Are the Lost Boys still lost?

A year after their well-publicized resettlement in America, some local Sudanese young men aren't finding the land of opportunity.

Easter sunshine tries to heat the pale concrete of the basketball court, and the rumble of a jet landing at nearby Sea-Tac Airport is just audible behind the loud, clean voice. Simon Mayen Deng, a slight young man in a red jersey and red-white-and-blue headband circles in and out of the 18 dancers kneeling on the court like a displaced town crier.

They have come from the north

And now smoke rises from the houses.

First one house and the next and then another

catches fire until the world has fallen down.

My uncle comes to where we hide in the forest

and tells me that my sister, my mother,

my brother and father are dead. My uncle says, “Come and see.”

But what can we do?

The smoke continues to rise.

It would be hard to guess that Deng had slept only four hours following his night shift as a Seattle Center janitor before coming to this rehearsal for a performance scheduled for May 4 at the Seattle Art Museum. Likewise, the exuberant steps of the dance troupe and the laughter and jostling that accompany the end of the song belie the fact that the song tells of the dancers’ native villages in southern Sudan burning to the ground and the murder of their families at the hands of unknown soldiers. “When we have the opportunity to sing, it is like seeing your parents, your brothers and sisters,” explains Deng of the song’s importance. “When we join together and dance, it is like seeing our parents again.”

The dancers are among the more than 130 Sudanese youths who have made their way to the Seattle/Tacoma area in the past year. The odyssey of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” as they are called, captured the imagination of Americans as more than 3,600 Sudanese, mostly young men in their late teens and early 20s, have been resettled in this country. (While a small number of Sudanese girls have been resettled during the process, many young women were either killed or abducted into slavery in the north at the time of the initial assaults.) After surviving attacks by the Islamic northern army of Sudan, the loss of their families, a barefoot trek across the Sahara Desert, lion attacks, near starvation, and more than 12 harsh years in refugee camps, the Lost Boys of Sudan have ended one year in America, and the questions they continually asked themselves back in the camps remain more pressing than ever. Have we finally arrived? Will we ever return? Why are we here?

WHEN INTERNATIONAL Red Cross workers rescued them in the desert almost 12 years ago and named them the Lost Boys, they were referring to Peter Pan’s band of ragtag otherworldly orphans who refuse to grow up. Since then, the Lost Boys of Sudan have lived with the immense pressure that comes with being dubbed exceptional, even miraculous.

The Lost Boys have experienced a phenomenon familiar to other survivors of Third World atrocities—namely, the merging of varied experiences into one well-spun, easy-to-follow version of survival. Though they came from culturally distinct Dinka and Nuer tribes across southern Sudan, they are now lumped irrevocably together after spending years in the same refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kakuma, Kenya. The Lost Boys have, over the years, come to tell a shared version of their exodus in the fluent, if bookish, English they learned in the camps along with the four different dialects they speak.

Their unusual ability to explain themselves in English as well as their incredible journey made their arrival in the U.S. anything but quiet. A barrage of media coverage accompanied initial resettlement efforts by the State Department and continued into their first months here, as feature stories by 60 Minutes, Tom Brokaw, and various print media followed the Lost Boys experiencing the novelty of snow, eating fast food, and driving cars. Virtually all coverage characterized their story with a quick sketch of their trek, followed by a focus on their generous new lease on life in the land of opportunity.

So perhaps, given this high-profile media blitz, it is inevitable that Daniel Ariik Mawien and his roommate Bol Manyuat Arol, both members of the dance troupe, feel disappointment as they near resident alien status, which will limit their access to help from resettlement agencies. Their year living in the Rainier Valley has been far different from what they imagined after hearing the hype and promise of a new start. “It’s loud, like when a plane goes down,” says Arol of the industrial laundry in Renton where he works. “We were told in Kakuma that we would go to the U.S. and learn for free and study what are our interests. And we came and found ground zero,” he says, referring to the dearth of educational opportunities that met them.

While life in Seattle is certainly better than in Kenya, where nightly armed raids on the refugee camp by the local Turkana tribe were a fact of life, Arol says that it is far from what they thought awaited them. “I save my extra money,” he says, “but money doesn’t make the mind intelligent. Now I know we need money to go to school, and I save because I would like to learn accounting or nursing and join a company that goes to African countries and gives medical assistance. But now we cannot accommodate school, job, and a house. If you lose the job, you lose the house. But if you go to the job, you don’t have time for school.”

“Now I work 20 hours at McDonald’s, and they don’t have more hours,” says Mawien. “I signed for full time in September, but the job is only part time and three hours commute from Rainier Beach to Lynnwood and back. When I compare my life, in my heart I don’t feel happy,” he says. “I came to America, the land of freedom, and my life is like jail. I only have enough for rent. I make $500 each month. Job Corps sounds better. Jobs in America require a diploma and will not interview otherwise.” Both Mawien and Arol plan to join Job Corps later this month. The irony of coming from a refugee camp only to wind up in a two-year residential program for “at-risk youth ages 16-24” is irrelevant to these two young men looking for an opportunity to study. “At least in Job Corps we will have certificate and experience, and maybe our fate will be better,” says Mawien.

THE DISPARITY between expectation and reality is not lost on Bob Johnson and Cindy Koser, directors of the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services’ Refugee Assistance Program, respectively, two of four agencies that have resettled Lost Boys in Seattle. Both have worked with numerous refugees and agree that the Lost Boys have been particularly affected by high expectations.

“For the most part, they’re doing quite well,” says Johnson, who has resettled 16 Sudanese, ages 19 to 24, in Seattle (nearly 40 minors have been placed in foster families). “Their efforts to acclimate have been impressive. Still, the experience with the media did reinforce the myth of America and its excess,” adds Johnson, who says the boys were repeatedly told they would have to work immediately upon arrival and obtain GEDs before undertaking any other courses of study.

The onus of education is a heavy one for nearly all the Lost Boys. They’re seen in the U.N.-sponsored refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, as hope for the future and as potential liberators of southern Sudan. “The elder people in the camp convince me it would be better to go the United States,” says Deng. “When the process started in the camp, the most important thing that brought a lot of us here was education. But we thought then we would come here and study freely. Now I know that you go to school for yourself when you have money.”

“They definitely have a heightened sense of guilt for having survived and been chosen to come here,” says Koser, whose organization has resettled 36 of the young men in Seattle. “Many have been sending significant portions of their earnings back to the refugee camp on top of their own expenses, while others have had to change their phone numbers after calls from Kakuma requesting money grew unmanageable.”

Similar to packages offered to other refugee groups, the Lost Boys received initial assistance from the federal government in the form of $300 each for their first 30 days, along with food stamps and medical coupons. They were then eligible to receive $349 a month in state public assistance for eight months. While most have found steady employment (some hold two or three jobs) and affordable apartments to share in outlying areas such as Tukwila, Burien, and Kent, education has been far more elusive. Courses in ESL and GED requirements have been made available at no cost at local community colleges three times a week, but many of the Sudanese find that conflicting work schedules and commuting difficulties have made going to school impossible.

Abraham Akech Abei, Deng’s roommate in Tukwila, says, “Sure, I’m not going to school now. I was working at the Space Needle until Sept. 11, but when that happened, a lot of Lost Boys were laid off and worry about money first. What I’m doing now is applying for two jobs [to] make money. In the future I want to go to Canada, because I hear the school is good there.” Soon after Sept. 11, nearly half of the Sudanese in Seattle were laid off due to cutbacks resulting from the recent economic recession.

Though the often painful assimilation of refugee groups is not a new story, the quiet dispersal gaining ground among the Lost Boys’ ranks since Sept. 11 is particularly acute to Santino Lual, as two of his roommates have left Seattle to find better work opportunities in other parts of the country. “How can I feel if I have a job and my roommates don’t,” says Lual, who works as an elevator attendant at the Smith Tower downtown. At least five Sudanese have relocated since Sept. 11, while five more have joined Job Corps residency programs in Oregon and California and at least five more await Job Corps assignments.

“They have been promised so many things by so many different people as a result of the attention, including the head of the NAACP when he visited, and very little of it has happened,” says Koser. “But regardless of what else might be possible for them, they have to become self-sufficient first. While it is extremely important for their story to be told, so many people most touched by their story misinterpret the best plan of action for them and have actually made it more difficult for them in the long run.”

INSIDE DENG and Abei’s Tukwila apartment, there are three donated televisions, two VCRs, and four outdated computers. Abei and two Sudanese friends from the same apartment complex play an African card game in the living room, the BET network flashing behind them on the middle screen, while Deng works in the kitchen translating songs for the dance troupe’s first appearance at an upcoming celebration of Sudanese culture at the Seattle Art Museum.

When everything was quiet

and nights were for dancing,

Aweng and I were friends.

But when the village burnt to the ground

she ran back to her old home, her old boy.

And I’m still here cheated out of home and sky.

Aweng has left me for another.

Lual and the other members of the troupe say the struggle to adjust in the U.S. has made gatherings like their Sunday dance rehearsals increasingly difficult. For each, juggling ever-changing work schedules, low-income wages, night classes, and complicated bus commutes is a new part of their journey to be traveled mostly alone. “It is strange, because in our culture you liked to see your neighbors every day,” says Lual, who left Rainier Beach some months ago and now lives in Burien with two new roommates. “Here you have to stay inside. You don’t have to go through your neighborhood, just to the bus, to work, and back. That is why we need to dance, to remember, and to feel at home. You cannot change quick your culture for another culture.”

The International Rescue Committee’s Johnson refers to the cultural gap as a catch-22. For example, he says, many of the young Sudanese men without scarification or tattoos feel the lack of not becoming a man by tribal customs, while others who had teeth knocked out or who bear scars from the first steps toward full initiation feel especially self-conscious here in America. “Some have even gone to dentists to get their teeth fixed,” says Johnson. Mawien, easily the tallest member of the dance troupe, says he constantly fields questions and comments regarding his appearance. “I have problems sometimes with people here at the gate to my apartment or waiting for the bus,” he explains. “They ask, ‘How are you doing, man?’ I say, ‘I’m fine.’ They say, ‘How tall are you?’ I say, ‘I’m 6 foot 9.’ They say, ‘Shit man, why you black like this?’ I say, ‘This is the skin God gave me, original.’ They say, ‘You are not human, you are monkey.’ But I say it doesn’t matter; abuse can’t change your skin,” says Mawien.

Arol, too, has had ugly encounters with ignorance. “As I’m waiting with other ladies and gentlemen for the bus, I receive abuse from young men. ‘Where you fucking from, man?’ and I reply, ‘I’m from Seattle, and they say, ‘No, are you from Sudan? Are you fucking Lost Boys?’ ‘Are you the terrorists from New York?’ And I say, ‘No,’ and when I move away, they throw stones at me.” Arol, whose parents were killed by Islamic fundamentalists, asks, “Why do people talk like this? We do not understand.”

Koser says it would take a kind of advocacy that doesn’t exist to meet the most basic health needs of arriving refugees. “Expectations all around are not true to what our system as it is can do,” she says. “There was no money for a case-by-case evaluation of mental health when they arrived.” And in most cases, the aftershocks that complicate refugee stories come well after their arrival. As Johnson says, “It’s usually a few months before symptoms of post-traumatic stress show up among war refugees. We’re trying to find extra funding to do more than our usual one-year support pattern allows, because it’s obvious a lot of these guys have mental health needs that haven’t been met in the resettlement process.”

“I remember two things most from the time we ran away,” says Arol. “I remember the first white people we meet in the desert who came with water, Bisquick, and some beans, where they found us. They were from the Red Cross.” He then tells of an earlier meeting in the Sahara with a militia group from the northern army. “We were stopped along the road, and some run. Then they make separate groups of us. They say to the small, young ones that don’t know anything, just come here, and they give them each a key, and then they put them down in the hole in the ground and cover it. The small ones, they say, ‘We will not waste our bullets. Tell Jesus to let you in at the gate,’ they say. Then they tell us older to run and shoot at us,” says Arol. “We ran away to another road, and some of us survived.” Like Deng, who has recently been revisited by memories of the initial attacks, Arol is often at a loss when dealing with the past. “It is hard to concentrate when sometimes thinking of brothers and sisters that are dead,” he says.

AS MEMORIES begin to resurface, and the “Lost Boys” rings a little differently than it did a year ago, it is hard not to wonder how a group of refugees as functional in English as these young men are, coming from a political crisis as relevant as theirs to current issues, with such ready cultural gifts, have been so thoroughly characterized as naive. “Each time a new story appears, we get tons of calls from people that want to adopt their own Lost Boy,” says Koser. “Unfortunately, a lot of people with good intentions want to save them from the pain of adjusting to their lives here and are really out to maybe resolve something that has more to do with themselves than these young men,” says Koser.

Everything has died—

plants, animals, and people have gone.

The vultures come and will come again.

“So, if you still have strength, if you’re

still alive,

run towards a safe place.”

“If you’re still alive,

run towards the horizon.”

“If you’re still alive,

run away.”

“When I compare Africa to the U.S.,” says Lual, “I think of how in Africa people use war as a job because they don’t have any other work. Maybe someday people will talk about no war in Africa. Though we don’t have an opportunity to go to school, maybe we will. And that is what people will talk about.”

Excerpts are from songs that will be performed at the Seattle Art Museum this Saturday. The author helped Simon Mayen Deng with the translations. For more information about this event, call the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, 935-3665.