Sara Corbett The Lost Boys

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Sara Corbett

The Lost Boys
One evening in late January, Peter Dut, twenty-one, leads his two teenage brothers through the brightly lit corridors of the Min­neapolis airport, trying to mask his confusion. Two days earlier, the brothers, refugees from Africa, encountered their first light switch and their first set of stairs. An aid worker in Nairobi dem­onstrated the flush toilet to them––also the seat belt, the shoe­lace, the fork. And now they find themselves alone in Minneapo­lis, three bone-thin African boys confronted by a swirling river of white faces and rolling suitcases.

Finally, a traveling businessman recognizes their uncertainty, "Where are you flying to?” he asks kindly, and the eldest brother tells him in halting, bookish English. A few days earlier, they left a small mud hut in a blistering hot Kenyan refugee camp, where they had lived as orphans for nine years after walking for hun­dreds of miles across Sudan. They are now headed to a new home in the U.S.A. "Where?" the man asks in disbelief when Peter Dut says the city’s name. "Fargo? North Dakota? You gotta be kidding me. It's too cold there. You'll never survive it!"

And then he laughs. Peter Dut has no idea why.

In the meantime, the temperature in Fargo has dropped to 15 below. The boys tell me that until now, all they have ever known about cold is what they felt grasping a bottle of frozen water. An aid worker handed it to them one day during a "cultural orienta­tion" session at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, a place where the temperature hovers around 100 degrees.

Peter Dut and his two brothers belong to an unusual group of refugees referred to by aid organizations as the Lost Boys of Su­dan, a group of roughly 10,000 boys who arrived in Kenya in 1992 seeking refuge from their country's fractious civil war. The fight­ing pits a northern Islamic government against rebels in the south who practice Christianity and tribal religions.

The Lost Boys were named after Peter Pan’s posse of orphans. According to U.S. State Department estimates, some 17,000 boys were separated from their families and fled southern Sudan in an exodus of biblical proportions after fighting intensified in 1987. They arrived in throngs, homeless and parentless, having trekked about 1000 miles, from Sudan to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and finally to Kenya. The majority of the boys belonged to the Dinka and Nuer tribes, and most were then between the ages of eight and eighteen. (Most of the boys don’t know for sure how old they are; aid workers assigned them approximate ages after they ar­rived in 1992.) ,

Along the way, the boys endured attacks from the northern army and marauding bandits as well as lions, who preyed on the slowest and weakest among them. Many died from starvation or thirst. Others drowned or were eaten by crocodiles as they tried to cross a swollen Ethiopian river. By the time the Lost Boys reached the Kakuma Refugee Camp, their numbers had been cut nearly in half.

Now, after nine years of subsisting on rationed corn mush and lentils and living largely ungoverned by adults, the Lost Boys of Sudan are coming to America. In 1999, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handles refugee cases around the world, and the U.S. government agreed to send 3600 of the boys to the United States––since going back to Sudan was out of the question. About 500 of the Lost Boys still under the age of eighteen will be living in apartments or foster homes across the United States by the end of this year. The boys will start school at a grade level normal for their age, thanks to a tough English-language program at their refugee camp. The remaining 3100 Lost Boys will be resettled as adults. After five years, each boy will be el­igible for citizenship, provided he has turned twenty-one.

Nighttime in America?

On the night that I stand waiting for Peter Dut and his brothers to land in Fargo, tendrils of snow are snaking across the tarmac. The three boys file through the gate without money or coats or luggage beyond their small backpacks. The younger brothers, Maduk, sev­enteen, and Riak, fifteen, appear petrified. As a social worker passes out coats, Peter Dut studies the black night through the air­port window. "Excuse me," he says worriedly. "Can you tell me, please, is it now night or day?" ' ,

This is a stove burner. This is a can opener. This is a brush for your teeth. The new things come in a tumble. The brothers' home is a sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment in a complex on Fargo’s south side. Rent is $445 a month. It has been stocked with donations from area churches and businesses: toothpaste, bread, beans, bananas.

A caseworker empties a garbage bag full of donated clothing, which looks to have come straight from the closet of an elderly man. I know how lucky the boys are: the State Department esti­mates that war, famine, and disease in southern Sudan have killed more than 2 million people and displaced another 4 million. Still I cringe to think of the boys showing up for school in these clothes.

The next day, when I return to the apartment at noon, the boys have been up since five and are terribly hungry. "What about your food?" I ask, gesturing to the bread and bananas and the box of ce­real sitting on the counter.

Peter grins sheepishly. I suddenly realize that the boys, in a life­time of cooking maize and beans over a fire pit, have never opened a box. I am placed in the role of teacher. And so begins an opening spree. We open potato chips. We open a can of beans. We untwist the tie on the bagged loaf of bread. Soon the boys are seated and eating a hot meal.

From The New York Times Upfront

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