Thursday, March 20, 2008

The brief history of the lost boys

The "Lost Boys of Sudan" are a group of refugees named after Peter Pan's cadre of orphans who clung together to escape a hostile adult world. Some 23,000 Sudanese boys and some girls were forced by violence from their southern Sudan villages since the mid-1980's. Sudan, which is located in North East Africa, has experienced brutal civil war fueled by religious, ethnic and regional strive.

The current phase of the civil war began in 1983, pitting the main rebel army, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and its allies against the government's military and its allies.
Since 1983 this warfare has left nearly 4.5 million Sudanese uprooted from their homes.
Combatants on all sides have targeted and exploited civilian populations. A 1998 study by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) estimated that 1.9 million people in southern and central Sudan had died of war-related causes since 1983.
Another USCR report pointed out that Sudanese have suffered more war-related deaths during the past years since 1983 than any single population in the world. (Information from the World Refugee Survey 2000)

Fleeing the violence and bloodshed of Sudan's internal conflict, these innocent children experienced mind-numbing horrors and intense hardship. They walked hundreds of miles in search of peace and then spent over nine years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Today 3,400 Lost Boys are already in the United States or on their way here and settling in cities throughout the country.

Most of the Lost Boys are from the Dinka, Nuer and some are from other tribes of Southern Sudan, where hundreds of villages have been burned, livestock stolen and families decimated. The systematic destruction and violence is considered one of the century's most brutal wars. Again and again, civilians have been targeted, their access to food often blocked as part of a military strategy resulting in widespread famine. According to U.S. State Department estimates, the combination of war, famine and disease in southern Sudan has killed more than 2 million people and displaced another 4 million.

As government troops blazed through southern Sudan — reportedly killing the adults and enslaving the girls — scattered groups of suddenly orphaned boys converged and headed toward Ethiopia, where they hoped to find peace and their families again. Trekking hundreds of miles on foot through the hostile East African desert, Miraculously, thousands survived the ordeal of the late 1980's, finding refuge in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. There, the children - mostly boys - formed their own "family" groups, with older children protecting the younger ones. Relief workers named the children the "Lost Boys" -after Peter Pan's lost boys

The orphaned boys and some girls trekked almost endlessly through sub-Saharan heat and wilderness. Older boys — some just 9 or 10 — looked after the youngest ones and small cliques of boys formed their own family groups. Many children died of starvation, thirst or attack by wild animals. Later, survivors told how they watched vultures feed on the bodies of their dead friends. Their only relief came when Red Cross helicopters dropped them food or water. However, humanitarian groups could do little more to help them because of the raging violence in the region.

The boys walked for roughly two months across Sudan to Ethiopia, where they spent about three years in various refugee camps until being forced away in 1991 by yet more gunfire. Chased by Ethiopian government tanks and armed militia, the boys frantically tried to cross the River Gilo, where thousands drowned, were eaten by crocodiles or shot.

After leaving Ethiopia, those who survived the river crossing walked for more than a year back through Sudan to Kenya, a destination for thousands of African refugees forced out of their homes by war or natural disaster. Emaciated, dehydrated and parentless, only half of the original boys — some 10,000 who survived the journey — arrived at Kakuma Refugee Camp in 1992. The majority of them were between the ages of 8 and 18 (Most of the boys don't know for sure how old they are; aid workers assigned them approximate ages after they arrived in Kenya).

On their two treks, the children covered hundreds of miles and faced gunfire, lion and crocodile attacks, disease, and starvation. They often had to eat leaves, carcasses of dead animals and mud to survive. Many drowned trying to cross dangerous creeks and rivers. Those who survived carry the memories of such tragic deaths.

Many of these young people had previously seen their parents and other family members killed, as they fled for their own lives—some as young as three years old. Today most have no knowledge of where other family members may be or even if they have survived. The other children became their family. Deep down, most know that their parents are dead, among the two million victims of the ongoing civil war. Still, many of the young refugees say they frequently wake up at night in deep distress, haunted by images of death and destruction.

Relief workers from the United Nations and Red Cross scrambled to provide them with shelter, food and medical attention. However, the needs were overwhelming, and many of the "boys" — which is how they, regardless of age, still refer to one another — who are still there continue to suffer from hunger, disease and dehydration. They receive subsistence-level food rations and a gallon of water a day for cleaning, cooking and drinking. Aid organizations, already struggling to help other refugees at Kakuma, can do little more. Some 65,000 refugees from seven African nations reside at the camp. They depend on humanitarian groups for food, water, shelter, medical care and education.

In many ways, life in the camp at Kakuma has been like that in any other African village, with the youth living in clusters that serve a family-like function. It should be noted that most are male, but there is a small number of females. Since they have lived apart from families for most of their lives, the unaccompanied minors and young adults have not taken part in many of the traditional southern Sudanese cultural traditions (e.g., scarification, owning cattle, learning domestic skills from mothers). Education has been an important part of refugee assistance in Kakuma, with more than 30 schools serving more than 33,000 students. Child welfare workers note that the Sudanese youth generally have very high expectations about education, which is seen as a "recovery strategy"-a way to take back control over their lives.

On Arriving to the United States
In 1999, the UNHCR the UN Refugee Agency, working with in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, referred over 3,400 of these youth to the U.S. for resettlement processing.

Prior to coming to the United States reports about these 3,400 were gathered from the settlement workers at Kakuma. These reports on the Sudanese usually noted that they are an extremely resilient group. Many of the males had some knowledge of English or Arabic. For the women, learning English was often cited as the most important need. One Sudanese case manager said that the most important cultural note for the Sudanese is to learn the importance of time in the U.S. (e.g., making and keeping appointments and following schedules). A Nuer source said the Sudanese do not accept the concept of "no." Yet, resettlement staff had noted that the Sudanese do learn about the limits imposed on them "when all efforts at negotiation fail."

Their expectations were high. A Sudanese worker said that the Sudanese youth "are so used to humanitarian aid and the style of relief workers, that they may think everyone in the U.S. will want to help them, too." Employment will be the first priority of the P-2 Sudanese young adults. The unaccompanied minors will receive foster care case management and education services according to state and local regulations.

Resettlement workers suggested that these youth will benefit from training in life skills, and they will need help in setting realistic goals, managing time, making decisions and maintaining a positive attitude. They recommended getting the Sudanese involved in group activities and connected to community resources.

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