Carol Brown, resettlement committee chair at First Congregational UCC, Madison, Conn., surrounded by many of the 'lost boys of Sudan.' Photo courtesy of First Congregational UCC, Madison, Conn.
On Sunday, June 23, Peter Malal, John Amol and 15 of their friends fulfilled a life-long dream of earning a high school diploma.
At this graduation, there was no high school band to play "Pomp and Circumstance," because the ceremony took place in a church. There were no proud parents shedding tears, because these graduates have no parents. They are refugees, part of the group of young men that the world has come to know as "the lost boys of Sudan."
The story of these "lost boys" has gained national attention. As children, they were caught in the crossfire of one of Africa's bloodiest conflicts, the civil war in Sudan, just south of Egypt.
Caught in civil war
The war began in the mid-1980s when government troops and Arab militias in northern Sudan launched a full-scale assault on the predominantly Christian south. In an effort to establish Islamic law throughout the region, these armies pillaged homes and villages and tortured and killed anyone caught in their path. Whole families were slaughtered or sold into slavery, and young men and boys who were captured often were drafted into the northern armies to be used as cannon fodder or to clear mine fields.
The "lost boys of Sudan" fled from this fate when they were between five and nine years old. They eventually banded together and traveled on foot for hundreds, or in some cases, over a thousand miles, hoping to reach refugee camps across the Ethiopian border. On the way, some of them were attacked by bandits, hyenas and lions. Others died of exposure, disease and malnutrition.
Many of the boys never reached safety in Ethiopia, and for those who did, this safety was short-lived. In 1991, military forces sympathetic to the northern Sudanese overthrew the Ethiopian government. They evicted the boys from the camps and forced them to cross the flooded Gila River, where about half of them were drowned or eaten by crocodiles.
The survivors eventually made their way to the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. In early 2001, the U.S. government announced that it would admit almost 4,000 of these young men for resettlement.
Churches pitch in
In the spring of 2001, 26 of them arrived in New Haven through Interfaith Refugee Ministry. Sixteen were sponsored by the UCC's Connecticut Conference. Churches throughout the New Haven area helped with the sponsorship, furnishing their apartments and providing clothing, rent support and friendship during the first difficult months after arrival. The men were resettled under a federal program that required them to become self-sufficient within 120 days.
The Sudanese boys had never seen a light bulb or flushed a toilet or climbed a set of stairs, but within four months all of them had jobs and were supporting themselves.
Their greatest disappointment, however, was that the demands of their jobs made it impossible for them to attend high school. They had been taught to value learning. Despite the lack of books, pencils or paper, all of them had attended school in refugee camps. Their tribal elders had passed on a powerful message: "Because your parents are dead and cannot teach you the ways of the world, education is now your mother and your father."
Dreamed of diplomas
The lost boys came here with the dream of getting a high school diploma, attending college, becoming doctors and lawyers and veterinarians. When they learned that they would need to support themselves and could not go to high school, they were sorely disappointed. Some of them enrolled in an evening G.E.D. program but were appalled at the other students' lack of respect. When Peter complained to his teacher that continuous disruptions made it impossible for him to learn, she responded, "Welcome to America."
But Peter's sponsor, First Congregational UCC of Madison, did not turn a deaf ear. Carol Brown, the resettlement committee chair, helped them enroll in a correspondence high school diploma program through the University School in Bridgeport. With matching support from the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, she raised more than $20,000 in tuition funds and organized a year-long tutorial program. Twenty tutors from UCC churches in Madison and neighboring Guilford met with the men weekly to review their work in mathematics, history, English and the sciences.
More importantly, Brown reports, the tutors helped with acculturation and provided much needed one-on-one attention and emotional support. Next year most of the 17 will enroll in classes at Gateway Community College in New Haven.
Now men of promise
There may have been no parents shedding tears at the graduation ceremony, but there was not a dry eye in the house as the piano began to play the refrains of "Pomp and Circumstance." Manute Bol, a former pro basketball player from the Sudan, addressed the crowd. "I'm related to these guys—all of them," he said and urged the boys to use their education to help their people.
Finally, Sister Margaret Egan of the University School spoke.
"The name 'lost boys' reminds me of the parable of the lost sheep," she said. "Once you were lost, like the orphaned sheep separated from its flock. But now your faith has been rewarded, and you are no longer wandering. Through your own personal courage and the efforts of First Church, you too have been found and are now ready to move into your futures.
"You have been tested, and today I can assure you, you are no longer lost boys but young men full of promise."
The Rev. Linda Carleton serves as sponsorship developer for Interfaith Refugee Ministry and assistant minister for refugee programs and resident director of Melita Welcome House at First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn.