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Lost boys in search of themselves

Displaced Sudanese begin again in U.S.

Sunday, May 13, 2001

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

By the time Athian Athian was 12, he'd endured a three-month, 800-mile barefoot trek to flee Sudanese government soldiers, the murder of family members, four years in a refugee camp, a forced crossing of the crocodile-filled Gilo River, and the sight of friends eaten by lions and dead from starvation.

James Luk, right, greets William Mayom, one of the newest "lost boys" to arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport this past week. Both are members of the Dinka tribe who escaped the civil war in Sudan. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Athian is now 21, having spent another nine years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Since late March, he has lived in Pittsburgh. He has new clothes, a new apartment, new friends, new foods to eat and a new watch. He takes the bus Downtown, reads the Bible, plays basketball and attends classes.

He is one of 3,600 young Sudanese men -- and some women -- at the heart of a humanitarian effort begun last fall to salvage two generations of youth destroyed by the civil war that has convulsed Sudan for almost two decades.

Athian is one of the "lost boys" of Sudan.

"Clearly we are lost," Athian said of himself and the 13 other Sudanese men who began arriving in Pittsburgh two months ago. Fifty are expected to resettle here by fall.

"You leave your family for a long time, you live alone without big [adult] people. We don't know about our culture. We lost our family. We lost everything we have.

"It means that we are lost."

Shared labors

Athian and the others are here under the auspices of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which is providing them apartments, schooling, clothes and guidance for four months. After that, they will be expected to survive on their own, although they're entitled to welfare cash payments and medical assistance for up to eight months. In at least two dozen cities across the country, other national refugee resettlement agencies are engaged in similar efforts.


William Mayom, right, experiences a moving sidewalk for the first time at Pittsburgh International Airport on his arrival. With him are Angelo Apiel, center, and Angelo Bol. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The young men in Pittsburgh have a shared history. All are members of the Dinka tribe from southern Sudan and are between 18 and 25, although their exact ages aren't known. They've had no communication with their families since fleeing and don't know whether they're even alive. All are thin and angular, although several weeks of three-meal days have softened their faces. And they are Christians, having converted from their indigenous beliefs in Ethiopia.

The "lost boys," whose byname describes their years of wandering, also have shared disturbing experiences. According to a UNICEF publication on the children's flight, most witnessed widespread shelling, burning, looting, drowning and killing and were forced to abandon dying friends and relatives as they fled the fighting.

"When they go to the United States, there's obviously a big readjustment to make," said Steve Redding, the International Rescue Committee's director of programs in Kenya and Sudan.

Those adjustments are on several levels. At the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya where they lived, there were rumors about people being kidnapped in America and shot. When Athian was approached by a Catholic Charities caseworker after his marathon flight from Africa, he recoiled, worried that he might be abducted. Others have wondered if crocodiles lurked in the creek behind their apartment.

But Redding said the biggest adjustment would be learning self-reliance after a lifetime of dependence on the generosity of others.

It starts with the requirement that they repay the cost of their flight from Africa. The English they're learning at classes sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council -- a recent class included the difference between "in" and "on," and "customer" and "clerk" -- has been supplemented with each new Pittsburgh experience. Grocery stores, snow, elevators, pizzas, TV, ball caps, light switches, toilets, refrigerators and buses have forced them to convert words learned from a primer into words describing experiences and needs.

Garang Makil, John Achiek and David Alier try out newly donated bikes outside their apartment building in Prospect Park. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"I am looking for the cereal that goes 'tick, tack, tick,' " James Luk said during one of his first trips to a grocery store. He and the nine other Sudanese with him that day were awestruck by the choices and quantities at the Foodland on Brownsville Road. James and Athian whispered between themselves in the cereal aisle.

"It is a white cereal," Athian said, scanning the shelves.

"That is the milk," James said.

They were handed a box of Rice Krispies.

"Yes!" they both exulted, holding the box aloft.

James was the first refugee in Pittsburgh, arriving March 13. Although several boys were supposed to travel together, James remained alone for two weeks in the one-bedroom Prospect Park apartment provided by Catholic Charities. Not having been told how to use a can opener, he ate only bread and pasta for the first six days. Because he was unaware of the purpose of the light switch -- "I thought it was a decoration on the wall," he said -- the apartment remained dark at night. The ceiling fan? He didn't go near it.

Athian arrived March 27, and while James showed him how some things worked, he forgot to mention others. The first two days, James came home from classes at Catholic Charities' Ninth Street office and found Athian on the couch, sitting in the dark, his arms around his knees.

"Why are you sitting in the dark?" James asked.

Athian hadn't learned about light switches.

They cooked the first grapes they bought on the stove, then stored them in the freezer. The simplicity of sealable bags thrilled them. All learned to tie their first pair of shoes in a day.

Then, on April 11, it snowed.

"We were very frightened," Athian said, remembering that several new refugees arrived that day. "We see flour falling down. My head was very cold. My hair was about to break off."

A world apart

Southern Sudan is crisscrossed by tributaries of the Nile River, which bisects the country, Africa's largest and more than a quarter the size of the United States. Since the country gained independence in 1956, it has been riven by war. In the past two decades, fighting has pitted the Arab Sunni Muslims of the north against the black Christians and indigenous tribes of the south.


Garang Makil watches Kuc Kuc sample cheese while shopping at Foodland in Carrick. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The conflict has resulted in more than 4 million Sudanese being displaced from their homes, plus a half million refugees living in neighboring Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Central African Republic. The fighting has killed more than 2 million people since 1983.

Most of the "lost boys" came from families who, for the most part, were subsistence farmers. Athian's father had a small business in the village of Nyamlell that was profitable enough for him to have nine wives and 20 children.

One day in 1987, Athian was playing when he heard gunfire and people crying. He ran to his village and saw two of his father's wives shot dead along with four of their children. He ran away, with others, not knowing where he was going. He was 7 years old.

For three months, the group of mainly children zigzagged its way east toward Ethiopia, walking 12 hours a day, often without water, avoiding villages, subsisting on roots, leaves and wild fruit. Water was scarce. To elude bandits and conscription into the Sudan People's Liberation Army to fight the government, they hid in bushes and trees. As they trudged across the country, their ranks swelled to 17,000, most of them under the age of 12.

During the next four years at the Panyido refugee camp in Ethiopia, Athian and the other children became each other's families, cooking together, sharing huts and, for the first time, getting schooling. It was there that they converted to Christianity.

In May 1991, they were forced to return to Sudan after a change in the Ethiopian government. Refugee David Alier said they fled under gunfire until they reached the Gilo River, which separates Ethiopia from Sudan. Many of the refugees did not know how to swim. But with the Ethiopian militia closing in, they jumped into the river anyway.

As they struggled in the water, many asked David and the other boys if they knew how to swim. They always answered no, knowing that terrified refugees would cling desperately to them in the river. He said he watched as crocodiles preyed on some people. Many others drowned, he said. Those who waited on the shore were shot.

"For two months we walked," he said. "We ate grass and wild fruit. After two months, the Red Cross found us and gave us food. They told us to follow them to Kakuma."

That sprawling refugee camp houses nearly 70,000 refugees from several surrounding countries. The boys slept on woven mats in thatched-roof huts. Each received a saucepan, knife, spoon, cup and plate. They were given 6 pounds of wheat and 6 pounds of maize every two weeks, and an occasional cup of lentils. It was enough for one meal a day, just enough calories to stay alive. Sometimes they bartered some of their food for thin sticks of firewood for cooking. Sometimes they had neither.

Their journeys to the United States have been a flurry of firsts: first sweat shirt, tennis shoes, bus ride, plane ride, elevator, broccoli, headphones. When the newest refugees arrived Tuesday night, wearing their issued gray sweat shirts and white canvas deck shoes and carrying nothing except their papers and tiny backpacks, they looked gaunt and wan next to the resettled refugees, who'd had the benefit of not only three meals a day for the past several weeks but also the gleanings of donated clothes and accessories.

The new arrivals -- Angelo Apiel, William Mayom, Peter Nyhon and Angelo Bol -- were dazed by their welcome and the foreignness of the gate area. After hugs and handshakes, they walked through the concourse and awkwardly stepped onto a moving sidewalk.

Anyone interested in helping the "lost boys" can call Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh at 412-456-6999.

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