In the last days of summer, about 200 of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” who had been resettled in the United States two years ago gathered for a reunion. In the camp where the reunion was held, not far from Washington, they combined summer fun with workshops and discussions on how to deal with the challenges of their new life.
As children they had survived unbelievable hardship and privation fleeing the civil war in their native Sudan. They spent their growing-up years in the overcrowded, hot and dusty Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Then, in 2001, the United States accepted 3,360 of these young men – and about 90 young Sudanese women - as refugees, and resettled them in small groups in various parts of the country.
When they arrived, the “Lost Boys”, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, were subdued and apprehensive about what awaited them. They knew little English. Many had never turned on an oven or flushed a toilet. But they firmly believed that America was a land of opportunity, and they were determined to make the most of it. Now, two years later and two years older, the young men appear to be much more self-assured. They have adjusted to the realities of life in this country, and in many cases, have also adjusted their expectations.
“Yes, I changed my expectations, my goal when I came from Africa to America, I started out to be a doctor. But when I came to look at the long time, I cannot afford to do it, because a doctor needs a lot of money so that he can go to school. But I see the short term that I can use for my life. I say, oh, okay, immediate four years of college, I can get a nursing degree. I can do it, and be a registered nurse.”
To support his nursing studies at a community college in Atlanta, in the southern state of Georgia, Wilson Dut works in a bakery. He lives with two other young Sudanese in a two-bedroom apartment. Although at first it was hard for him to adjust, now, he says, his “life is a little bit okay”.
“What I like most in America, because people have freedom of speech, freedom of whatever you want. If you want a comfortable life, America is the freedom land, the whatever-you-want land. I like it. Because it gives people the right to do whatever you need to plan for their future.”
Wilson Dut says he found the people in Georgia as a rule, friendly and welcoming. The only unpleasant experience was after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“People tried to attack us in the apartment, because they thought we were a part of these guys [the terrorists]. They hurt one of my friends, actually, they stoned him, but we came out and protected him. We called the police, and the police came, and these people ran away. But we talked to the news, and the journalists, and we told them that that we are from southern Sudan, far from what happened right now. Now we’re back to the normal life.”
In fact, his best three friends are Americans, Mr. Dut says, one of whom – his English teacher – accompanied him to the Maryland camp for the reunion. For five days the young Sudanese men and women had a chance to swim in the camp’s large pool, play basketball or volleyball on its courts, or – what many of them seemed to prefer - just hang out and chat and take photographs of each other.
The workshops and discussion sessions were very well attended, though. They were specifically designed to help the young people at this stage of their adjustment – now that they had learned English, had finished high school, had jobs, and had gained a more realistic sense of what life in America entails. There were sessions on educational opportunities, on cultural adjustment, volunteerism, civic participation, physical and mental health, and immigration-related issues. One workshop was devoted to career development. It was led by consultant Tom Giossi.
“This particular session is to help the Sudanese refugees that are here today to learn how to plan for a career, so that if there’s a particular career that they have in mind, they can kind of go through the process of getting from where they are today to what their actual career goal is. So in particular, we’re focusing on lawyers, nurses and mechanics today. We try to emphasize that each person has their own particular situation and their own capabilities, so the actual time it’s going to take to achieve their goals is going to vary from person to person.”
Mr. Giossi, who conducts similar career-planning sessions with refugees from other countries, says he thinks the Sudanese youth have a pretty realistic view of what it will take to achieve their goals. He adds that compared with other refugee groups, they have a good chance of making a success of their lives here.
“Well, I think they have a lot of advantages in the fact that they came as young people, and so most of them were able to benefit already from a secondary education in this country. And so they’re starting out at a younger age, and they have fewer family obligations than some of the other refugees that come in. And because they’re younger, they’re also able to learn English in a much more effective fashion. I think their chances are very good, I think it’s a very good refugee population for the United States, and I think they’ll contribute tremendously to this country and our well-being later on.”
Next week, a young Sudanese woman and her uncle talk about their lives in the two years since they came to the United States.
VOA photos by Rachel Birtha Eitches
English Feature #7-37838 Broadcast September 15, 2003