen in the Sudan.

"One of my goals is to go to school and acquire an education, an excellent education," Mr. Arou says, "so I can be able to articulate the issues, and help the people in my country in creating awareness here, talking to many churches, many organizations, and telling them about the suffering of my people in the country."

Mr. Arou says he's among the lucky few who escaped Sudan, and he wants to commit his life to helping those who were not as fortunate.