'Lost boys' find homes in America
Sudanese refugees amazed at life in the United States
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) -- The Winn-Dixie Supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky, is not normally a place of awe and wonder. But for 10 Sudanese "lost boys" who recently arrived, it is like nothing they have ever seen.
When one of the refugees, Wieu Garang, makes his first visit to the grocery store, he is amazed by the automatic doors.
"I've not been to where there is electronic houses that when you get into the house, the house opens itself," Wieu says. "This is one of the confusion."
Gazing around in wonder, Wieu stops and asks, "Does one man own all this food or does the government?"
Becky Jordan, a resettlement director with the Catholic Refugee Service, explains to Wieu that the store is owned by a company, which owns many others throughout America. But he still looks confused, even skeptical.
The 10 boys are just a handful of nearly 4,000 Sudanese youths making the move from refugee camp to the United States. Aid agencies call them and some 16,000 others the "lost boys" -- young men and boys who fled a 40-year civil war in Africa's largest country, Sudan.
The refugees walked first to Ethiopia and then to a refugee camp in Kenya. Those who survived the walk languished in the camp for most of the 1990s -- until the U.N. refugee agency and the U.S. State Department recommended resettlement for some in the United States.
Three-story house, no cable
Inside the store, Wieu and his nine friends -- he calls them brothers even though they are not related -- are obviously delighted as they walk down aisle after aisle, packed with so much food, so many different things.
Later in the dairy section, he picks up cheese and asks, "Is this soap?" "No," replies Jordan, "it is cheese, to eat." Again, Wieu looks doubtful, probably because some of the boys initially became ill after eating rich, processed American food.
Now they buy more familiar things -- beans, cabbage, some meat, potatoes and tomatoes. They are left speechless by the aisle devoted to pet care. "What do American dogs do?" one of them asks.
The 10 young men live together in a grand three-story house in the old part of town. A local businessman donated the house, rent-free, for a year. It is sparsely furnished -- odd matching chairs, old tattered couches, a television with bad reception -- and no cable TV.
And it is a long way from a Kenyan refugee camp.
Adjusting to this new life will take time. Becky Jordan will be there to help for the next few months.
"This group has some special needs as far as orientating to American lifestyle," Jordan explains. "We give them an orientation, we take them to their home, teach them how to operate a gas stove, the shower faucets. I think the other day, they were shown how to take the trash out."
'I'm free and I learn'
Along with other recently arrived refugees, Wieu and his "brothers" have enrolled in local orientation classes. They are taught the basics -- how to get a job, deal with police, work through the legalities of a rental lease.
There are also English classes, and the older boys are taught how to use computers. Twenty-two-year-old Ring Chuom is the eldest in this group. Two weeks ago, he had never seen a computer. Now he smiles while trying to master the keyboard.
"The best thing I like here," he said, "I'm free and I learn."
But when he talked about life in the refugee camp, his voice became soft and his eyes looked away.
"Sometimes people are killed at night. Somebody can come and say to you, 'Come out, all of you' and kill you and take your property, the little you have," said Ring. "So the life in the refugee camp ... we had no knowledge (if) you are going to be alive tomorrow."
Because Ring, Wieu and their "brothers" are living on their own and not in foster care, they have three months to find a job and must then begin repaying the U.S. government the $900 airfare it cost to fly from Kenya.
But given what they have already endured, that should be easy.
Numbers shrank during long walk
Ring and Wieu are among 3,600 young men and boys -- along with a few girls -- who are being resettled in the United States. Their ordeal began in the late 1980s when their villages were bombed during Sudan's civil war. Their parents were either killed or went missing.
Over time, their number grew to 20,000 as they walked hundreds of kilometers across east Africa from Sudan to Ethiopia, and then on to Kenya.
Wieu began the journey when he was just 9, and he still has vivid memories.
"We encounter so many problems," he said. "Starvation, thirsty, wild animals -- they eat people. The enemy attack us. Some of the local people they come and rape some people. They take some young boys, take them away. They own them."
By the time they reached the refugee camp in northern Kenya in 1992, half of the original group had died.
Juli Anne Duncan from the U.S. Catholic Conference spent time in the camp, working with the children. She said the boys' experiences left many suffering from trauma -- similar to battle fatigue, but much worse because they were on their own, without parents or other adults.
According to Duncan, "Most of these children and young men continue to have bad dreams and nightmares, sometimes as often as two or three times a week."
But many appear to have survived their ordeal remarkably well, focusing their energy into positive pursuits, like education.
"I had many children tell me that they saw people die of diseases or they saw people die because they drank bad water. And as children they couldn't help. They didn't know what to do to help, they didn't have the resources to help. Their desire now in life is to learn how to be medical providers ... how to make the water clean, as they say," said Duncan.
Looking to the future
So far, just a few hundred refugees have been resettled. Seventy are now living in Philadelphia. Some like Jacob Beer, 17, James Aker, 18, and Arkanjelo Bol, 18, are in foster care.
Beer, Aker and Bol live with Nicole Williamson. She's not wealthy and her home is already crowded with three other foster children, but this experience, she said, has changed her life.
"It has opened my eyes in a lot of different ways," she said. "It has made me appreciate things more."
Since arriving a few months ago, the three teen-agers have gained weight and are adjusting to life in the United States. But Nicole is concerned about Jacob.
"He's very shy at times," she said. "He is very quiet. In other words he tends to be to himself, whereas James and Arkanjelo are very tuned in to American life."
All three have enrolled in Roxborough High and are determined to get a good education. James, for example, wants to be an engineer.
His goals -- like the majority of the refugees -- is to get a good education. They believe this is the chance of a lifetime. "Here in America if you don't have training, you have nothing. When we come here we must learn," said James.
Boys want to stick together
And while they all have great optimism for the future, counselors like Becky Jordan warn all that may change over the coming months and years.
"I think they might not have a realistic idea about the kind of work it's going to take to have an education, because they're going to have to work as well," Jordan said. "They just can't be a student. And when that happens, usually a realization or a depression sets in that '"OK, now I'm here, and I'm here for the long haul.'"
The boys are determined to stay together in their small groups. That, they say, is how they survived their long trek across the African desert, and that is how they plan to survive this strange new life in America.
"They love me, and I love them," said Wieu. "There is no difference between them and my family."
For now, at least, there is time to celebrate -- time to enjoy being young men, who have hope for the future despite their tortured past, and time to look forward to a new day.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference
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