THE LOST BOYS On December 17, a dozen teenage boys left mud huts in the Kenyan plain for a new life they could only vaguely imagine. As they prepared to board their first motorized vehicle for their first airplane flight and their first glimpse of the West, someone taught them a new word: Massachusetts.
Strangers in a strange land
January 7, 2001
KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya — Here, amid the cracked earth and grizzled acacias of northwestern Kenya, rumors were running rampant about North Dakota.
Dozens of boys crowded around the UN compound where someone, somewhere, held a list of the US cities where they might be offered homes. An older boy asserted that North Dakota is colder than Nairobi, but this was impossible to confirm. Another was enraptured with the idea of Albany, and dreamily repeated the phrase “Albany, New York. Albany, New York,” a spot whose distance he estimated at a million, or possibly 2 million, kilometers.
And a 17-year-old, John Deng, had his heart set on Chicago, having learned that it is home to an abundance of bulls. To the son and grandson and great-grandson of cattle herders from the Dinka tribe — men who still sing adoring songs about the horns of their favorite oxen — Chicago has enormous appeal.
“I see that on some shirts, like Chicago Bulls. We believe that in Chicago we will have a lot of bulls,” said Deng, a young man with a gap-toothed smile who speaks a formal English akin to that of a BBC announcer.
Within hours, however, Deng would be told the name of a place that suggests a landscape without cattle: Arlington, Mass. It would mean nothing to him.
The flights to America are leaving every day now, screaming out of the bush in a huge cloud of orange dust, as the great migration of the group known as the Lost Boys of Sudan gets underway. Heads down, barefoot except for shower thongs, the departing boys file into the aircraft as grave as spacemen, sometimes without even looking back at the friends standing five deep against the barbed wire.
As far as their tribes are concerned, they may as well be spacemen. Most had never ridden in a motorized vehicle before leaving for America; their grandparents, some said later, were not necessarily aware that other countries existed.
“They were afraid,” said Peter Lagad, a 27-year-old who watched the first groups of boys climb aboard in November. “It was as if they are doing a test on you. It was like getting shot to the moon.”
The decision by the US State Department to resettle 3,800 Sudanese boys across America — in places like Arlington and Fargo and Phoenix and Grand Rapids — seems extraordinary on two levels.
It is a testament, first of all, to the power of the story they have to tell: Forced from their homes by civil war, 33,000 boys from the Dinka and Nuer tribes have lived for 13 years as a virtual city of children wandering across Africa. They protected one another, raised one another, and, in the months spent fending off wild animals and enemy soldiers, buried one another.
The story was retold many times, percolating through the international community, and by the end of last year the US government had decided that finding homes for this group of long-limbed 16- and 17-year-olds was a national priority.
The second extraordinary thing will take place over the next year, in the United States, as these teenagers plunge into the Western world of cellphones, traffic lights, and public high schools.
In the days before they started their journey to Logan Airport, the boys received classes in “cultural orientation” from two African women who said they felt a stab of pity at the naivete of the boys’ questions. Would there be a toilet on the airplane? How will I know when it is safe to cross the street? If a girl asks a boy on a date in America, can the boy refuse? How many cows are required to buy a wife in America? Is it possible to get a government grant to pay a dowry?
For some, the trip felt like a leap into pure oxygen. As the final flights of 2000 were filling up, one young man of 17 tried again and again, but found he could not bring himself to leave Africa. His third attempt to board an airplane to the West collapsed under rainy skies in Nairobi. Limp, with his eyes shut, the young man folded his 6-foot-plus frame like a broken umbrella over the shoulders of an American aid worker.
His friend Bol Thiik explained that his problem was not physical. Rather, he was convinced that his father, a well-known magician in his home village, would curse him rather than allow him to go to America.
“There are many Sudanese who believe that if your child goes to America or Europe he will not come back,” said Thiik, who shivered through the embroidered robe he had bought for the journey. “It is as if your child died.”
Leaving Africa, the departing boys would shake off the rhythms of a thousand years. Thirteen years after they were removed from Dinka cattle camps, eight years after they settled into refugee life in Kakuma, the lost boys still structure their lives around invisible herds of cattle: They gather weekly to sing the praises of their cattle, and they measure a woman’s beauty in terms of a bride’s price; a particularly tall and curvaceous daughter would thus cost 100 cows.
Asked what the Dinka do for fun, Deng explained that it is possible, using a hot poker, to mold the horns of one’s favorite bull into extraordinary and hilarious shapes.
“Then,” he said, grinning, “there is a lot of happiness.”
Crossing to safety
The cattle vanished from their lives long ago. Beginning in 1983, when a tenuous peace in southern Sudan reignited into civil war, the predominantly Muslim government in the north renewed its campaign against black Christian separatists in the south.
Male children were drained from the landscape, snatched up as recruits for the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, targeted by northern militias, or forced to flee. Those old enough to remember recalled joining a moving column of people headed across the border to Ethiopia, passing through strange towns that they still imagine with the eyes of 4-year-olds.
It would be a long time before they could stop walking. Joseph Kuir Maker, a former member of Parliament from Sudan’s Christian south, recalled having been sent to organize the boys in Ethiopian camps in the late 1980s. They stumbled in, he said, in groups of 10 and 100, naked and exhausted, and simply lay down on the ground.
Some seemed close to losing their minds, Maker said. He mentioned one child who had stuck in his memory, who would force the other children to sing, and who would beat them if they stopped.
“When children are alone, they can get wild and lose their culture,” he said. “You could just see they were dying people. Some of them were skeletons.”
Maker and the other adult caretakers, about 300 to look after 33,000 boys, helped to organize the boys into family-like units, but did not quite succeed in protecting them. In 1991, Ethiopia was engulfed in its own civil war, and the boys were driven back to Sudan. This time, they would walk some 300 miles before crossing south into Kenya and eventually arriving at Kakuma; Maker estimates that a quarter of them died.
On the way, on a day they can’t unstick from their memory, the whole column of boys crossed the Gilo River with Ethiopian soldiers at their backs and crocodiles under the surface. Many of the children drowned that day. Simon Galuk, a 20-year-old with jutting cheekbones, spent years dreaming about a boy who grabbed onto his foot until he jerked it away. His colleague, as he put it, drowned. At the time, Galuk was 10.
“We crossed the Sahara Desert. That was bad. But not like the tragedy of Gilo River,” he said, with an enormous, high-pitched sigh. “The issue of Gilo River was very unique.”
Now, the roughly 5,000 boys who survived and stayed together have grown to adulthood at Kakuma, in the 14-day stretches between distributions of UN wheat flour. Then, last year, when the rumored resettlement began to seem real, the boys gathered for another great transit. America, Deng was told, “is not a country where someone can just come and kill you. There is a law.” He wrote it — AMERICA — in chalk on the wall of his 3-by-4-meter mud hut.
Last month, the adults who had been watching over the young men for 13 years gathered to send them off to an unimaginable American future. The old men, their eyes misted by cataracts, sat in shady seats of honor and drank glasses of water poured for them from a gasoline can. The elders spoke words of advice into a Sanyo boom box so the young men could carry cassettes of recorded wisdom with them to America.
“Don’t go and be attracted by the high life,” one bearded and bony man admonished. “Beer is a new thing to you. Don’t just go and get involved in that. There are many Negroes in America. Don’t think you know them just because of their hair.”
Another, a headmaster at the camp’s primary school, warned: “I advise you to be very careful with the ladies.”
In the afternoons, when the planes departed, Maker and his deputy came out to bid the boys farewell. Maker looked around at these sons of rural cattle-herders — whose T-shirts read “2Pac” and “Harley-Davidson” and “Alabama Conference on Autism” — and saw the raw material of an elite. By the end of the day, they would have seen more of the world than any of their forebears; by next year, they will be some of the best-educated people from their country.
In the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, the justice minister had denounced the resettlement, telling a news service that it “creates a nucleus for a new rebellion,” but Maker insisted that these boys are too important to put in danger.
Among them, he is certain, is the future president of southern Sudan.
“They will be in America,” said Maker. “They will be a few boys inside of thousands and thousands of white mens and ladies. They are going to see a very big, tall building.” He was not worried about them, he said, as they disappeared from view. “They are the people who are going to the safe place.”
‘Our skin is shrinking’
The week they flew into Logan Airport, a wall of cold air moved into New England, glazing tree branches with ice and freezing the water inside hydrants. The 12 boys who arrived on USAir Flight 6806 were so cold that their teeth pained them. Alith Ayuen, a 17-year-old whose name refers to the gray-brown color of a favorite cow, began to feel that the cold had passed into his bones, and offered a long hand that was cool as marble.
Met at the airport by Lutheran resettlement agents with bags full of clothing, they tucked themselves into ski parkas and knit caps and gloves that they wouldn’t take off for days — in an effort, Ayuen said, to prevent their hearts from freezing.
The air was somehow different in America. Some felt so odd that they wondered if they had contracted malaria. John Bul looked down at his own arm, which was chalky from the strange dryness of indoor heating. He announced, in a whisper, what worried him: “Our skin is shrinking.”
And so the lost boys found themselves in a fresh wilderness. Placed in local homes by Lutheran Social Services, 12 bone-thin youths began to eat in earnest: whole loaves of bread and peanut butter; six trips to the buffet table in a Worcester Chinese restaurant; glasses and glasses and glasses of milk. Some said they began to feel an unfamiliar buzz of energy in their muscles. In a suburb west of Boston — the Lutheran group requested that the locations of foster homes not be identified and full names of the boys not be used — four Dinka boys sit down at Pastor Ross Goodman’s dinner table under an embroidered sampler that reads: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
Bol Thiik opened the small backpack he had brought with him from Africa and took out a bundle of the sticks that they used at Kakuma to brush their teeth. The day after he arrived, 13-year-old Mou Deng walked around clutching a pocket calculator by one corner. There was too much to take in.
“I meet many things of which I cannot explain,” said John Deng. “There are a lot of lights. There are a lot of cars. They are like cattle moving. We see a lot of white mens and we are being few. They look the same, I cannot differentiate them. What make me nervous is I see so many white mens and they are not saying hello to me.”
“As for the position of the sun,” he added, “I give up.”
The strangeness was everywhere. The sun appeared to shine without creating warmth. Houses were as hot as Kenya while the air outside was freezing. Four boys staying with Ray Maesto in a yellow ranch home near Worcester went off into gales of laughter at the turns he was constantly making in his car; on the plains of Africa, a trip from one point to another might have taken hours, but it had always been a straight line. They were engines of questions. Why don’t black people live outside the city? Why don’t American trees have any leaves? Why aren’t there any young people in church? Why don’t Americans eat dinner at home?
And there was a moment, in Maesto’s house, when something happened to Ayuen that he knew would happen: The telephone rang, and for the first time in his life, he picked up the receiver and spoke to the voice inside it. The people who raised him used smoke signals for long-distance communication, or they blew through the hollowed-out horns of bulls, he said.
Ayuen can talk about life with the cattle endlessly, still, but a week after he arrived he had realized he would never return to it.
“When I was there, according to me, it was a good life,” he said. “The way I compare the life now, it is very different. I have seen so much more of the world. I would not be happy. That life is bad actually. It is very far from the modern life.”
For the moment, the modern life is sweet. But this month is the refugees’ honeymoon, says Julianne Duncan, a child welfare worker who spent a year working with the group in Kakuma. Next week, three of the boys will show up for their first day in public high school, a place where men and women talk and touch with a familiarity that unsettles the Dinka. Six months will bring the disenchantment and depression that so often sets in among new immigrants, Duncan said. In a year, they will be able to apply for permanent residency in the United States. But first there is the strange business of building an American life.
On the day after he finally reached America, Bol Thiik, who had watched over his brothers with a statesmanlike gravity through the transit, found himself undone when he walked out of the public library with a book he intended to read.
“The gate started crying,” Thiik said, in a tone of wonder.
Gently, his foster mother led him back inside the library, where they scanned a bar code and demagnetized the sticker that had triggered the alarm.
THE LOST BOYS Barefoot and starving, thousands of Sudanese boys spent a decade trekking across the plains of East Africa. This winter, they began arriving in the United States. In Massachusetts and dozens of other locales, they are enroled in high school, concerned about matters as basic as gym socks, “Catcher in the Rye,” and the sophomore semiformal.
Dinka values, teenage rites
Second in an occasional series
March 18, 2001
OXFORD — In Mrs. Racicot’s second-period geometry class, beside a smart-mouthed basketball player and a bubbly, pregnant senior, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan folded his long legs into an empty seat.
In Africa, Philip Jok had been known for springing up from the ground like a grasshopper during tribal dances, so that on a good day, his bony feet flew up to his friends’ heads. He was famous for writing long, extemporaneous songs about cattle.But at Oxford High School on Jan. 18, all that receded into the past as he was issued a paperback copy of George Orwell’s “1984,” a three-ring binder, and a combination lock. During the course of that day, he would stare blankly through a class discussion on the last days of the czarist regime in Russia. He had not been informed of Communism’s rise, or its fall, until that morning.
And later, in the gymnasium, he would sit on the bleachers as primly as a missionary, collar buttoned, while eighth- and ninth-graders raucously shot baskets in front of him. He had “never seen such a kind of place,” he said, or “put that ball in that pocket.”
But that didn’t matter, either, when he got up and loped across the squeaking floor to the basket. The freshmen, cheeks burning, watched mutely.
“He skies,” said Bobby Martin.
Philip Jok has a jump shot.
In moments like this, in classrooms across eastern Massachusetts, Jok and 50 other Sudanese teenagers who arrived three months ago are crossing a divide from a desperate childhood to the protected zone of American adolescence.
When the young men known as the Lost Boys of Sudan came to the attention of aid workers in the early 1990s, they presented a terrible image: a river of thousands of male children removed from their homes in the chaos of Sudan’s civil war, rail-thin and often naked, who had walked hundreds of miles in scorching heat.
They grew to the brink of adulthood in African camps, and remained so cut off from the outside world that their journey to America, where the State Department is resettling 3,800 of them, seems a trip not just across continents but through time. When they left their mud huts for the last time three months ago, many had never heard of the moon landing or the atomic bomb, or, according to a spokeswoman for the Lutheran Social Services resettlement program, “what stairs were for.”
Throughout the process of resettlement, they have repeated their shared goal so many times that it has begun to sound like a prayer: to learn enough to return to southern Sudan and lift their people out of their pre-modern state. Eighteen-year-old Bol Thiik strode into Winchester High School with a fully formed idea of what he needed. He sat down with the principal, Susan Morse, and requested instruction in “religion and agriculture.”
Months later, the closest he has come is “Catcher in the Rye,” the classic text on the American teenager’s search for meaning. For that, as for social studies, tank tops, and the overhead projector, the boys from the Dinka tribe were totally unprepared.
It is a gap that can’t be crossed gradually, said Ambrose Beny, 63, a Sudanese-born professor of English literature who, like the boys, grew up in the world of savannah cattle-herders, and then moved to a small town in New Jersey through an exchange program.
“The thing I like about America is that it does not leave you alone,” said Beny, who first came to America in the 1960s. “You cannot be neutral about it. How you adjust and adapt to it, that’s the real question. Some, of course, will get lost, because they won’t make the transition.”
How these boys will be changed by living here is anyone’s guess, he says, but one thing is certain: They will be changed.
“Give them six months,” he said. “Let America do its work.”
Livin’ la vida loca
In the Ethiopian camp where Bol Thiik learned to read, there was no paper, so the boys sat in long rows scratching letters in the dirt with sticks. The children were caned if they moved, so they learned to sit for hours on their knees in the sun, naked or nearly naked. Dust was a problem, said Thiik; if it was thick enough that drivers had to turn on their car headlights, school was canceled. In long rows, the little boys learned to repeat and memorize lists of facts.
The schools in America were indoors. There were many classrooms stacked on top of each other. The boys realized, after a few days, no one was being caned.
And suddenly, for the first time in their education, part of the subject matter was themselves.
“Commit to working on two or three of your favorite character traits over the summer,” advised one guide for new students at Oxford High School, and Winchester’s contained the following advice: “Q: Some people say your friends will change in high school. Is this true? A: From our experience, you tend to grow apart from some of your middle school and elementary school friends, but it is totally natural.”
The boys’ concerns were more basic. Trained to address their teachers as “master” and “madam,” they were astonished and dismayed by American students’ casual insolence toward adults. And they were unnerved to see boys and girls kissing in the hallways. Romantic yearning is not a central value among the Dinka, who buy their wives for cattle and sometimes marry four of them. Speaking to a girl in school, or on the roadside, is grounds for punishment, and a young man wishing to talk at any length with a girl is required to arrange it through her parents, Thiik explained.
Those Dinka values met their biggest challege to date at the Oxford High School Valentine’s Dance. Jam’n 94.5 emceed, which meant “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and the Bloodhound Gang singing “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals/Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” The four Sudanese boys had been wondering for weeks just how the Americans dance, and they stepped into a cafeteria strangely swimming with spotlights.
What they saw was astonishing. They paused, trying to figure it out.
“We were just waiting for the organization of the party,” said Alith Ayuen, an 18-year-old with ghostly tribal marks on his forehead. “I saw people dancing and I thought, how are they going to organize that? They told me it is already started. Then we went to the field and danced.”
Weeks earlier, the first Dinka venture into the bass-pounding crucible of the high school dance had ended badly. Among the hundreds of teenage boys who were brought into the country before Christmas was a much smaller group of teenage girls, including Aduei, a tall 17-year-old who stands perfectly straight. At her first dance, a classmate drew her so close to him that she tore away in the middle of the dance floor.
“I thought I would lose my culture and I became frightened and I ran away,” she said.
At their own dance, a similar moment arrived for William Wol, Samuel Leek, Philip Jok, and Alith Moses. The music slowed, and girls stepped out of the crowd to pull them close.
“The girl who was dancing with me, she came and hooked me like that,” said Ayuen. “I think about whether I can just push her back or I can continue. And one of these people were just glancing, watching us.”
After the dance was over, they shook their heads disapprovingly over the girls’ scanty clothing, which seemed far more provocative than the occasional nakedness of their home villages. Said 16-year-old Samuel Leek, thinking back on his schoolmates at the dance, “They pretend that there are clothes, but there are no clothes.”
The boys went into gales of laughter recalling it; it would be wrong to call them traumatized by the event. In fact, by the time the strobe lights went off at 11 p.m. and the cafeteria returned to its former life as a cafeteria, Moses had won a box of chocolates in the dance contest.
They came home dazzled by the crazy freedom of American teenagers, restless, excited, with a hundred things to think about — as Leek put it, “somehow happy but not happy.”
‘They don’t know the Earth goes around the sun’
Three months ago, when the boys climbed off a plane into a world glazed in ice, they could hardly think beyond the pure physical shock. Their skin seemed to be shrinking; they felt that their hearts were unprotected from the cold. On his way to the bus stop on the blue, crescent-mooned morning when he was to start school, Philip Jok still marveled: “I feel my hand not to be my hand.”
But when school began, the stress shot off in a different direction. Carlos Akot complained to his teacher that his brain had begun to hurt.
Jolanta Conway, the dimpled, Polish-born ESL teacher at Winchester High School, was watching 18-year-old Akot as he struggled through a standard high-school English text: Ray Bradbury’s chilling, futuristic story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which describes a day in the life of a house whose occupants have been burned away by an atomic blast.
Conway knew by the dismay on Akot’s face that something was terribly wrong.
She rushed to assure him that none of it was real.
“I tried to explain, `When you were children, you were imagining things. It wasn’t real. This is the same way,’ “ Conway said. “They asked, `Why do people do this? Why do people write something that is not true?’ Then they were reading science fiction, and I thought, `Oh, my God.’ . . . I told my husband, `My brain is hurting, too,’ because I had never analyzed a short story like that.”
How do you teach a 17-year-old the concept of fiction? Their needs, teachers found, were not quite the same as English-as-a-Second-Language students; most speak stilted, archaic English passed on from missionaries. Nor were they “special needs” students, exactly; many are not only smart but desperately motivated.
They were something else entirely — unaware of basic facts about the modern world, like “someone who has lived out in the woods for 50 years, and then come back,” said Kathy Threadgould, who teaches computer science and math at Oxford High School. Early on, one of her Sudanese students asked her why words didn’t come out of the mouths of people in photographs.
For months, teachers kept discovering new gaps. At Winchester, two of Conway’s Sudanese students finally confessed the heart-racing terror they experienced every time their foster parents drove over elevated highways, which they feared would collapse and kill them.
In Oxford, a tutor organized a trip to a costume shop, to prove to her incredulous students that Barney was not a real talking animal.
“I saw there on TV a cow can speak English, and a dog can also speak English,” said Jok, with an amazed laugh. At the costume shop, “all those things, we saw them there. They can just have leather, and they can wear that leather, and you will be seen like an animal. If you are seen in our country, they can say, `Oh, that is a god.’ “
“Me myself I believed them,” he said, “but nowadays I never believe them.”
To some who worked with the students, those early days were spellbinding. In math, for instance, where they were initially assessed at an eighth-grade or lower level, the students were picking up new concepts incredibly fast, “doing something symbolically that I wouldn’t have thought possible,” said math teacher Richard Thorne.
“It’s interesting to watch how a mind absorbs something,” he said. “It’s like a tabula rasa.”
But at other times, they just seemed painfully dislocated. Four of the Sudanese began classes at Boston English High School, which has so many African immigrants that it offers a bilingual track in Somali. Shortly after they arrived, one teen went to a tutor, Paul Siemering, seized with anxiety over his lost his lunch card. Siemering carefully explained that it was nothing serious. Then he took him back to the cafeteria, where a worker explained that she could make him a new card. But the next period, Siemering walked into the library and found the young man with his head down on a desk, sobbing.
“These boys are more culturally and socially deprived than anyone who’s ever come in here,” said Siemering, who has been tutoring African students at English for 10 years.
“It’s almost impossible for regular teachers to grasp their level of innocence,” Siemering said. “They don’t know the Earth goes around the sun. They don’t know who Elvis Presley is. They don’t know who Hitler is, they don’t know World War II. You might as well be talking Sanskrit. It’s hard to go far enough back to start.”
Three months into their journey, though, something has started to happen.
David Lual had announced his intention to return to his home village, marry five wives, and herd 500 cattle. Then suddenly he mentioned that he would also like to visit Venice. In the Arlington group home set up by St. Paul Lutheran Church, William Wol, a nearly wordless 18-year-old who lovingly drew cattle in his school notebooks, began dinging on piano keys with a tentative finger.
And Alith Moses — whose home village is still so cattle-centered that paper currency is worthless — started to like the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. He even said he would consider marrying an American girl if “the kind of relationships that is happening between me and her is very strong, that is like what is happening in that poem `Annabel Lee.’ “
‘I can’t come home anymore’
Whether or not the boys know it now, there are certain kinds of information that change you permanently, said Ambrose Beny, the professor who was among the first Dinka to receive an education in the West.
“I can’t come home anymore,” said Beny. “In some ways it would probably be too limiting for me. There are not too many [Dinka] — I mean, there are none of them — who have read Shakespeare or William Faulkner. And I would want to talk about those writers, so in a way, I would be lost.”
In the high schools where the Sudanese boys spend their days, other shifts have taken place without anybody’s notice. At Oxford High School’s sophomore semiformal, to the accompaniment of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” 16-year-old Cassandra Rose flushed with pleasure recalling the letter she had received, through an intermediary, from one of the young Sudanese men.
Eyes ringed with the palest blue glitter, Rose wore a pink feather bracelet and decals on her fingernails. She had instantly related to the displacement of the Sudanese students, she said, having transferred to Oxford from Worcester herself.
The note melted her heart with its courtly language, although she had to look up some words, like “consort,” and she wondered why he kept referring to her as “obedient girl.”
Still, in a high school where male gallantry runs along the lines of “I-think-you’re-cute-do-you-like-me,” she said, there was something strange and wonderful about the words he used.
“Do not worry about me a lot,” the note said, “but I will always be the first one to worry about you.”
At the request of resettlement workers, only the boys’ first and middle names were used in this article.
THE LOST BOYS For years, thousands of Sudanese boys in Kakuma refugee camp fixed their minds on the ‘second heaven’ they imagined they would find in America. But on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, resettled by the us government, some recent arrivals found themselves in a world of minimum-wage jobs and low-rent apartments. They began to wonder: Was the journey worth it?
Illisions fade in reality of city life
Third in an occasional series
July 8, 2001
LYNN — When he was a small boy scampering after calves in the village of Mading, Jok Mading was told that there were people in the world whose skin was white, but he was a clever child and did not believe it. Sometimes, when an airplane flew overhead, the children would stare up at the line of vapor hanging behind it and say: America. But there were older people — maybe two generations older than Mading — who could live and die in the belief that their people, the Dinka, were the principal residents of the earth.So it was odd, days after Mading had left Africa at age 19 and been resettled in a rented apartment in Lynn, to find himself addressed — by children, no less — as a “monkey without a tail.”
He and 10 other young Sudanese men sat in their cramped apartment in Lynn, conferring about the meaning of this term. Like “nigger” — another word they had heard people yell at them — “monkeys without tails” sounded like a “word of abuse,” as Mading put it, and the young men were frozen and alert in the face of it. When he finally was told the definition of these words, Mading sat back slowly.
“I now know the meaning of that word,” said Mading, who was wearing a donated Lynn Rotary Club T-shirt. “Now, what can one do? If someone call me nigger, what can I do to it?”
Six months have passed since the first of the refugee group known as the Lost Boys of Sudan were whisked off to new homes in America. In 1987, the boys of Bor and Bahr el Ghazal provinces were driven out of their war-torn villages on a trek that would bring them nearly 1,000 miles across Africa. Since then their lives have been so bound together that they shared a single, government-issued birthday.
But here in Massachusetts, where dozens of Lost Boys have landed, the young men have embarked on different paths. The 40 who came in under the age of 18 joined foster families, often in the suburbs, and are enrolled in high school, with tuition waived at Massachusetts state universities if they are admitted.
Meanwhile, their older comrades — about 90 Sudanese in their late teens and early 20s — are living in groups in apartments around the region and have entered into urban life. The shocks came immediately.
For the first time, the color of their skin was charged with tense meaning. More difficult, though, have been the day-to-day frustrations of looking for low-wage jobs while trying to grasp the most basic facts about American culture, which some pursued by watching television game shows.
There was no way to warn them about America’s more complicated truths, said Julianne Duncan, a child welfare worker who, at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, was the first American most of them knew well.
“It’s kind of like trying to explain cold to people who have never experienced cold,” she said. “They were really, really focused on what it was going to be like to get on an airplane. The part about after six months, you’re going to be depressed . . . they could absorb certain amounts of it, but not all. People can only learn so much at any one time.”
For some, the difference between expectations and reality has felt like a betrayal. A few weeks after he arrived, John Garang, a mordant, clever 22-year-old who has become the informal leader of the group living in the Lynn apartment, sat down to write to Timnit Embaye, the cultural trainer at Kakuma Camp whose job it had been to prepare the Sudanese for life in America.
“I curse the day I joined the process to come to the US,” he wrote to her. “I would go back if possible.”
Abroad in the city
Innocent of technology, armed with an archaic British vocabulary, they had been seen off from Africa to become a new, educated Dinka elite.
“We hope they will get all the chances of life,” said Joseph Kuir Maker last fall, as one of many flights left Africa from a tiny Kenyan airstrip. Maker, a former official in southern Sudan, had helped watch over the group for a decade. “They will get education in all things. They will be the people to build up this nation and they will be the people to be defending the nation and they will be the ones doing every job.”
And some seem headed that way. In Massachusetts, six months into the celebrated resettlement, 18-year-old John Alith was studying hard at Oxford High School. He had decided not to try out for football, concluding that “if you have a small muscle like this one the possibility of getting an accident is there.” And his interest in Edgar Allen Poe had grown: “It demonstrate the macabre. It demonstrate the darknesses, the badnesses.”
But he didn’t see his future in literature. “My blood,” he said, “is telling me to be a doctor.”
Bol Thiik, 18, had become a strong runner on Winchester High School’s track team, and was headed to a summer job at a camp on a lake in New Hampshire. He had begun to notice social differences on trips in and out of Winchester.
“Here in America, the poor person is the fat guy, and the rich person is the thin one, and I don’t know why!”
Six months after his arrival, he still saw America as a “second heaven.”
Their older compatriots came in with the same otherworldly naivete. Never having used an alarm clock, one household of Sudanese refugees in Chelsea had developed their own system for waking up: Every night, one of them was designated to stay up all night, waking up his housemates when the sun rose.
And 21-year-old David Diing found his whole understanding of human skin color thrown into disorder by posters for the Blue Man Group. (Although, he added, gravely, “I have not seen them physically to confirm that.”)
Without the protection of host families, though, the older Sudanese also have had to face serious, adult situations. On a June night in Chelsea, one of the refugees received a deep gash in his arm during an altercation with a neighbor. The neighbor said she slapped him after he swatted at her 10-year-old daughter, who had been teasing him on the porch of their house, but denies that anyone in her family cut his arm. (Police suspended their investigation because the victim was unable to identify his assailant, said Sergeant Thomas Dunn.)
Since then relations in the apartment building have improved, and have even become friendly, thanks to the intervention of a Spanish-speaking volunteer. But the incident sent waves of anxiety through the apartments of resettled Sudanese throughout the area.
“I flew 36 hours above the sky to come here from Africa,” said the young man, who now has a wound snaking up his forearm. “I was innocent. I did not know where I am going. I was not expecting to come get such a thing here.”
The quiet zone
They had been informed that the transition might be rocky. Before leaving Africa they received a packet of information that contained, alongside instructions not to engage in female circumcision or polygamy, a graph of their projected happiness over time. The graph starts high, with arrival in the United States, then spikes during the “honeymoon” stage, in the month after arrival. The line plummets during “Stage 2: shock/depression.” A few months later, the happiness graph rallies and lifts toward “Stage 4: balance.”
The promise of reaching Stage 4 was not much consolation to the 11 young men in Lynn, who spent much of their first weeks in the United States holed up in a small apartment playing cards and chatting in Dinka, re-creating the life they had left in the camp. For three days after they arrived, in an apartment so cold they had “smoke” coming out of their mouths, they didn’t step outside, Garang said.
Outside was great confusion. They wondered what kind of death waited on those streets labeled “DEAD END.” The words “QUIET ZONE” posted on a tree outside their apartment made them wonder what would happen if they made noise. Warned in Africa about the aggression of American drunks, they crossed the street warily every time they went near a bar.
They were crestfallen every night when their neighbors, returning home from work, passed them by wordlessly instead of stopping to chat. And as the young men walked the streets, too tall and too dark to blend in, comments rang out from the sidewalk. Garang began to believe the advice of an elder who had warned him, “even if you’re in America, you’re still in the bush.” They came home, the unfamiliar epithets ringing in their ears, and tried to figure out what they meant.
“We know that in Africa a gang is a group of thieves, and we wonder why people call us gangs,” Garang said. “We realize here in America, `gang’ is not depending on a group of rebels alone. Whenever you walk in a group you will be called a gang.”
All those complaints paled, though, beside the growing fear that they were not going to receive a proper education. That was the promise that drew them out of the cattle-herding villages in the first place. Imagining work in the United States, they had a vague picture of themselves in an office, or wild hopes of finding employment at a Sudanese-style cattle camp. Now, having come as far as America, without marketable skills, they were interviewing for jobs washing dishes and loading laundry.
No one was more depressed than Garang. He had left Africa six months short of graduating from secondary school, hoping to return to his country as a doctor or a teacher or a priest. Now he found himself applying for a sanitation job at Logan Airport.
“You talk of a graph having honeymoon, depression, and balance, but for me it start by depression, and I don’t see the possibility of the other two come in,” Garang wrote to the woman who had taught cultural orientation at Kakuma. “The only thing which can solve my problems is education and not money.”
`I am ready to work’
The official answer to their troubles, however, is money — and finding a way to earn it.
Upon arrival, resettled refugees are entitled to $428 a month in federal cash assistance, in addition to transportation money for up to eight months. But resettlement agencies encourage them to get into the work force — and end federal payments — as soon as possible. Agencies help arrange for adult education or night school classes once the refugees are settled in their jobs.
So for refugees intent on enrolling in school, the first few months “becomes a little bit about the dream deferred,” said Robert Meek, director of resettlement at the International Institute of Boston, which arranged the Lynn group’s resettlement.
Because of the employment push, the average refugee resettled by the International Institute is off assistance in 4.5 months, said Westy Egmont, the agency’s executive director.
“That’s a remarkable testimony to the economy and immigrant culture,” he said. “Countries like the Netherlands . . . provide social welfare [for a longer period], but people end up dependent on the state.”
For the Dinka, who would be the first in their ancestral line to do anything but subsistence farming or cattle herding, the quest for a job has meant learning everything at once.
Alison Lutz, an employment coordinator for another resettlement agency, Catholic Charities International, recalls driving a young Sudanese man to a job interview, getting out of her car, and watching him clamber after her out the driver’s-side door, not knowing how to open his own. On an employment application, another listed his emergency contact number as 911.
To the Dinka, who consider self-promotion deeply shameful, the job interview itself was a challenging concept. Twenty-five-year-old Joseph Garang (no relation to John), while waiting for an interview for a janitorial job at an Old Navy store, expressed some doubts about the training he had received at the resettlement agency.
“How am I to say I am a hard worker, and I will come to work on time? What if I am not?” he asked. The boss “will disqualify me, saying I am not a truth person.”
Across town, in Chelsea, John Garang explained that he had grinned through interviews at the Omni Parker House and Walmart. He shook hands firmly, and he made eye contact, but he couldn’t help laughing afterward. If he ever behaved that way in Africa, his reputation would never recover.
“People see you, they will laugh so much you will start hiding from them,” he said, shaking his head incredulously. Asking for work in Africa, “you just say, `I am ready to work.’ Not, `These are the adjectives to describe myself.’ What Americans like is to keep smiling. It really is quite funny,” he added, “to smile when you do not like it. I don’t know if they realize is not genuine.”
Still, when he went to interview for a job working the night shift at a coffee ship, he said what he was supposed to say.
“The man ask me what time are you available,” Garang said. “I said I am available when you need me. He said how much money do you require. I said any amount that you decide. He ask me also which shift do you want. I say any that you choose. He say when do you want to start. I said I will start when you like.”
But the man didn’t call.
One by one, the young Dinka men in Lynn began leaving the quiet of the apartment for jobs. The first to leave was Alier Agok, who took his place at $11.53 an hour beside one Haitian, one Liberian, one Vietnamese, two Chinese, two Puerto Ricans, one Dominican, and one Salvadoran in the laundry room of the Omni Parker House.
The laundry room was all compressed steam and pounding extractors, which caused a painful throbbing in the place where, two years ago, an arrow had lodged above Agok’s left ear. After he returned from his first day, he said he understood why “all the men in America they have a hump like a cow.”
Agok’s thoughts, as he shook out pillowcases on the evening shift, were about the future, about saving $5,000 for the cows he needs to trade for a Dinka bride. He felt sure he would not be in the laundry room for very long, and had heard of a less taxing job that quickly became his ambition: security guard. But at this point, he cannot see ever saving enough money to buy a car or own a home or pursue an education.
Sometimes, in the laundry room, he thinks about what it would be like to go back to Sudan and fight in the rebel army.
“Sometimes I feel this is not America,” he said. “All the people are not speaking English, and I hear that this is where the English came from. America must be another place. We are just on the way to America.”
For his part, John Garang watched his roommates leave for work but made no gesture to join them. By the beginning of his third month here, he had given up in disgust on the job interviews. His vision of the future now centered dreamily on Salem State College.
Garang spent hours sprawled inside the apartment, poring over test preparation books. He left on a recent Thursday for what seemed to him like his last shot at charting his own course: the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which foreign students must take to attend most four-year colleges in this country.
Garang had been gently warned by his pastor at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church that he couldn’t expect to pass the test, whose grammar and reading comprehension sections regularly stump recent arrivals in this country.
But he set off that morning, anyway, full of hope. It had become clear what he had to do.
The following Sunday he went to St. Stephen’s, a parish that has swelled with Africans from former British colonies. Garang asked to make an announcement, and climbed up to the pulpit.
“I am here to thank you for what you have done,” Garang told the congregation. “When I first come here, I was thinking that Americans don’t concern of other people. I was thinking if there is any possibility, I will go back to Africa. But when you show concern it bring a change in my life.
“One of the very great changes is that three days ago, I took the TOEFL exam. I passed the exam, and it is because of you people.”
Someone started clapping. The clapping spread, and someone pumped her fist in the crowd, and a full house of worshipers hooted and cheered. John Garang stood there, smiling.
At the request of resettlement workers, only the young men’s first and middle names have been used.
THE LOST BOYS Deng walked out of the ancient world of the nomadic cattle-herder to become a different kind of person. After a year in America, is he still his mother’s son?
African and American
Last in an occasional series
December 30, 2001
MARENG, Sudan — Two months ago, a man walked 15 miles through the bush to tell Nyanwel Joh that her son Deng was alive and attending high school in America.
He also told her: America is another country. It is not located in Africa. If you walked, he said, it would take three months to get there.
America was the fourth place Nyanwel had ever heard of outside the stretch of plain where she lives, after Ethiopia, Kenya, and Khartoum. But looking at photographs of Deng hunched like a gangsta rapper on Huntington Avenue, or with arms slung around his classmates at Arlington High School, she allowed her mind to slip its old boundaries.
“When I look up, I see blue unending space. At night, I see the stars and moon. Horizontally I see the end of the earth, the end of the sky, and beyond that I cannot imagine,” she said, and fell silent.
A few moments later, she ventured, “I wonder if you live the same as we do there.”
There was much in his life that Deng could not have explained to the woman who, 14 years ago, sent him away from the village to become a different kind of person.
He could not explain Avogadro’s number, or the wind chill factor, or financial aid, or why, after all he had been through on the way to America, he had nearly wept to see a man beaten in the film “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A year after he arrived in Massachusetts, Nyanwel’s son — now a tall 18-year-old known as John — was eligible to receive a green card, which gives him permanent residency in the United States.
Like the other Massachusetts high schoolers who left the same Sudanese village that same day, he was looking out at the dark street from lighted windows this Christmas. And although his future in America was far from assured, he also knew for a certainty that he didn’t belong in Mareng anymore.
When news of Deng’s whereabouts arrived in his mother’s village, a 2,000-year-old way of life stopped and rearranged itself.
Head men carrying umbrella spokes and hammered metal crosses walked out of the bush and converged on the homestead Deng had left. His elderly aunts got into the sorghum wine and trilled girlish songs about bulls, finally collapsing into a deep sleep on a corner of a tarpaulin. His brothers called a truce in their hut-burning feud over the family’s 10 remaining cows.
And his mother, Nyanwel, who has shrunk with age and hunger to the lightness of a wren, slaughtered a goat and boiled it in pond water.
“I just heard the name of America,” she said. “I don’t know whether you go there by car or by foot. I don’t know where it is located. I don’t know whether America owns cows. According to the stories I have heard, it contains white people.
“Since he left, I am failing to imagine how he lives,” she said. “I only pray to God to bring him back to me.”
The choice to send Deng away was partly hers. In 1987, with southern Sudan racked by its fourth year of civil war, word came from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army that several hundred children from Mareng were to be taken from their homes. They would be led in the direction of Ethiopia, where, parents were informed, they would be taught to read.
It was the month of Mareng’s chief joy, the cattle camp, where every year villagers forget the hunger of August and guzzle cow’s milk to see how fat they can get. Young boys covered themselves with ashes. Pale smoke rose around white song-oxen.
Nyanwel’s older sons, 19-year-old Panchol and 14-year-old Koryam, had no desire to leave. But her strong-willed 5-year-old saw the other children preparing to go, and he grew eager. Nyanwel — who had borne 10 children in a mud-walled hut and lost six in infancy — agreed at last. Deng went.
She expected to see him again at school holidays.
Fourteen years later, when his message reached her, he had passed from the hands of the southern Sudanese rebel movement to the Ethiopian government, to the Kenyan government, to the United Nations, and finally to the United States, where he was already in his second year at Arlington High School.
Some of the children who had left Mareng with him had drowned in the terrible crossing of the Gilo River, and others, too tired to continue, curled up beside the road to die. Those who survived were stranded in a Kenyan refugee camp until their story inspired the US State Department to arrange the largest resettlement of children since the Vietnam War.
Last winter, Deng and more than 3,100 other young men were flown to the United States and delivered to subdivisions and apartment buildings, where a small army of volunteers has worked to ensure that the cattle-herders’ sons successfully make the transition to Western life.
The view in Sudanese villages like Mareng, where many of the boys’ families still live in the pre-modern state they left, is quite different. When the process is complete, the parents ask, will they still be our children?
Under a tamarind tree, in the glow of the news about Deng, one man questioned whether the children would want to return to the village, where progressive-minded local officials still promote the wearing of clothes as “an indication that you are somebody, that you are not an animal.”
Until 1993, he said, villagers here still worshipped a piece of zinc named Lorpyo.
People are happy here, he said, but only until they leave.
“He will not fit with the condition of this place. Here life is very simple. You have five or six cows and you run after them,” said Garang Kuei Mel, 48, a longtime official in the humanitarian wing of the rebel movement.
“Most of these people are illiterate. You will not waste your time reading books about Shakespeare.
“These are stories,” he added, with some contempt. “You do not tell stories to people who do not read or write. They will not make use of you.”
Nyanwel Joh — who has never been told what year it is, or how old she is, or that the Earth revolves — was not thinking about his return. Instead, she appealed to Deng to save the family from a gathering catastrophe.
The message she sent him from Africa was this: Your brothers have become enemies. Nuer raiders left us with only 10 cows, and the younger, Koryam, used them to marry. Furious at the usurpation of his birthright, the elder burned our hut down.
Without cow’s milk, Deng’s mother reported, I am starving.
She also added, sweetly, almost as an afterthought, that she was considering joining him in America.
“If there is a vacancy,” she said.
Arrival in the U.S., and thoughts of home
John Deng, suburban 10th-grader, had shaken off the sadness that gripped him on the day of his arrival.
He flew in on Dec. 20, 2000. Moving airport sidewalks had come at him first, and they were followed rapidly by hothouse vegetables, climate control, and the complex night machinery of New York City. He watched with fascination a beer can talking on television. He complained with hurt dignity about the teenagers in Roxbury, whose pants revealed their buttocks. But the worst injury seemed to be to his self-esteem. His eyes still red from jet lag, Deng shook his head at the realization that his people had somehow been left out of 2,000 years of human progress.
“In part of education we are so backwards and in everything we are backwards,” he said. “We are very backward in English speaking. Maybe our country is so backward.”
For months after they landed, many of the boys were still dreaming about hump-backed cattle. They drew them on notebook paper and gave them to their teachers for Valentine’s Day.
They thought about home. During the long years at the refugee camp, Deng’s cousin Peter Thon had ached to return to Mareng; it took all his friends’ efforts to convince him that village life is useless. Now, on the other side of the world, Thon shuttled from one high school class to another with only the foggiest understanding of the information he was being given.
This spring, as a math teacher scribbled long columns of numbers on the blackboard, he turned to a near-stranger beside him and asked, “Can you find my father?”
Some of that longing faded this year, replaced by more local aspirations. In the spangled interior of the Burlington Mall, 14-year-old Philip Mou darted like a homing pigeon into Abercrombie and Fitch, where he spent most of his savings on a shirt that read, “Got a Sister?” William Wol, his tribal markings now set off by gold spectacles, had focused his affection on Arlington High School’s track team.
When he saw photographs of African cattle, Wol still broke out in a luminous smile and thrust his arms into the air in imitation of their long horns, as 20 generations of his ancestors would have.
“I still love them,” he said of the cows. “But I do not think I will be with them.”
Their embrace of their new home did not mean they were succeeding as they had expected. Many of the boys under 18, who had been desperate to go to school, found themselves struggling. Those over 18, fed directly into the work force, worried that the education they had been promised would never come at all.
It was an outcome that had troubled Francis Mading Deng, a top UN official who is himself the son of Dinka cattle-herders, from the moment he heard about the resettlement.
“At best, maybe a few will distinguish themselves. But a lot of them are going to just disappear into situations where they make ends meet in a basic way,” he said, from a book-lined office in Manhattan. “Then the country loses them, their own people lose them, they themselves fundamentally lose that clear sense of identity and purpose.”
If there was a living exception, it was John Deng, who matriculated at Arlington High School and tore off like a racehorse through the new curriculum. He turned his attention to the Holocaust, to the volume of spherical objects, to the awful triangle of the Atlantic slave trade. In the group home where he lived, he regularly clashed with his house parents over disciplinary matters — but he was a conspicuous top student. A year after he arrived, his report card listed an A in English, an A minus in chemistry, and an A plus in Algebra 2.
“He had an outwardly rebellious body language,” said Walter Mau, an engineer who began tutoring Deng over the summer. “But he showed me his math, and I was astounded.”
Franco Majok, a case worker for Lutheran Social Services, said many of the minors were frustrated at their performance in school. Deng was different.
“Deng can make it,” he said.
After successes, a setback
On the anniversary of their arrival, the boys’ house in Arlington was crowded with tutors and volunteers and neighbors’ children. Albino Mayar had learned to sing the “Dreidel Song” and Philip Jok had acquired a fuzzy elf hat; in the corner of their room stood a small artificial tree. They unwound tangles of ribbon and ripped paper off a slim box that contained the board game Monopoly. Their dreadful first week in this country — when they huddled around heaters and thought their skin was shrinking on their bodies — seemed faint and almost forgotten amid the lights and music of Christmas.
The one face missing was John Deng’s.
Deng was arrested the Sunday after Thanksgiving after a fistfight with one of his roommates. When the police arrived, a resettlement worker was already on the scene, and pleaded with them not to arrest him.
“She states that residents of Sudan have a difficult time managing conflict in the United States and learning the customs and laws, but are trying the best they can,” reads the police report in the case.
Despite her plea, that morning found Deng posing in profile for a mug shot. Two weeks later, a house parent called the police again to report that Deng had shouted an obscenity and thrown a shoe.
Only gradually, after Deng had been placed in a temporary foster home, did his roommates realize that the incidents could, at the very least, jeopardize his immigration status.
At worst, if he was convicted and immigration authorities stepped in, they could result in deportation.
It was a predicament that troubled his old friend Philip Jok, who had accompanied Deng for years.
“Fighting is something printed in the blood of Sudanese generations,” Jok said. “We cannot say we are not going to.”
John Deng waited in a foster home this Christmas, puzzling over the lawyer who had not yet asked him whether he was guilty. In school he was laboring through “Go Ask Alice,” the 1971 antidrug parable that purports to be the diary of a good girl turned junkie-stripper. He had been assigned an essay about racist hate mail. He was working on finding the mass of an atom of aluminum.
He thought about his bird-boned mother at the moments when he thought she might be cooking dinner.
He thought about his brothers’ archaic rage.
“If I go there, I may say that is really kind of primitive. They are really just quarreling like that is the end of the world,” said Deng, in English that has loosened to near-fluency over the last year. “I will tell them, the world is wide.”
This is how he celebrated the day of his arrival: Half married to the Western world, half living in a place he can barely see through memory.
But as proud adults remarked on the enormous changes he has seen in the past year — the year he first encountered the light switch and the microchip — Deng did not give America any credit for transforming him.
If he changed at all, he said, it happened long before he had even heard of America.
The great change came in one day, when he held hands with the other children and left Mareng.
“I am not like my people anymore, and I am not like the rest of the other worlds,” he said.
“I am just between,” he said. “I am just Deng.”
At the request of resettlement workers, the young men are referred to by their first and middle names.
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