[Marxism] Lost in America
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 25 08:04:17 MDT 2005
Lost Boys of the Sudan
posted to www.marxmail.org on March 11, 2004
"Lost Boys of the Sudan" tells the poignant story of Peter Dut and Santino
Chuor, two teenaged Christian orphans from Sudan's southern regions. Their
family was gunned down by federal troops from the Arab/Islamic north in a
brutal civil war that has taken more than 2 million lives over the past 20
years, mostly black Christian tribesmen like these two Dinka boys. The war
broke out in the early 1980s when the government in Khartoum declared that
'sharia' or Islamic law codes would be applied throughout the country.
Given shelter by Christian charities in the United States with a
long-standing paternalistic interest in such orphans, Peter and Santino
make fitful attempts to adjust to a cold and cash-driven society. As
typical Sudanese youth, they thought that their homeland was the most
beautiful place on earth and enjoyed tending their village's cattle and
goats. That pastoral life would be shattered in a civil war whose ultimate
cause is the colonial system. Once they become workers in the United
States, the land of their ostensible salvation, they begin to experience
for themselves what Marx described in the "Economic and Philosophical
Manuscripts of 1844": "...the worker feels himself only when he is not
working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when
he is not working, and not at home when he is working."
Lost in America
It was supposed to be a storybook tale of young refugees triumphing against
all odds. But an alarming number of Sudan's "Lost Boys" have spiraled into
alcohol abuse, crime and even fratricide. What went wrong?
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By Leigh Flayton
Aug. 16, 2005 | PHOENIX -- When Joseph Abil arrived in Dallas in 1995, he
represented the first wave of extraordinary refugees, mostly young men, who
became known to the world as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." Abil, 20 years old
at the time, had fled civil war in his native country that wiped out his
village. He survived a perilous migration across Africa, endless hunger,
and harsh conditions in a refugee camp in Kenya. When he settled in Texas,
with the help of the United States government, he was finally free to lead
a life of hope and promise.
But life in America presented Abil with struggles and dangers of a
different kind. In 1997, feeling isolated, he moved to Phoenix, where other
refugees from his Sudanese community had been resettled. He lived alone in
an apartment and worked as a stock clerk at a Fry's supermarket. Although
Abil took medication for mental health problems, his friend Martin Abucha
said Abil had no trouble holding down a job.
Early this year, Abil stopped going to work. One afternoon in February, he
left his apartment and headed for the I-17 freeway, miles from where he
lived, and started wandering north along the median during rush hour. A
highway patrol officer approached Abil, and according to a report from
Arizona state officials, Abil grew "agitated" and refused to move off the
median to a safe location. The officer fired a Taser at Abil, who
retaliated by throwing "baseball-sized rocks" at him. Pulling out a
handgun, the officer fired three shots at Abil. The refugee who triumphed
over years of hardship in Africa fell dead on the Arizona freeway.
Since the late 1990s, the Lost Boys have made headlines around the world.
In 2001, their sojourn was hailed as a remarkable success story on "60
Minutes II." "In Sudan, thousands of Lost Boys fought off dangers we can
barely imagine, and are now, happily, flying off to the United States,"
reported CBS correspondent Bob Simon. In a second story that aired the
following January, Simon said of the Lost Boys' lives in America: "There
were dark moments. There were bound to be, but they passed." A Kansas City
man, featured in the show, said of one Lost Boy he mentored, "He's living
the American dream. He's already got a job; he's self-sufficient. You've
taken someone literally, almost literally, in the Stone Age and dropped him
into a modern civilization, saying after four months you're on your own,
and he is, and he's fine."
Many of Abil's "brothers," as the Lost Boys call each other, have indeed
made better lives here. They are earning high school diplomas, attending
community colleges and universities, and holding down a variety of jobs,
typically low-paying ones. Today, nearly 4,000 Lost Boys call America home.
Last December, Arizona's Deng Majok Chol, 27, became the first Lost Boy to
graduate from a major U.S. college, Arizona State University, with a double
major in political science and economics. In February of this year, People
magazine profiled three Lost Boys who had returned to the Kakuma refugee
camp in Kenya to help their brothers still stuck there. "In less than five
years," reported the magazine, "they transformed from wide-eyed immigrants
who had never seen a kitchen freezer to young men working their way through
college in San Diego."
But for an alarming number of Lost Boys, their journey to America has taken
a much darker turn -- into unemployment, alcohol abuse, petty crime, murder
and suicide. Unresolved cultural differences and a lack of support,
training and education have led them to fall through the cracks of the
social and legal system. Many Lost Boys, advocates and researchers say,
suffer from some degree of trauma-related mental illness, most notably
post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We want our Lost Boys happy, polite and grateful -- and during the first
couple of honeymoon years, that's what we saw," says Ann Wheat, co-founder
of the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix. The center, which opened in
2003, offers more than 400 Lost Boys a place to gather, speak with career
counselors, and get legal and medical advice. "But we do the Lost Boys and
ourselves a huge disservice by perpetuating a one-dimensional image of
them. If they were all models of emotional health, we might as well
conclude that war is good for children, save our time and resources, and
all go home." Wheat, who also works as a supervisor for Phoenix's city
parks, says that reports of troubling incidents around the country often
reach the center through the Lost Boys' own word-of-mouth network. Lately,
she says, "It has started to feel like an epidemic."
The Lost Boys were victims of a brutal civil war in the south of Sudan that
began more than two decades ago. The Arizona center's current outreach
coordinator, Jany Deng, 26, landed in Phoenix in 1995; he and his blood
brother Simon were two of the first four Lost Boys to arrive in Arizona.
Their saga had begun 10 years before.
While herding cattle in 1985, Jany and other boys from his village
witnessed the destruction of their homes by government-backed Islamic
militias. They took off running, beginning a multiyear exodus that spanned
East Africa and countries around the globe. Many of their parents were
murdered and their sisters raped, enslaved and killed. (As a result, there
are fewer Lost Girls.)
For years, tens of thousands of Lost Boys walked more than 1,000 miles
across East Africa, thousands dying of starvation, disease, and militia and
animal attacks. Jany and his group first went east to Ethiopia, where Jany
was reunited with Simon, who had made it there with another group of Lost
Boys. But when civil war flared up in 1990, they fled back to Sudan. They
returned to nothing: Their family and village were gone. Eventually they
trekked to Kenya, winding up in the Dadaab refugee camp. After a year in
Dadaab, they were among the first few relocated to the United States.
In the 2003 documentary film "Lost Boys of Sudan," one Lost Boy expresses
the shared perception, while in the Kakuma refugee camp, of what it will be
like to leave for America: "This journey is like you are going to heaven."
When Jany and Simon arrived in Arizona, Jany, then age 16, was sent to live
with a foster family; Simon, 23, shared an apartment with two older boys.
It was a pattern that continued from coast to coast as more of them came;
the minors were resettled with families, while older Lost Boys were placed
in dingy apartments, often cramped together, in rough city neighborhoods or
on the outskirts of towns.
In Phoenix, Jany attended school, made friends and joined the track team;
Simon couldn't keep a job. He told Jany that "people looked at him
different and made comments." By the spring of 1997, Simon had grown
despondent. He wanted to bring his girlfriend from Dadaab to Arizona, but
to no avail. He had no money or job prospects. According to Jany, Simon
began to speak of suicide.
On Apr. 10, 1997, Simon bought a 9MM rifle and rode a city bus toward the
Catholic Social Services office building in North Phoenix. He got off the
bus, took the rifle out of its box and fired it in the parking lot of a
Circle K convenience store before heading to the office. A police
helicopter and officers responded as Simon entered Catholic Social Services
at lunchtime. Once inside, Simon looked for his caseworkers and, according
to the police report, began firing his gun in the air. No one was hurt. The
police arrived at the building and Simon shot at Officer Terrence Kobza.
Kobza returned fire and killed Simon with a bullet in the arm and another
in the chest.
Today, Jany still hasn't made peace with Simon's death. "Why here?" he
asks. "He could have died over there. I could have died over there," he
says of Africa, his words breaking into a stutter. "The way it happened, it
was not a good way."
Local news and police reports from the past eight years, along with
accounts from advocates and Lost Boys themselves, reveal a trail of tragic
In August 2001 in Boston, Daniel Majok Kachuol, 19, was charged with
assault and rape, just six months after his arrival. In September 2002 in
Rochester, Minn., Christofar Atak, 31, ran in front of a police car in the
street, shouting, "I want to die!" Under disputed circumstances, a police
officer ended up shooting Atak point-blank in the back. Atak, who survived,
had a blood-alcohol level that indicated he was severely intoxicated. That
same month, Phillip Ajack Cham, 33, entered an immigration office in
Houston demanding to be repatriated to Sudan; he grabbed a gun from a
guard, firing it and threatening suicide before being subdued by officers.
In April 2004 in Fargo, N.D., Chol Deng Chol, 25 -- considered "one of the
most promising students we've seen in a long time" by a mentor at North
Dakota State University -- was charged with the rapes of two teenage girls
after a night of drinking. In Atlanta that summer, Ajuong Manuer, 21, died
following an alcohol-fueled fight -- over $10 -- with fellow Lost Boy Mayen
Biar Diing, 25. And in May 2005 in Seattle, Kero Riiny Giir, 27, stabbed to
death an ex-girlfriend, Lost Girl Roda Bec, 16, for being "rude" to him, as
he would later tell police. After fleeing the scene, Giir had jumped off a
highway overpass in an apparent suicide attempt.
"We have a lot of angry Lost Boys, and it has not been brought to the
attention of the community," says John Aza, 40, director of the Southern
Sudanese Resettlement Program in Tucson. Aza left Sudan in 1996 and is
currently earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the
University of Arizona. He does not count himself among the Lost Boys,
though he is close with the community. At the end of July, Aza visited six
Lost Boys who had been released from jail -- some arrested for driving
while intoxicated, two for arguing with police officers after a fight in a
club. For Lost Boys who lack jobs and community support, and who have a
hard time adapting to American culture, says Aza, alcohol is often "the
"A lot of Lost Boys have been picked up for DUIs," Wheat says. "It appears
to be a growing problem in the Sudanese community, but it's something
that's kept a dark secret. They don't deal with it. We could start an AA
meeting at the center and nobody would come."
Advocates across the country, including from large enclaves in Atlanta and
Jacksonville, Fla., express serious concerns about publicizing the Lost
Boys' problems. They say the refugee community is extremely sensitive about
them, while some fear a backlash could undermine fundraising, scholarships
and the ability to enlist volunteers and mentors. Wheat also worries that
news of dark-skinned refugees falling into violent crime won't be well
received, especially in America's post-Sept. 11 political climate.
But shining a light on the troubling cases could be critical to helping the
refugees, says Apuk Ayuel, who serves as deputy spokeswoman for the newly
established Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, a nonprofit support group based
in Los Angeles. Ayuel, 24, fled Sudan with her mother and arrived in
Houston in 1996. She currently studies political science at the University
of Texas at Arlington. "It seems like the way it's depicted is that every
single Lost Boy has gone through -- that their situation is all equal, that
all of them are getting educations," she says. "But there are a lot of
people who are falling through the cracks. Their deeper stories are not
Some of those stories involve dozens of Lost Boys who have been victimized
themselves. Violent crime -- often in racially charged circumstances --
including assault, robbery and murder, has led to the deaths of at least
four Lost Boys. They have also been involved in a rash of car accidents.
Many Lost Boys saw their first cars just a few years ago and so have little
driving experience; according to Wheat, more than two dozen had serious
accidents in Arizona alone in 2004, including two fatalities.
Wheat says she knows of at least a dozen around the country who've
While the details of various tragic cases remain murky, researchers see at
least one clear thread tying them all together: trauma-related mental
illness, mostly left untreated. David Berceli is a trauma therapist and
founder of Trauma Recovery Assessment and Prevention Services who worked in
Sudan between 2001 and 2004. Berceli, who counseled a group at the Arizona
Lost Boys Center in July on post-traumatic stress disorder, says he's
troubled, but not surprised by the pattern of incidents. "With people who
have been put through years of life-and-death experiences, untreated fear
and anger can develop into hatred and rage," he says. "It becomes an
In June, Dr. Paul Geltman, a professor of pediatrics at the Boston
University School of Medicine, published a study measuring the assimilation
and well-being of 304 Lost Boys who arrived as minors in the U.S. from late
2000 to early 2001. While many fared relatively well, the study concludes
that 20 percent of them suffer from PTSD.
Geltman says the rate of PTSD does not necessarily go beyond "what would be
expected" of a traumatized refugee population. At the same time, he adds,
he finds it remarkable that the prevalence of PTSD isn't higher. "I'd love
the opportunity to do a large assessment of the older Lost Boys for
comparison," he says. He notes that the problems of the older Lost Boys are
probably "much greater" and would amount to greater levels of dysfunction,
considering they've received less attention and support, and fewer
services, than the minors. But even the minors, Geltman says, have not
necessarily received the mental health help they've needed. As a result,
his report concludes, the Lost Boys face lasting difficulties in being
integrated into U.S. society.
Advocates, including Sudanese who have become leaders among the refugee
community, share that view. According to Ayuel, many of the Lost Boys still
suffer nightmares about the horrors they witnessed and endured. "They're
normal most of the time, but they'll have the same nightmares over and
over," she says. "There are some people in the community of Lost Boys and
Girls who will say, 'Yeah, they're a little crazy.'" Ayuel says therapy is
a concept as foreign to the Sudanese natives as refrigerators and fast-food
restaurants once were. In fact, therapy is taboo to them.
Peter Deng (no relation to Jany; the name Deng means "rain" and is common
in Sudan) found his way to Phoenix in 2001. When he arrived, he recalls, "I
was thinking about food." During his nine years in a refugee camp in Kenya,
he ate food provided by American relief agencies. "So I was thinking that
America is a good country," he says. "Maybe if I go there I will make
money; I will go to school."
In his first year in Phoenix, Peter was beaten up, carjacked and wrongly
accused of fathering a child. He was fined $1,200 for driving without a
license or insurance, which he had no idea he needed. He learned about the
U.S. court system when he had to file a restraining order against a former
girlfriend, who threatened him by saying, "You are just a refugee here in
America. I can kill you." These days, Peter rarely goes out in public,
especially at night, and he says he fears going to jail. "If I go to public
places, the mall or a club, somebody might hurt me for that," he says,
seated inside the Arizona center one afternoon.
Peter has received important assistance from the center, which helped him
find a job as a file clerk for a company that sells concert tickets.
Located across the street from the state capitol in a dodgy part of
downtown Phoenix, the center shares a parking lot with a plastics recycling
plant. Sudanese folk art and black-and-white portraits of Lost Boys at the
Kakuma refugee camp add touches of familiarity to a place that offers help
with foreign struggles like disconnected phone lines, eviction notices and
shopping for groceries and clothes. (Lost Boys in Phoenix, according to
Wheat, have been bilked for thousands of dollars by disreputable
companies.) The center has partnered with Target, PetSmart, Phoenix's Sky
Harbor airport and other businesses to arrange some 150 jobs for Lost Boys.
Peter earns $8.50 an hour in his clerk job, and works on his skills at the
center's computer lab in his spare time. He watches a lot of television and
movies, citing "Rush Hour" as a favorite film. Like many of his brothers,
he says he wants to earn enough money to move back home to Sudan, find his
missing family, marry and help rebuild the war-ravaged country. For now,
Peter remains a homebody, struggling to make it day to day in Phoenix.
Jany, the center's outreach coordinator, shares Peter's ambitions, as do a
great majority of their brothers, of helping to rebuild Sudan. These days,
of course, the country faces a grave crisis in the western region of
Darfur, where genocide at the hands of the notorious government-backed
Janjaweed militias has created a new generation of physically and
psychologically brutalized refugees. To date, the U.S. government has not
formally resettled any of them here.
Jany points out that the prospect for peace darkened considerably on July
30, when longtime southern Sudanese rebel leader and newly elected Vice
President John Garang died in a helicopter crash, plunging the country's
fragile peace into an unknown future -- and hitting the Lost Boys community
across America with a new wave of grief and fear. "It's a huge blow," Jany
says. He adds that many Sudanese people don't believe Garang's death was an
accident, and fears that the Sudanese regime is going to kill more of his
community's leaders back home. "It's on everybody's mind," Jany says.
The plight of his fellow refugees in America also continues to weigh
heavily on him. Jany, who plans to graduate next May from Arizona State
University with a bachelor's degree in social work, says he loves his work
counseling his brothers and helping them to find and keep jobs. But
cultural differences, he acknowledges, continue to exacerbate the Lost
Boys' problems. In Sudan, he says, young people don't trust police, who
regularly kill civilians. "We were taught to fight our own battles," Jany
says. So it's no surprise, he continues, that many Lost Boys in America are
wary of police and governmental authorities.
Some Lost Boys also have had trouble adjusting to American sexual mores.
Unfamiliar with America's system of dating, Jany says, the younger men
sometimes mistake friendliness for sexual interest, and so being rejected
by women can stoke feelings of frustration and alienation, and even lead to
Eight years after his brother's death, Jany keeps his spirits up by
immersing himself in his work at the center. He is also a marathon runner,
which he calls his passion and "getaway thing" -- he has qualified for next
year's Boston Marathon. He says he's so busy taking care of everyone else
that he sometimes doesn't look after himself enough. Jany seldom has the
energy to make it through his homework after a full day of school and work.
He has suffered from anemia; he collapsed last January while running a
Last December, he fell asleep behind the wheel of his car. The car flipped
over three times and was totaled, but luckily Jany managed to escape
without a scratch. Lately, he says, his grades have started to slip and he
sometimes feels dizzy -- yet, his own training aside, he says he isn't sure
what else he should do. "I'm abusing myself," he says, smiling, when asked
if he thinks he might suffer from PTSD.
Aydin Bal, a researcher and doctoral candidate at Arizona State University
who has worked extensively with Arizona's Lost Boys, affirms that the
upbeat image of this remarkable group of survivors is authentic. In spite
of a harrowing past, he says, they remain determined to fit in and succeed
in America. "They have shown an enormous amount of resiliency," Bal says.
"Of course they are not trying to find food or drinking water now," he
says. "But they are still trying to find their past, their memory."
Unfortunately, support services for the Lost Boys are drying up. According
to Wheat, if the Arizona center can't raise $250,000 before a core grant
from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expires on Sept. 30,
the doors will close. Several Lost Boys organizations in other U.S. cities
are also strapped for funds. In 2002, the federal government's Office of
Refugee Resettlement cut general mental health funding, previously about
$2.8 million per year, from its budget.
In the meantime, some Lost Boys in America who struggled the most with fear
and grief reverted to the one way of escape they knew best. Earlier this
year, a 23-year-old Lost Boy, diagnosed with schizophrenia and convinced
that people wanted to kill him, disappeared from his home in Syracuse. By
June, he'd wandered more than 2,100 miles to Mexico City. And then there
was Abil, the Lost Boy who was shot and killed on the Arizona freeway.
"After all the miles he walked in Africa to escape hell, he returned to
walking," Wheat says. "I wonder where he was heading. I wonder if he knew."
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About the writer
Leigh Flayton is a freelance writer based in Phoenix.
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