Eight years ago members of my church, Raleigh Court Presbyterian, noticed tall, lanky young black men walking along Grandin Road. Upon learning they were some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” resettled here by the U.S. government, we felt called to assist them in adjusting to life in Roanoke. We began a program to tutor them in English and other skills necessary for the cultural changes they faced. Recently, we decided to record their stories.
The Arab government in northern Sudan instituted sharia law in the 1980’s, requiring all Sudanese to become Muslim. Southern tribes, who were Christian or Animists, refused to convert, and the government determined to destroy them, by attacking their rural villages at night, killing men, women and children, and burning their huts.
Daniel Akur was about six years old in 1987 when he fled with other young boys. He and his older brother were asleep in their hut when a blast of artillery awakened him. Rushing outside, unable to see in the darkness, he heard his father cry, “Run! Run! Run!”
That was the last time he heard his father’s voice.
Other boys also were running. Their parents had told them to run toward the east — get out of the Sudan and into Ethiopia– if the village was attacked. Day by day Daniel and other boys between the ages of six and twelve prayed for safety as they struggled to stay alive. Sometimes they went for days without food or water. Many boys died of starvation and dehydration.
“I sucked liquid from mud and sometimes drank my own urine to keep my throat wet. I fed on bitter leaves and roots for survival,” Daniel wrote later in an autobiographical sketch for an English class at Virginia Western.
Lions, leopards and hyenas inhabit the jungle area of South Sudan. At night, terrified of wild animals, Daniel slept in trees. Older boys often carried the little ones when they became too tired. Those who were weakened and lagged behind became easy prey.
Next, they faced the dangers of the desert – scorpions, snakes and thirst. Bonded by mutual adversity, they prayed together continuously for God’s protection.
After about three months, they reached the border of Ethiopia and crossed the Gilo River. Once safely inside Ethiopia, they faced other problems. Diseases such as chicken pox, cholera, malaria and whooping cough ran rampant due to overcrowding. Daniel suffered from malaria and whooping cough and grew thinner and weaker. They were limited to one meal of maize and beans each day. They were instructed to get water from the river and boil it before drinking. The government promised to get health workers as soon as possible, but they were overwhelmed by the numbers of refugees.
“I lay along the roadside in dry and dusty air like a log of dry wood with no dreams, just waiting death,” Daniel wrote. “I grew up like abandoned child; no mother, no father and no future, just waiting for my world to end. I don’t know why I survived; maybe it was something God planned.”
The boys were registered and January 1 was established as the birthday for each one, since they were unsure of their birthdays. Conditions improved somewhat and schools were established with several hundred students in each outdoor class. Because they did not know if their families survived, they were classified as orphans, and became known as “the Lost Boys of Sudan.”
For four years they remained at the Panyido camp in Ethiopia. Then the overthrow of the Ethiopian government forced them to flee again. The new government of Ethiopia allied with Northern Islamic Sudan and came with tanks and helicopters, firing at the children as they prepared to cross the Gilo back into Sudan.
There was no time to construct rafts or seek boats as they rushed to escape the tanks and guns of the Ethiopians. Thousands of lives were lost to drowning, crocodiles or shelling by the armed militia. Those who survived continued to run, now chased by the Northern Sudanese army through the southeast region of Sudan, toward Kenya.
When the Lost Boys finally crossed the border into Kenya, their number had dwindled to 10,000-12,000 — only about half of the original number. Once over the border, they became international refugees and the Red Cross provided food and shelter. They remained nine long years in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya.
Although conditions at Kakuma Refugee Camp were far from ideal, the boys were able to attend classes where they learned to read and write Arabic and English. In 2001, the United States government offered to resettle over 3800 of the boys in America..
Daniel’s trip to America was interrupted by the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was stranded in Amsterdam for four days until the ban on flights landing in New York was lifted. He recalled his dismay when he saw the television images of the planes hitting the twin towers. “I thought, I’ve been running from war since 1987, and now I’m running into a war.”
Thanks to Sandra Whitt, the church tutoring project here in Roanoke was successful. Many received GED certificates, and enrolled at Virginia Western, and four recently graduated. Some have already become citizens. The Sudanese Mission group has helped them find jobs, cars and other necessities. A Sudanese Education Fund was established to assist with tuition and help them provide education for relatives still in Sudan. Church members assist by using Kroger Cares cards for their grocery shopping. (Kroger contributes according to the sales made with the cards, which can be reloaded as needed.)
The mystery is this: Why, when subjected to unmentionable horrors as young children, and in the worst of circumstances for many years, without parental guidance, have these young men survived without the psychological scars one would expect?
They answer for both them and us is simple – it was God.By Mary Jo Shannon [email protected]