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Lost Boy(hood)s

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New Graduate

The Saturday before last, the first day of my vacation and the last day before our guests arrived, I attended the Fourth Annual Sudanese Scholars’ Celebration, an event honoring the eleven (former) Lost Boys who earned bachelor’s or associate’s degrees this year.

The event was hosted by the non-profit I began volunteering with last summer, the Sudanese Refugee Education Fund. Our mission—and I have to say that it sounds disingenuous of me to say “our” —is to raise money to help fund college educations for the Sudanese refugees who settled in Louisville after arriving in the US in 2001.

I’ve written two grants for this group, and I made the invitations and programs for the celebration. But somehow none of this really sunk in, and I found myself astonished and moved by Saturday’s ceremony. I learned that it is one thing to read and write about the Lost Boys’ struggles and another entirely to see them in graduation robes and hear them tell their own stories.

This is long and off-topic, so the rest of the story is below the link.

For those of you unfamiliar with their story, I will give you an extremely short version here. The Sudan is divided between the Arab, Muslim north and the Christian/Animist, black African south. The north has all the power, the south has the oil, and that dichotomy is a recipe for disaster for those living in the South. For over two decades, the country was mired in a civil war, the world’s longest, in which the armed and technologically advanced north bombed Southern villages, murdered their adults, and murdered their children or abducted them into slavery. Two million died; another five million were displaced.

The young men known as “The Lost Boys” are survivors of this war and have lived some of the most amazing lives you can imagine. Most of them were separated from their families between the ages of 6 and 12. Fleeing bombing raids on foot, they found each other and walked all the way to refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia, only to be again displaced and have to move to different refugee camps in Kenya. On their journey, they faced starvation, wild animal attacks, exposure, and conscription into child armies or slavery. And they did it on their own.

Many did not make it. Those who did  went on to raise each other in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. There, despite having only one decent meal a day and limited medical care and education, they decided that post-secondary education was paramount to their people’s survival. And so, a bunch of Dinka and Didinga boys, most from pastoralist villages, began to focus on their studies and adopted as their slogan “Education is my mother and my father.”

Their schools were often in open-air settings; many remember tracing their lessons into dirt with a stick for lack of paper or proper books. Everything I know about the immigrant experience-from being the granddaughter of immigrants to living in a city home to so very many—tells me that this first generation should be just getting by with whatever education they arrived here with, or maybe finishing their GED. It is their children who go on to college and live out the American Dream.

Well, someone forgot to tell this group, and they are leapfrogging a full chapter of the American story, becoming citizens, and achieving post-secondary educational degrees. To think of what they survived makes me cry from sadness. To see what they achieved on Saturday as they stood in cap and gown and were honored by their congressional office and a dean from the University of Louisville made me cry from happiness. It was, I tell you, a soggy Saturday.

I think these men are an inspiration to anyone who has ever been told they can’t do something. One of this year’s graduates raised himself and his four younger siblings, worked the night shift the entire time he went to school in the US, and managed to graduate with a high GPA in math and chemistry. You look at someone like him and then explain again why you can’t do something. I dare you.

Looking at these men, and thinking of Simon back home, my thoughts inevitably turned to their Lost Boyhoods. Childhood should not be what theirs was. In any conflict, you can only hope that people will, in Wendell Berry’s words, “begin again by trying to imagine our enemies’ children who, like our children, are in mortal danger because of enmity that they did not cause.” That there are those who would kill children, conscript them into armies, or make slaves of them is incomprehensible.

Some of the Lost Boys have been reunited with family (I talked to one who recently traveled home to see his mother for the first time in twenty years, and another graduate missed the ceremony to make the same trip after the same interval), some are orphans, and none of them get to do over their young lives. I think of Simon and all my hopes and dreams for him. How I take him to parks, stand him in front of his easel to color, send him to preschool, watch him with family members. How I sing to him and fuss over him. I think about how Matt and I put him in his crib in our house every night, and how amazingly rich that simple sentence makes us on a world scale.

And then my thoughts return to these boys who had their rightful childhoods stolen from them, their sufferings, and that of their poor parents. It is, for both parties, the worst thing I can possibly imagine, and the contrast between their families and mine is heartbreaking. I want Simon to know these stories and be inspired by them, even as I think he is still years too young to be exposed to such brutality. And then I feel oddly guilty for wanting to protect my son from even hearing about the lives other boys had to live.

There were two other sources of inspiration on Saturday. Two Sudanese made a special presentation to a founding member of our organization and one of the kind souls who began sponsoring Lost Boys in 2001. Dick and his wife settled newly arrived refugees into apartments, taught them how to use modern kitchen appliances and bathrooms, taught them how to dress and how to shake hands, and according to Hakim and Gabriel, taught them how to be men. Both said that they never knew growing up that the world contained such good people. Dick and others like him show me how to truly walk the walk and live in line with my values.

Most of all, on Saturday, I noticed the children-The Lost Boys’ Children. Owing to the context of the day, I mostly noticed the boys: wholly Dinka or Didinga with their long, lean bodies, close-cropped hair, coal-dark skin, and gleaming white teeth. And wholly American with their unaccented English and sneaker shod feet. It must be an act of blind faith and optimism to have children when you had no childhood. Watching these kids run around, it was hard not to smile and see in them a small redemption for their fathers’ sufferings and a symbol of hope for everyone else.

It seems to me that while Saturday was about celebrating academic achievement, that if these men can continue to raise boys who belong to America and the Sudan, that they will have pulled off yet another miracle in their already miraculous lives..

Silly superficial coda: I had a mini-wardrobe disaster on Saturday. It was hot, and I was tired. So I put on a cotton sundress and, totally uncharacteristic of me, flat sandals. Very on-trend for 2009. But, at 5’2″, it also meant that I was very short. In itself, this is no problem. But I was off to an event where many, many Dinka and Didinga men would be in attendance, a higher proportion of whom are believed to be extremely tall than any other group in the world. I think the first guy I met was a true seven footer. Think Luol Deng. Or Manute Bol. Or Alek Wek. My neck hurt before it was all over, and I was cursing myself for not donning 3″ heels

One Response to “Lost Boy(hood)s”

  1. Amanda says:

    Not off topic at all! I’ve been following these young men’s stories for a while now, how truly wonderful of you to be giving them your limited time and energy! With so many horrid things going on right now (RIP Steven T. Johns) it’s good to read about stories of strong, hopeful men and the global neighbors who think it is a moral imperative that we help our fellow human beings along the way. Mazel Tov for their fine, hard work. And for yours.
    PS–Jess, seriously, among the Dinka, I don’t think another 3″ would have helped ya, babe.

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