Coming to America
They have seen so much already -- the destruction of their homes, the deaths of their friends and families, deserts littered with human bones -- and now, as they arrive at Denver International Airport, the three young men from southern Sudan must confront a contraption called an "elevator."
They stand in an alcove beside the baggage claim, watching the polished steel doors open and close. People get in. People get out. To the refugees, who are only fifteen hours away from mud-and-straw huts, this is amazing. When their turn arrives, they shuffle into the compartment and grip the railing.
The doors slide shut.
The elevator begins its slow, stomach-rolling descent, and the young men plant their feet firmly on the floor.
The doors slide open.
One of the youths takes a few tentative steps forward and out of the elevator, while his companions remain glued in place. As the doors slide shut again, the two Africans watch in wide-eyed silence.
Forty minutes later, they are discovered on the fourth floor. The caseworker assigned to meet them, a gregarious man who is also from southern Sudan, makes a joke in Dinka, but the two lost youths do not laugh, so he pats them on the shoulder. Then he peels away the International Organization of Migration name tags on their sweatshirts and hands them two tiny red, white and blue flags.
"Welcome to America," he says.
Even before there was a country, there was a war. Sudan, the largest nation in Africa, has been fighting with itself almost continuously since 1955. A year before the fledgling state declared independence from Great Britain, black Christians and animists in the south launched a campaign for autonomy against the Arabic government in the north, which had hoped to impose Islamic law nationwide. Fueled by age-old religious, ethnic and economic tensions, the civil war raged until 1972. Then the land was relatively peaceful for a decade, but in 1983, fighting flared anew, and it's been nonstop ever since. The discovery of oil in the south has only intensified the brutality, with both sides openly targeting civilians.
The northern government in Khartoum, controlled by the hard-line National Islamic Front, has bombed villages, relief camps, supply lines and even hospitals, accusing aid workers of prolonging the war. The regime, which has embraced fundamentalist Muslims from around the world, including Osama bin Laden, has also employed a genocidal "scorched earth" policy in the south, where troops have leveled villages, slaughtered cattle and burned granaries.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army, meanwhile, has manipulated international relief programs to feed its own ragtag guerrilla troops and has forcibly conscripted displaced young men from the south, often recruiting directly from refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.
More than two million people have died in the fighting, mostly in the south. More than four million people have been left homeless. Over the past fifteen years, Sudan has recorded more war-related deaths than any other nation. Today it claims the largest displaced population in the world.
Among the refugees are a group unprecedented in the annals of war, a collection of young men and boys who were forced from their villages in the south in 1987 and left to wander the hostile terrain of northeast Africa by the thousands. They were attacked by enemy soldiers, hunted by wild animals and ravaged by hunger, dehydration and disease.
In 1992, they straggled like apparitions into Kenya, where they languished in a massive refugee camp for nine years. Finally, in an unusual move, the United States agreed to resettle 3,800 of them in 28 states, including Colorado. The youngest would be placed in foster homes and attend school, while those over eighteen would receive a host of government services, including temporary financial aid, housing assistance and job training.
The refugees began arriving in Denver last March with little more than Bibles, a few pairs of socks, and the government-issue sweatsuits that hung loose on their lanky frames. With no homes, no families and no country, they've been compared to the orphan tribe in the tale of Peter Pan. Deposited in a strange land, unsure of where their journey will end, they are known simply as the Lost Boys.
Bullets were everywhere
The town of Bor lies deep in the savanna of southern Sudan, along the banks of the meandering Nile River. It is a small and isolated place, named after the Dinka word for "flat," with some 20,000 people, several schools, a clinic, an airstrip, a cluster of government offices and a scattering of shops and cafes. It was built by the British, who laid the basic infrastructure and then left when war erupted. The roads are dirt, water is pumped by hand, telephones are operated by crank. Electricity is powered by generator but is available only to municipal offices and influential families, and then just for six hours a day.
"It is very old-fashioned," recalls Daniel Lual. "There have been no new buildings for many years. If you can imagine a city from the '50s, this is Bor."
Daniel grew up there. For him, and for many of the Lost Boys who landed in Denver, the journey begins in that simple place.
Despite its technological drawbacks, Bor was very busy, Daniel remembers. Its proximity to the Nile and a network of roads and wagon paths made it a commercial crossroads for some twenty villages surrounding it. Women scoured the shops for salt, cooking pans and clothes. The streets were clogged with traffic headed south to the city of Juba or north to Malakal. Barges loaded with supplies crawled along the river.
Daniel's father served as an administrator for the town council; his mother remained at home. But his parents separated when Daniel was a young boy, and his mother moved to Juba. Daniel and his brother stayed with their father.
Like many natives of Bor, Daniel belonged to the Dinka tribe, whose beliefs, rituals and roles revolve around cattle. The animals, which are sacrificed only on special occasions, provide milk and cheese for food, dung for fires, leather hides for income, and a system of wealth. Without enough cattle, a man cannot marry. Without enough cattle, a man has low social status.
Daniel's father had no such problems. The family's herd was so large, Daniel remembers, that he "walked among them for twenty minutes." And when he wasn't visiting the cattle camp, he was romping with the family's other symbols of Dinka prosperity.
"Dogs," Daniel explains. "Dogs attack foxes. Dogs warn against leopards. Dogs hunt. If you can care for a dog, then you can care for a human being. The more you have, the richer you are. We had three."
In Bor, Dinka life followed the rhythms of the weather. During the wet season, which lasts from May through November, the Nile floods its banks for miles and transforms the grasslands into swamp, forcing villagers to seek higher ground in the savanna. During the dry season, from December to April, villagers camped along the cool and verdant banks of the river.
But over the years, with the onset of civil war and the slow modernization of Africa, many traditions have faded. Songs have been forgotten, rituals overlooked. Daniel spent only weekends and holidays in his father's village of Lual Ajok Bil: Instead of cleaning cattle pens or herding goats during the week, like a typical Dinka boy, he attended school in town and played soccer. Still, one constant remained: Each afternoon, Daniel and the other boys gathered at the Nile, where they "swam and swam until our eyes turned red," he remembers, even though the river was full of crocodiles.
"We were not afraid," he recalls. "Every year, the elder people have a tradition: They cut a bull and throw it in the river as a gift to the crocodile. That way, he will not eat the children. And always, they attack only the visitors. One day, an Arab boy was swimming and they took him. Later, we asked the elder people if it was safe, and they said it was not a problem: 'The crocodile knows who he can come for.'"
The Nile was the setting for the biggest celebration of the year: Christmas. Every December, villagers from miles around gathered under a thick canopy of shade trees to cook, talk and watch the elders sip local beer. After bulls were sacrificed and gifts opened, everyone ate and then watched a soccer match. In front of huge bonfires, the people of Bor danced, sang and played drums into the night. Of all Daniel's memories of home, this one burns brightest.
"As children, we would try to produce a sound to match the songs we heard," he recalls. "Then we would try to imitate someone whose dancing we admired. Our parents bought us new clothes. We would eat food we would not eat on normal days, such as spicy meat and fried onions. There would be courting rituals and marriages. The celebration would last days. We just felt happy. Happy without knowing what was happening around."
From time to time, Daniel would hear the distant pop, pop, pop of automatic weapons and the heavy boom of artillery fire in the countryside. In town, he'd see soldiers in the government militia rumble by, wearing combat fatigues and holding AK-47 rifles. While walking the back roads between villages, he'd stumble upon rebels with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, dressed in tattered clothes and carrying mismatched weapons. Rumors were everywhere, hovering like smoke from the cooking fires.
"You would hear that Mr. X was shot or that Mr. X was arrested," he says. "Then you would see the funerals."
Instinctively, Daniel avoided the government barracks at the edge of town. When soldiers passed, he averted his eyes.
"You are afraid," he recalls. "You have hatred. When they greet you, you don't return it. If they don't beat you, they say, 'Who sent you to spy on us?' and they look for the nearest adult to arrest. Even though some of them are innocent, when you look at them you think, 'You are killing my people. You are the ones who led us to be homeless."'
The tension could be overwhelming.
One night when Daniel was six, the SPLA attacked a barge heading down the Nile, loaded with troops, munitions and supplies for the government. "It was a big waterboat," he says. "And the rebels sunk it. The sound of the guns was like hell."
Several times a week, government officials visited the schools, bearing candy, gifts and orders from Khartoum: Daniel and the other children, who had been taught English and Christianity, must receive lessons in Arabic on the Koran.
"They said, 'Go home. Change clothes. Attend this class,'" Daniel says. "If you did not, you would receive ten lashes. To this day, I remember the verses."
Despite protests from Dinka elders, the indoctrination continued.
In 1987, government troops swept through southern Sudan. Village after village was obliterated.
As the fighting approached Bor, Daniel's father ordered him to stay in Lual Ajok Bil. One night, Daniel snapped awake to the crackle of gunfire.
"Let us run! Let us run!" his father shouted. "Soldiers are in the village!"
Daniel scrambled outside.
"Bullets were everywhere," he says. "Cattle were moving here and there. People were just running for themselves. The whole place was a mess. And when we were shot, we realized it was the people who taught us the Koran who were shooting."
Daniel and his father fled into the bush. Half asleep, terrified, blinded by darkness, the boy stumbled and fell. When he regained his bearings, his father had vanished. Daniel called out but received no reply. Behind him, soldiers were shooting anything that moved and setting huts aflame.
"It became as bright as daytime," he recalls. "It was luck for anyone to make it out alive."
Those who had made it out rushed past him. Instead of lingering in the bush or returning to look for his father or brother, who had been with the cattle, Daniel, who was only nine, made a decision: 'Okay. I will follow.'"
Daniel ran. All that night and into the morning, he chased after a woman and her two children who led him farther and farther from their village. Finally, after more than twelve hours, they stopped.
Daniel was exhausted. His leg hurt. He thought he'd been scratched by a thorn, but the woman examined the wound and determined that a bullet had struck his right calf. After his leg was treated with a mixture of cattle urine and water, the march resumed along a rutted wagon path.
Daniel wanted to return to the village and find his family, but other survivors told him there was no village to return to, so he followed the stream of refugees heading east. As the days passed, travelers began to join together in groups of "ten to twenty to a hundred or even more," he remembers. As they walked, people from other destroyed villages joined them, until the trickle of refugees became a flood.
Although some families were there, and also some elders, most of the travelers were boys between the ages of six and sixteen who'd been separated from their parents during the fighting in the villages or while they herded cattle in the countryside. The men had stayed behind to fight or pick up the rubble of their homes, while the women and girls, who cooked, cleaned and brought wealth from dowries, were absorbed by other families, enslaved by hostile villagers or captured by soldiers.
Unsure of what else to do, the boys simply followed the slow column of refugees from place to place, seeking water, food and shelter. Often the travelers were spurned, beaten or chased away. Some were robbed at gunpoint by roving members of the northern militia. Others were attacked by the government's Russian MIGs and Antinovs.
Still, the boys kept marching. They rose at dawn, walked until midday, rested several hours, then walked again until midnight. They slept in the bush, sipped from watering holes and ate wild fruit and berries. During the dry season, they chewed leaves that soothed their parched throats, sucked moisture from mud and drank their own urine.
"It was very bad," Daniel recalls. "When you spit, you spit blood. Some people could not talk. Hunger? Yes. But the thirst was bad. Very bad."
He endured by watching, listening and mimicking the adults. He also latched onto the woman he'd followed from his village. "From the day I left my home, I say, 'Okay. It is the people with children who are surviving," he recalls. "When they are resting, I bring them leaves and fruits. She did not say, 'Stay away.' She did not chase me away, so it was my luck that I found her."
Others weren't so lucky. Many refugees, particularly the very young and the very old, grew exhausted and were left behind, especially as the travelers left the marshlands and entered the desert of eastern Sudan.
"We could not stop for them," Daniel remembers. "And later, I would come to learn that it was the end of a human being."
Alone on the desolate savanna, too weak to fight and too tired to flee, many stragglers were killed by the wild animals that had developed a taste for human flesh from the bodies of war casualties.
"Lions were there. Leopards were there," Daniel says. "Families lost children. And when we were resting, we saw vultures on the tops of trees. They knew something would happen to us. They knew someone would fall."
He remembers one elderly woman who had no family or friends to help her along. When she could not walk any farther, he and the others pleaded with her to continue. "We said, 'Come. Let us help,'" Daniel remembers. "But she told us, 'No, my children. You leave me here. You go. But do not cry. You do not kill me. Do not think I will curse you. If God is with me, I will come.'"
The woman sat under a tree. The refugees put a cup of water beside her, and then, reluctantly, they left.
Six weeks after his village was attacked, after walking more than 300 miles, Daniel arrived at the Ethiopian border, where thousands of displaced stragglers had already gathered. During tenuous negotiations with relief groups, the communist regime in Ethiopia had agreed to settle the Sudanese in three camps near the city of Jima: Panyido, Dima and Itang. There, refugees were counted, classified and grouped according to age. Daniel and the other boys, whose numbers had reached 16,000, were labeled as "unaccompanied minors" and distributed among the camps.
In Ethiopia, the young refugees received daily rations of sorghum, maize, flour and water. They lived in huts that they built themselves. They attended school and participated in church services. At Panyido, Daniel was baptized by a priest who'd traveled from Bor. In Ethiopia, the boy also selected a new name.
"I picked Daniel," he says. "It is a story in the Bible, so I say, 'Let me take this name.'"
During the first few years, the Ethiopian camps were relatively safe and sanitary. Daniel's life slipped into a routine of fetching firewood, repairing huts, visiting friends, playing a chess-like game called mungulla and sitting beneath the shade trees to sing, drum and observe.
"I would listen to what the elder people were saying," Daniel remembers. "I would play it in my mind like a cassette. Then I would apply it to my situation. From this, I learned to cope."
Although they were many miles from the civil war in Sudan, the refugees faced other perils. Ethiopian villagers considered the Sudanese invaders and often shot or robbed boys who ventured into the bush for firewood. As they grew older, many youths were conscripted by the SPLA, which visited the camps with the full cooperation of the Ethiopian government. Under the false promise of education, the rebels lured away dozens of adolescents.
"They tell you to report and you go," Daniel recalls. "They take you very far away, early in the morning, and the next day, you say, 'Where are these people?' Later, you think, 'They go to be trained.'"
Daniel, like other Dinka youths, did not consider these sudden disappearances particularly unusual. Under tribal custom, when a boy turns fifteen, he is spirited away to the bush for months as part of the normal manhood ritual. And although Daniel was not old enough for the training, had he been asked, he would have joined the rebels.
"In Dinka," he explains, "we have a saying: 'It is better to die on the front line fighting your enemy than to die at home of food poisoning.' If you stay behind, you are a coward. And if you are thinking about your previous life and how someone took it in his hand and disrupted everything, you want to go. You say, 'If it will help return my life, then let me go. And if I die, it is okay.'"
But as the years passed, Daniel became less eager to return to Sudan. Although food and medicine had become scarce at the camps, the trek back to Bor looked worse.
"I was feeling like going home, but how?" he recalls. "After a time, I say, 'Let me forget about it. I have no father and no mother, so let me stay.'"
In May 1991, the Ethiopian government collapsed. Rebels seized city after city. The countryside became lawless, and international relief workers packed up and left.
As the fighting approached Jima, the camps became unsafe. Villagers, emboldened by the chaos, increased their raids. Many refugees headed back toward Sudan. Daniel, fearing an attack similar to the one in Bor, ran toward the border for twelve straight hours, barefoot and wearing only a pair of shorts.
When he reached the river Gilo, on the edge of Sudan, he found thousands of refugees had arrived before him. When Daniel had crossed the river four years earlier, it had been barely a trickle. But now, in the wet season, it was a rain-swollen torrent. With their retreat blocked, hoping they were miles from the fighting, the refugees decided to camp at the river to regroup and rest.
The respite lasted only three days after Daniel arrived.
He was cooking his midday meal when he heard gunshots: Ethiopian fighters had surrounded the camp. Their guns blazing, the soldiers forced the refugees into the river.
"The water was very fast," Daniel recalls. "But the soldiers do not give a damn. They just shoot. People who don't know how to swim just sink. People who were shot fall into the water and bleed. Then the crocodiles come. Big ones. So many, so many, so many children were lost."
Daniel pulled himself across the river using a thick rope that someone had strung from one side to another. In front of him was the woman he'd followed from Bor, with her remaining child. As they made their way toward the middle, the child lost his grip and disappeared in the current. Then the woman fell in. And then Daniel himself.
Recalling his afternoons in the Nile when he was younger, Daniel swam hard, drifting downstream until he could grasp handfuls of reeds and grass and drag himself out on the Sudan side. Up the river, the dying continued.
"People were crying, crying, crying," he remembers. "The water just changed to red."
Between the crocodiles teeth
Once again, Daniel trudged across the flat, windswept plains of southeastern Sudan, this time heading toward the SPLA-controlled city of Pochalla. But there the refugees were turned back by the downtrodden rebels, who'd been under heavy bombing by the government in Khartoum.
There were not enough trenches to shelter the refugees; there was not enough food, water or medicine. So the young men kept moving. Some marched toward the nearby ruins of Golkur and waited for the Red Cross to airlift supplies; others, including Daniel, made their way south toward another SPLA-controlled city, a mountainous compound about 150 miles away called Boma.
Instead of fleeing across the barren plains as they had four years earlier, Daniel and his companions now sought the cover of tree-lined streambeds along the Ethiopian border. They stopped during the heat of the day and marched at night. Although the Lost Boys were older and stronger than they had been on their first trek through Sudan, hundreds still died from dehydration, starvation and disease.
The ones who reached Boma were bombed again and fled farther south, hunted by enemy aircraft that pinpointed their positions from the smoke and light of campfires.
"There was no rest," Daniel remembers. "It was fighting all the way. Many bled to death. Wounds became rotten. We had no medicine. We were between the crocodile's teeth."
The fighting got even worse in June 1992, when heavy bombing of the town of Kapoeta forced them to flee even farther south. As a result, a year after they'd fled Ethiopia, the refugees straggled into Kenya. Daniel realized he'd left Sudan only because the bombing had stopped and because villagers were lighter-skinned and spoke Swahili. As the refugees passed by, the starving tribesmen looked at them with disdain.
"They were laughing at us," Daniel recalls. "They were not looking at us as people who need help. They say, 'Why are you fighting in your country? Why are you coming here?' They look at us in a very simple way, as if we are not human beings. It was very hard, but it was better than having bullets behind you."
At the border town of Lokichokio, the refugees met a contingent of international relief workers who gave them water, food, medicine, blankets and plastic sheets to build shelters. The travelers were examined, counted and classified. Those who did not know their exact ages, including most of the Lost Boys, were evaluated according to physical development and assigned the generic birth date of January 1. Daniel's age was estimated at fourteen.
Of the 16,000 Sudanese boys who'd entered Ethiopia in 1987, only 10,500 survived the journey to Kenya. Even after the refugees were trucked to safety, to the town of Kakuma 75 miles from the border, Daniel lay awake listening for the sound of gunfire.
"It took me four months to sleep deeply," he says. "Sometimes I would just jump up and cry."
Over the next several years, the camp at Kakuma became its own city. In a region of Kenya ravaged by drought and poverty, where Daniel had spotted human bones beneath the trees, thousands of huts rose from the dust. Supply lines were established and lessons held in what would grow to more than twenty primary schools, three secondary schools and three vocational-training schools.
Daniel thrived. Kakuma, he says, was "better, better, better" than the camps in Ethiopia, despite a dry climate that hovered around 100 degrees. He completed courses in math, history, English, chemistry and Swahili, in classrooms of 100 or more students. Selected as a duty supervisor, he was also active in church groups.
In September 1993, Daniel met a Christian man from South Africa who was so taken with Daniel's sincerity, determination and energy that he offered to sponsor his education in India. When the man asked what he would like to study, Daniel replied: "There is a problem in society that needs to be addressed. So I will take psychology."
Daniel landed in Bombay, where he was overwhelmed by the noisy, crowded and modern world around him. Each step of the trip, from the plane ride to the taxi to the search for his youth hostel, seemed more treacherous than the last. "I was afraid, completely," he recalls. "I thought, 'What brought me here? Studies? I am not happy. But maybe God will help me.'"
Gradually, Daniel settled in New Delhi. He joined a Sudanese student association, made friends, received good grades. With a $100-per-month stipend, more money than he had ever seen, he was able to help his poorer friends. He recalls: "I thought, 'It is peaceful here. You can walk all night and not hear a gunshot. You do not have to look for firewood. Electricity and water is 24 hours a day.' I was very happy."
But after Daniel had been in India just a year, his sponsor died in a car crash. Seeing no alternative, he returned to Kenya. In India, he had seen opportunities he'd never imagined, and he promised himself he'd complete his studies.
He took agricultural courses and learned how to grow and sell vegetables. He worked as a camp wholesaler. Then, while traveling to Lokichokio seeking work, Daniel met Norwegian relief agents who operated an aid station in southern Sudan. They needed someone to dispense food and medicine. They could provide transportation and meals, but no salary. Daniel volunteered.
"Since I love my country, I have the courage and the anger to go," he says. "Since I have an education, why not help my people who have been forgotten by the world? Also, I am hoping to see my family in southern Sudan. And since I am a son of that land, I can work for free."
In the ravaged town of Tali, Daniel distributed salt, oil, lentils and cereal to villagers whose homes were bombed from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. five days a week.
"People would evacuate the town during the day, enter bunkers and then return in the afternoon," he remembers. "It was a regular program."
A delegation of United States officials visited southern Sudan to survey the damage. One morning while the tour was in a town called Yei, a bomber began to circle. For first time in his life, Daniel prayed for the sound of explosions.
"I wanted them to drop the bombs," he says. "I wanted these men to experience our hardship. I wanted them to go home with the evidence. I wanted them to see our suffering."
In fact, word was already spreading. Since 1995, reporters, politicians and religious workers from around the world had been visiting Kakuma, learning firsthand about the odyssey of the Lost Boys. And in 1998, rumors swirled through the camp that the U.S. might resettle many of the young Sudanese refugees in America.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) usually reunites minors with their families at home or in the nation hosting the refugee camp. But relief agencies, including the International Red Cross, could not find relatives for many of the Lost Boys.
And even if family members were located, relief officials feared that the young men would be treated as outcasts by their own people. By the end of the '90s, many of the Lost Boys had already entered their late teens and early twenties, long past the time when they should have undergone their tribal rites of passage. As a result, they would be regarded as boys, and it would be difficult for them to achieve social status or even marry.
Even more daunting was the possibility that if the young men returned to southern Sudan, they might be conscripted by the SPLA or simply cut down in a war that showed no sign of ending.
But sending them to another African country like Kenya wouldn't work, since those nations could hardly handle their own people. And leaving them in Kakuma was not an option. Instead, the UNHCR and the State Department decided to take the Lost Boys out of Africa.
"There really isn't anything for them there," says Julianne Duncan, who worked with the UNHCR in Kakuma and is now an assistant director of children's services for the United States Conference of Bishops in Washington, D.C. "There is no economy. They have no ability to get work documents or enter society. Conditions are not excellent. I think the world should really give thought to leaving large numbers of men living in refugee camps with no outlet. Some of the places we've tried that are Palestine and Afghanistan. Has that worked?"
U.S. officials agreed to take in some refugees, but only under the stringent guidelines that any eligible Lost Boys had to have arrived in Kenya between 1992 and 1994 as unaccompanied minors, eliminating the possibility that new refugees would flock to the camp in the hopes of going to America.
Still, Daniel and the others were stunned by the news.
"We could not believe it," Daniel recalls. "At last, we thought, maybe we can go and get a job and an education and be responsible for ourselves instead of waiting for donor agencies to provide for us. We thought maybe now we would find a place where we could be peaceful and live under the sun like other human beings."
In 1998, the interviews began. Relief officials gathered background information, compiled biographical data and snapped photos. The young men were interviewed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, examined by doctors and screened for security. After that, their files were dispatched to New York, where religious and community sponsors were identified. Finally, lists of the Lost Boys accepted for immigration were posted throughout Kakuma.
"It became like homework to go and check the lists," Daniel recalls. "You would hear it was posted, and you would go. You did it every day."
To prepare the refugees for resettlement, the International Organization of Migration hosted orientation classes on education, jobs and housing. The young men learned more about the U.S. from the big-screen TVs, satellite dishes and videocassette recorders operated by camp entrepreneurs. For five shillings, Daniel watched CNN, Dallas and Rambo. And what they didn't learn from Hollywood, they picked up on the dirt streets.
"I was told that people of America are selfish," Daniel recalls. "They don't care who is living next door. They do not visit one another. If you are lost, they don't help you. If you are mad at someone, you can just pick up a gun and shoot them."
Which, toward the end of Daniel's time in Kenya, was not so different from life in Kakuma. By the fall of 2000, the population had swelled to 70,000 people from eight nations. The original camp had grown into three that stretched over ten miles. Administrators, whose budgets were slashed to the bone, could not keep pace. Huts were overcrowded, schools overwhelmed. Food was rationed to one meal a day. Ethnic hostilities simmered and riots erupted.
Outside the camp, the impoverished Kenyans who had once benefited from Kakuma began to accuse the camp's residents of stealing cattle, spoiling farmland and endangering their livelihood. Despite the presence of Kenyan police, bandits attacked shepherds, travelers and even relief agents. Daniel remembers one teacher who was shot to death in his home after he refused to relinquish a radio.
"After that, we do not listen to our radios at night," Daniel says.
In early July, Daniel finally heard that he would be going to the U.S. But after years of rumors, he did not believe it. Many of his friends had completed the screening process, only to be delayed by technicalities.
Still, one day he ran his finger down the list and found his name next to the notation, "CO, Denver, African Community Center." He had never heard of Denver, Colorado, but Simon Garang recalled the name from a radio broadcast about two high school boys "who were shooting their classmates and their teachers." After the Columbine massacre, Simon considered Denver "very dangerous."
Daniel wasn't sure what to think. He'd been with some of the young men at Kakuma since his journey from Ethiopia. They'd become closer than brothers, and now he was losing them, too.
"Many people were crying," he recalls. "Some were laughing. But I was confused. I was unsure what to do. For me, there was nothing inside."
A few kilomerter from paradise
As the airplane roared off the runway in Nairobi, the Sudanese youths shrieked. Most had never seen an airplane before, let alone boarded one, and as they soared over Africa, they gripped their seats and grimaced.
"It almost caused me to vomit," Simon Garang recalls. "With the sound of the engines, we could not hear. Some of us looked out the window and said, 'We are going to fall!'"
Only Daniel remained calm. During his first airplane flight eight years earlier, he had been just as frightened as his five friends. But since that trip to India, he'd traveled numerous times in smaller and even noisier aircraft. So as his companions wailed around him, Daniel sat back and tried to imagine his new life in America. And at last, his emotions caught up with him.
"I was not talking to anybody," he remembers. "I am thinking about the people left under trees on their way to die of hunger, the colleagues who were taken by crocodiles, the friends I am leaving to a hostile life in Kakuma. I am going far, far, far away from them. I am leaving my family, and I am not knowing when I will see them again."
Daniel knew that his companions were about to encounter still more strange and frightening things, so he became their tour guide. At the airport in Belgium, the refugees were baffled by the bright and polished restrooms. They did not know how to wash their hands under the automatic faucet; they did not know how to use a urinal or toilet. After surreptitiously watching other tourists, Daniel showed his friends how the contraptions worked. And even then, a few of the young men refused to dirty the porcelain fixtures.
"Even our houses are not that clean," they said. "Our senses do not allow us to use it."
Then, on the flight to the United States, they were confused by the airline food, wrinkling their noses at the chicken, the beef, the vegetables and, especially, the salad.
"I tell them, 'It is good for your body,'" Daniel says. "But they say, 'No. How can I eat this grass?'"
They wouldn't drink the ice water, either, because it was "too cold," and stayed away from the soda pop until they discovered it was sweet. But they waited for Daniel to drink first.
"Those who tried the ice cream said it was too cold for their teeth," Daniel chuckles. "They try to chew it. When I told them how it was eaten, they say I was just teasing them."
On July 17, Daniel and his group of Lost Boys finally arrived at Denver International Airport, where they were greeted by caseworkers from the African Community Center. The refugees passed through the concourse in a daze, overwhelmed by the rush of people, the smell of fast food, the flash of TV monitors, the whirring escalators and the size of everything.
"The train, it was so fast," Daniel remembers. "I hear the sound of a person talking, but I don't see them. And when I look, there is no driver!"
As they traveled down Peña Boulevard with their caseworkers, Daniel became disoriented. He could see the sun sinking on the horizon, yet the road was visible and "there was light everywhere," he remembers.
"Excuse me," he asked. "Is it day or night?"
When his guides pointed out the street lamps, he smiled.
As the airport disappeared from sight, one of Daniel's shy friends finally spoke.
"This city that we are leaving now," he asked. "Is it Denver?"
The African Community Center stands at 2404 East Colfax Avenue, near a barbershop and a lighting store. It opened in May as a satellite office of New York's Ethiopian Community Development Council, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees from around the world.
Jennifer Gueddiche is the center's director. Along with administrators from Ecumenical Refugee Services, she sponsors many of the nearly fifty Lost Boys who've landed in Denver. It's her job to make sure their transition goes smoothly. And that, she says, is not always easy.
"You can't help but look at where they came from and what they've gone through," Gueddiche says. "Most of these kids should have died. Their culture is being destroyed. As a population, they're being wiped out. Many are fatherless. To a people who are so close-knit, that's devastating. These boys are supposed to be the future of their nation, and they are being dispersed all over the globe. They've spent their entire lives on the run. They are still trying to find themselves and figure out where they are."
Many suffer from survivor guilt. They lost not only family members, but close friends as well.
And even if they weren't coming from a world of heartache, life in the United States would be plenty jarring. When they see a dozen kinds of toothpaste on store shelves, liquor on every street corner and sex on television, many reel from culture shock.
"How can you prepare someone for this society?" she asks. "You can't."
In addition to explaining the oddities of our culture, Gueddiche and her four-member staff help the young men find housing and work and make sure they receive their Social Security cards, food stamps and medical benefits. They enroll them in job-training, English and GED courses at the Spring Institute and Emily Griffith Opportunity School. During his first month in this country, each youth receives between $335 and $480 under a mix of federal and state grants. Then, during each of the next three months, he receives $335, which is supposed to cover everything from rent to groceries. If the Lost Boys fail to find jobs within four months -- which is the goal -- their checks can be extended up to eight months if they're unemployed through no fault of their own.
Both Ecumenical Refugee Services, which also finds each youth a church sponsor, and the African Community Center are responsible for the refugees for one year. After that, they're supposed to be self-supporting.
The Lost Boys entered the United States on refugee visas. When those expire, they can apply for green cards, which would allow them to stay in this country -- or leave and possibly return to Sudan.
Gueddiche has had a tough time finding housing for the refugees; she's had to settle for places in fringe neighborhoods in Globeville and along Colfax. Although many of the youths have been able to find work as janitors, dishwashers or grocery baggers, many businesses are wary of hiring anyone with a spotty job history.
The Lost Boys inspire not just curiosity, but hostility. People stop the tall, lanky young men on the streets and ask if they're athletes. African-Americans have called them "monkeys." Once, when a group of Lost Boys visited a Five Points grocery store, a black man stopped in mid-sentence and gawked: "Damn, man. You're black!"
"They just looked at me," Gueddiche remembers. "They didn't know how to respond. They didn't understand. Some of them want to know why black people are so mean to them and why white people are so nice."
The Lost Boys work hard to fit in. They eat cold mushroom soup from the can. They fret over the lack of young African women in Denver. They frown on beer and cigarettes. They shake their heads at TV, pop music and fast food. As a group, these young men from southern Sudan are earnest, hardworking, well-spoken, cheerful against all odds and extremely endearing.
"Most other refugees have had families and jobs and homes before," Gueddiche says. "Maybe those things were taken away from them, but these boys have never had anything. As a parent, that just breaks your heart. I have a four-year-old. To think that there were children his age out there in the desert with no protection has kept me awake at night. They shouldn't have survived, but they did. Now they are so impatient. They have waited so long for their lives to start."
She saw them at a Wal-Mart, huddling in an aisle, scrutinizing the food labels as though they were written in Chinese. They were darker than most black folks in Denver, tall, nicely dressed in sweatsuits and bright white tennis shoes, and speaking with an accent that might have been British.
Being nosy, Dorothy O'Donal walked right up and asked, "Why are you buying all that food?"
The young men smiled back.
A fellow who was with them, volunteer Rich Wildau, explained that the youths had recently arrived from Africa and were settling into a group home in Aurora. He'd taken them shopping to pick up few things.
Then and there, Dorothy decided to help. She's like that, always donating her time and energy to people in need. She noticed that some of the young men had a strong body odor, so she told them, "Now, I don't mean to offend you, but when you go and look for a job, you have to be neat and clean and smell nice. So you use want to use soap and deodorant." She showed them how, right in the store.
The young men's thanks were so genuine that Dorothy glowed inside. She decided to take down their number and call them in a few days.
But one thing led to another, and somehow Dorothy misplaced their phone number. A few months later, she located Rich Wildau and tracked down the young men's address. One night, she decided to drive from her Park Hill home to the group apartment in Aurora. On her way, she prayed she was doing the right thing.
A new group of refugees had joined the young men that Dorothy had encountered at the store. At first they were all a little standoffish. Using hand signals and slow, careful speech, Dorothy was able to get her message across: "I'm here to help. Whatever you need, I'll help."
She asked how old they were; most said they didn't know. They all had the same birthdate of January 1. She asked about their parents and their families, and they all said they'd lost everyone in the war in Sudan.
Dorothy's heart broke. Then she made a decision: "I want to be your mother," she announced. "Call me Mama Dorothy."
After that, she began visiting the young men regularly. She became one of a small army of volunteers who've donated their time, energy and resources to bringing furniture, TVs, dishes, clothes and books to the Lost Boys. Unlike many of the other volunteers, Dorothy is not affiliated with any church group or service agency. She's just helpful.
"The only thing they eat is beans and rice and beans and rice," she says. "So I went down to the store and bought some ground chuck -- not hamburger, because it's too greasy, and they don't like greasy food -- and then added some Ragú and some onion, and cooked it in my own special way. Then I got a big pitcher and poured in some powdered milk and ice and stirred it up real good. Oh, they were so happy. You should have seen how happy they were. They just ate everything."
Dorothy was so smitten that she began calling the Lost Boys "my children," even though she has kids of her own. They call her husband "Papa Joe."
"They don't have any black people to love them," Dorothy explains. "We're the only black people who have shown them love. They're afraid to approach people because they think they'll go to jail. I told them, 'Baby, you all won't go to jail. Just come here and give me a hug.' And one by one, they gave me a hug. I'm a hugger. I'm a person who needs a lot of love and affection, and they give it to me. They believe in God, too. Oh, I appreciate them. And they appreciate me. It's just beautiful."
At age 65, recovering from shoulder surgery, Dorothy doesn't have as much time, money or energy to invest in the Lost Boys as she'd like. Still, every few days she shows up with a few groceries. She gave the young men a computer desk, but they didn't know how to use it: They stood it on end.
"I just love them," she says. "They're so respectful. They say, 'Yes, ma'am' and 'Thank you,' and they all want an education. They all want to work and they all want to improve themselves. They don't speak English too well, but they're trying. I'll do everything in my power to help them."
When friends who'd settled in New York called a few months back to see how Denver's Lost Boys were adjusting, they replied, "We have a mother now. We call her Mama Dorothy."
Makercot Manyiel has lived in the United States for two years. He has two jobs, a car, an apartment and a paycheck big enough to support himself and send money back to Sudan. He has not only survived, he has succeeded.
Makercot spent his early years in the city of Rumbek, but his family sent him away to school so he would not get tangled in the war. Wherever he went, though, war followed. In 1990, while fighting raged in southern Sudan, he left for India. He stayed in that country nine years, often going three days without a meal, unable to return home. Finally, he applied for refugee status and was resettled in Denver.
Since he'd lived in India, Makercot found it relatively easy to adapt to life in this country. "The most difficult thing is the way Americans pronounce English," he says with a grin.
Makercot is a caseworker at the African Community Center, where he helps the Lost Boys. They look up to the 33-year-old as an older brother. For Daniel, whom he'd met in India, and the others, he offers this simple advice: "Forget whatever problem you have faced before. Because if you are keeping your mind thinking about what you have seen previously and you try to adjust, it will not go. If you keep thinking about that, you will lose your life. You will not have good health. You will not adjust."
Makercot has seen it before. One Sudanese man who resettled in Atlanta tried to escape his past with liquor and petty crime. Although Dinka tradition frowns on such things, the man could not help himself. "Now that guy is in jail," he says.
There are other temptations, too. Since many refugees have spent much of their lives in relief camps, they are used to other people giving them food, clothing, medicine, training. As a result, some fall into the bad habit of sitting back in their houses and waiting for social-service agencies to provide for them.
"That is a disaster," Makercot says. "I don't like that. I don't want somebody to feed me. I'll work for my own. If I depend on someone else, one day they will say, 'No. You cannot have anymore.' Then where will I be? So why not just do it on my own?"
In his case, that meant swallowing his pride, setting aside his education and professional experience and accepting a $7-per-hour security job at Denver International Airport, where he works on weekend nights.
"If you are a refugee, you cannot expect anything on its own," Makercot says. "The U.S. on the outside is not the U.S. on the inside. It is more difficult. But in the U.S., if you are a hard worker, you can make money. And you can save money. But you have to be determined. You cannot be the guy who is drinking and chasing girls. If you work, you can have money. If you work, you can get what you want."
Makercot does nothing but work. And one day he expects to be rewarded. He hopes to find a job where he can apply his training as an accountant. He hopes to marry and have children. And he hopes to one day return to southern Sudan and visit the family he left sixteen years ago.
But until that's possible, he seeks stoic solace in the things he has now: cousins in Iowa who visit occasionally, friends and colleagues in Denver, church on Sundays, the occasional soccer match, steady paychecks.
"This is the life of a refugee," he says. "You might be happy sometimes, but then you think about what brought you here and why, and then you become upset. In Sudan, when I was there, on Saturdays and Sundays, you would visit your friends or your sister or your brother or whoever. But here, you are just working. Even now, I do not have an off day. My apartment is just for sleep. And I don't keep any money for myself. I send it all home. It is hard. It is lonely. But in a war situation, what to do? Yes, what to do?"
When Daniel arrives in Denver, he is taken to a modest rental house on Clinton Street in Aurora, which he will share with six other Lost Boys. Refugees who came earlier -- the group Dorothy met at Wal-Mart -- greet the newcomers with hugs and laughter. Food is prepared, and traditional music is played. It is like a reunion.
But when the glow wears off, Daniel and the other new arrivals, including Isaac Bher, openly share their disappointment in the old carpet, the faded paint and the used furniture.
"The inside is not good," Daniel's friends say. "Doors have no locks. Windows are broken. It is too old for the amount we are paying."
But Daniel tells his friends: "Now this is going to be our house, so let us take it."
Now 23, Daniel is a tall, slender man. When he speaks, he chooses his words carefully. When he smiles, his white teeth glow against smooth ebony skin. He is not the oldest of the refugees. Horrible as it is, his story is not the most harrowing. But he is passionate about discussing the plight of his people, and for this reason, he has become the closest the group has to a spokesman.
Like his displaced countrymen, Daniel bristles at the nickname "Lost Boys," which implies an aimless wandering that says nothing about the determination, optimism and joy that they carry inside of them. Being lost is 180 degrees from the lives they have charted for themselves. Still, Daniel says, if the media label attracts attention to his country, then Lost Boys it is.
"Ours is a difficult story to tell," he says. "But we have to do it. We must move into the future."
During their first few weeks here, he and the other newcomers study the new world around them, adjusting -- slowly -- to the new food, the weather and the nuances of American slang. Where the others are hesitant and overwhelmed, Daniel is excited and adventurous, visiting the supermarkets by himself, exploring downtown by bus.
"I had been to other cities before," he explains. "Though it was different, I was using the same methods I had used before. I would just climb into a bus and go. I would read the signs. I say, 'Let us discover something new.'"
As he explores, Daniel is struck not by the differences, but by the similarities.
"It was not surprising to me," he says. "When I came here, I expected to see hostility. But life is so quiet. I do not hear a gunshot. Even rarely are there car accidents. People do not insult you. They are just walking down the street. The people here, they are the same."
His friends are more puzzled. Simon Garang, who arrives in Denver about a week after Daniel, is struck by the unusual merchandise at the store.
"When you go to the King Soopers, you see a lot of meat and a lot of chicken on the shelves," he says. "But if you go outside, you don't see the cows. You don't see the chickens. Where does it come from? It is a mystery."
Two months after his arrival in Denver, Daniel does not have a job.
He and Isaac, a 21-year-old who was in the group of Lost Boys who came over in July, sit on a couch at the African Community Center, thumbing through classified ads.
Every day they rise at 7 a.m., iron crisp white shirts, press their pleated black trousers and take the bus downtown. They scan the "Help Wanted" signs in storefronts. They enter shops that appear prosperous and ask for work. They fill out job applications with their impeccable handwriting. But no one asks them any questions. No one grants them interviews. No one offers them work.
During orientation classes in Kakuma, Daniel and Isaac, who have known each other since the camps in Ethiopia, were told that America was "only a few kilometers from paradise." They were told they could find jobs within a month. They were told they would earn enough to pay bills and buy extras. Daniel has experience as a relief worker and a wholesaler. He knows how to operate a cash register, and he works well with people. Isaac is an experienced construction worker; his specialty is roofing.
But here they are, unemployed.
"We were told that when we got to America, everything would be provided," Daniel says. "We would be given houses, food in the refrigerator. We would be taken around. We would be taken to school if we wanted to attend school. We were told many things. But now it is different."
"Yet how can you look for a job for more than a month and not get one?" Isaac asks, running a finger down a column of ads. "There are many opportunities here. Just look. We will take any job. I know we can do it. Give me a chance, and I can do it."
Perhaps, Daniel thinks, employers in Denver do not know how serious they are about improving themselves and building new lives.
"Since we are independent now, we want to work very hard to make sure we are in a better position than before," he explains. "I know that if you adapt to a new culture, you will be successful. We are ready to change right now. Me, myself, I am already adapting."
Or maybe, it is the blank spaces on their applications.
"Perhaps it is because we have no job history in America," Daniel suggests. "But how can we get a job history if no one will hire us? It is a problem without a solution."
"We will wait until it happens," Isaac says. "And if it doesn't, then we will have nothing."
Daniel frowns at the prospect.
"I understand that time is money," he says. "I know that if you lose a minute, you will not gain it again. So we do not like to sit. We do not want to waste our days sitting around. We must keep moving."
"Perhaps God will help us."
Daniel thumbs through the phone book, and Isaac reads the classifieds.
The shades are drawn at the apartment on Cook Street that's home to eight of the refugees who moved to Denver in March. One of the young men is asleep in the back room; two more slump on the reclining chairs. A fourth, David Kuer John, leans forward on the couch, his head in his hands. His group was among the first of the Lost Boys to land in Denver. As such, they are examples.
But in late September, David has no job. With each rejection, his hopes dim. With each passing month, the benefits deadline approaches. At first, he and others criticized their caseworkers for not doing enough. Then their caseworkers admonished them for being unrealistic. Be patient, the caseworkers told them. Work will come. Accept the first job you are offered. So David sits silently in the dim light, waiting.
In Denver, where I am peaceful
Daniel strides down Colfax Avenue, wearing a beautiful tunic of green, gold and cream. His posture is perfect. His arms swing loose. His eyes squint into the September sun.
"It is a beautiful day," he says.
Daniel has found a part-time food-service job at the University of Colorado at Boulder that pays $7.25 an hour. Although he works only thirty hours a week, earns no health benefits and has to take a bus to and from Boulder, he is grateful.
"It is a key to another door," he says.
Not only that, but he and four friends will soon move from Aurora to a new apartment in Westminster that has a balcony, a fireplace and a tennis court.
"It is much better," he beams. "The other was too old."
Daniel goes into McDonald's to buy a cup of coffee and attracts blank stares from the fidgeting East High School students waiting in line for their McNuggets, fries and Big Macs. The kids giggle, but Daniel doesn't seem to notice.
After settling into a back table, Daniel sips his coffee and talks about his job at CU, where several of his roommates are also working. Other refugees, the ones who came over in March and still have not found jobs, are a bit resentful. Daniels feels bad about that and says he tried to explain the situation to them. "Do not feel that I betrayed you," he told his friends. "I came here to work and be responsible for myself. The chance was given to me and I took it. I will not be happy until all of us succeed. Only then can we help our people. One hand cannot clap. But two hands can clap."
His usually light mood continues to darken. Daniel was deeply disturbed by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, he says. When he saw television footage of the passenger jet ramming into one of the Twin Towers, his stomach turned.
"I don't like to see human beings suffer, because I know how serious it can be," he says. "It makes me very angry. I want to join and fight these anti-social elements who think nothing of killing innocent working people. I tell you this: I will do it. Tell me what will qualify me as a soldier for this country. I am ready to go. If I am allowed to fight, I will serve this country 100 percent. I am here because of the contribution of these people. I have a duty to pay it back. As a human being, I have to do it."
And yet, he confesses, there are many things he still does not understand. The U.S. has launched a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring terrorists. But doesn't the government of northern Sudan also shelter such extremists? After he was exiled from Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden was welcomed by northern Sudan with open arms. In many ways, the U.S. and the people of southern Sudan are fighting the same people. Why has the government here turned away?
During the Persian Gulf War, America rallied to prevent Iraq from rolling over the smaller Kuwait. The U.S. got involved in the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia, all the while waving the banner of human rights. How much property must be destroyed, Daniel wonders, and how many people killed in southern Sudan before the term "ethnic cleansing" applies?
For a time, Daniel thought America did not want to get involved because the people in southern Sudan are black. But then the U.S. reached into Somalia and Rwanda. For a while, he thought the U.S. did not intervene because the cause was unworthy. But the southern Sudanese are fighting for independence from a regime that seeks to impose a religion and language on them. Wasn't America founded upon the same principles? His people are dying because most of them are Christians who speak English -- things brought to his people by the West. Where is the Christian solidarity?
Still, he is not ungrateful. The United States provided most of the food, medicine and relief that reached the displaced Sudanese families. In June, Colin Powell stood beside one of the Lost Boys in Washington, D.C., and pledged $46 million more to U.N. refugee programs. And Daniel is able to have this conversation now only because of the generosity of the American people. But food, medicine and homes for the Lost Boys will not stop the killing in his home country. It only treats the symptom. His friend Simon puts it this way: "It is like giving aspirin to a person suffering from malaria. It might ease the pain, but it does not treat the root cause."
This is why Daniel cannot turn on his TV and watch the Twin Towers crumble. This is why he cannot listen to updates on the bombing in Afghanistan. Once again, the U.S. has chosen to fight in the name of human rights. Once again, America is providing weapons, food and medicine to people struggling for independence against an oppressive regime. And once again, people in southern Sudan are quietly dying.
"I would like to ask a question," Daniel says. "As a people, what have we done wrong?"
In the Aurora house, another refugee stands before a National Geographic map of Africa taped to the wall. He runs his fingers along the path of the Nile River. He traces the border of Ethiopia, the border of Kenya, the road to Juba and Malakal, but does not find his hometown.
"It is not here," he mumbles. "It should be in this place, but it is not. I do not understand."
He squints, presses his nose to the map, and traces the path of the Nile River again and again, searching for his home.
By early October, Isaac Bher has found a job, too: at Equity Residential Property Management.
He is visiting the home of a colleague, who's read up on Dinka culture on the Web. Isaac, who'd never encountered the Internet, offered to explain tribal customs in exchange for an online demonstration. So now he sits by his friend's computer, silently watching electronic images magically appear.
At a Washington Post Web site on southern Sudan, Isaac and his colleague stumble upon a 1997 article about a relief camp in Mangalatore. As his friend clicks the mouse and taps the keyboard, Isaac gasps. Flickering before him is a photo of a sick and emaciated man with this caption: "Beer [sic] Lual, 72, sits in his hut in southern Sudan. Lual lost four children and all his land to the war, and now he is spending his twilight years in a refugee camp."
"Are you all right?" the colleague asks. "Is everything okay?"
He repeats the question three times, but Isaac, who begins to cry, cannot answer. Then, finally, he speaks.
"Can you see that guy there? Well, it is my father."
In their village near Bor, Bher Lual had been a chief. Isaac has not seen his father since the attack of 1987; several years ago, when he was in a refugee camp in Kenya, he received a letter from his mother saying that Bher Lual had died from heart failure. Unable to return to southern Sudan, Isaac was heartbroken. But now, in Denver, his father has reappeared.
"It was like it was not true," he says. "I ask, 'Am I dreaming? Is this happening?' It takes me thirty minutes just to breathe."
Of all the refugees in Mangalatore, Bher Lual was chosen for an interview. Of all the photos the Post took during that visit, his portrait was selected for display on the Internet. Isaac believes it is a sign from heaven. He was meant to come to the U.S. He was meant to begin anew in Denver.
"Sometimes God does wonders," he explains. "When I was with him in the rural area, no photos were taken. This is the first picture of him to be with me. It has been fourteen years without seeing him. I think maybe God was planning for me to keep it. A miracle happened that day. Now, I am in the correct place."
Simon Garang sits at the edge of the lumpy plaid couch in the Westminster apartment, clutching an economics textbook. It was given to him by Bruce Bassoff, a CU English professor, shortly after he arrived from Kenya. Now, each night before he goes to bed, Simon reads one topic from the book.
Among the Dinka, there is a saying: "It is better to give a book than to give food." Which, Simon explains, is why the textbook is among his most cherished possessions. And it's why, when the soldiers came to Ethiopia and he had to flee, he made sure to take his fourth-grade English composition book with him. During the year that followed, through all the bombings and all the running, he clutched that well-worn reader.
"I say, 'If I am alive and staying anywhere, then I do not want to waste time," Simon, now 22, says. "I know that if I do not teach myself, then no one else will teach me. So for one hour, I read that book. That way, it keeps me connected with the thought of going to school. It makes me think of the future."
And now that future has arrived. Simon opens the economics textbook and produces a document from the Emily Griffith Opportunity School. On it are his scores from his GED exam. Without a preparation course, without a proper math book to study on his own, he passed the test on his first try. Simon examines the paper again and again. He cannot stop smiling. "I am proud in my own way," he says. "It is self-help."
On a drizzly November afternoon, volunteers, caseworkers and friends of the Lost Boys host a holiday gathering at one of the group homes in Aurora. Cameras flash, cooks crowd the kitchen, visitors spill out from the living room and into the hallway, and the Sudanese refugees hug everyone who walks through the door. The air smells of simmering gravy, sautéed onions and roasting turkey.
In a back room, Bruce Bassoff huddles with Daniel, Isaac and Simon, trying to explain the meaning of Thanksgiving. The three young men have been reluctant to ask about the holiday and have teased each other about it relentlessly. But as the professor explains, they listen intently.
Bassoff places one hand on his belly and says, "It is a time to have a full stomach." Then he places a hand on his chest and says, "And it is a time to have a full heart." The young men nod silently. Then Daniel jokes, "But it is not a time to have a full head!"
After dinner, Bassoff tells the group about the Iroquois talking-stick tradition, in which the holder of a ceremonial staff is allowed to make an address. He then presents his own walking stick, which has been customized to ward off bears with a rear-view mirror, bells, a picnic basket and even a siren. At his urging, dinner guests take turns accepting the stick and addressing the gathering. Jennifer Gueddiche and Dorothy O'Donal both describe how they have been inspired, touched and amazed by the young Sudanese men.
After a while, Daniel reaches for the staff.
"Four days ago I fell sick," he says. "For me, it was easy. After going through so many things, it was nothing. Yet people here showed concern. E-mails were sent. Calls were made. That made me to feel happy and excited. The sickness and the suffering did not last long.
"I do not believe how I have come to be here with you different people," he continues. "All of you are dear to me. I would like to meet you again. I would like us to be together again. You are making us forget the past. You are like medicine on our wounds. You are making us to be someone for tomorrow. I do not know how to express my gratitude, so I will just say thank you. Thank you very much."
As Christmas approaches, the apartment in Westminster is shaping up. Daniel and his roommates have added two more lumpy plaid couches, an artificial log in the fireplace, a color TV, a wall print of a Sumo wrestler and a shot glass from Mexico, which they insist is for decorative purposes only.
Daniel's job is going well. He is paying bills, making friends and establishing contacts. He has added a few stilted phrases of slang to his vocabulary, including "Yeah, right." Not long ago, he even received his driver's license, which he cannot wait to use.
"The traffic here, it is wonderful," he says. "There are so many curves that you don't know where to enter. Each one takes a different path. If you are not careful, you could go to Arizona!"
Money is still tight, and he has been able to buy himself only a new belt. But on the whole, he and the Lost Boys are moving forward. Professor Bassoff plans to meet with CU admissions officials to see if Simon can qualify for in-state tuition, possibly a college scholarship. Simon is even studying for the SATs and is considering auditing a college course in spring. Isaac, encouraged by his Internet discovery, plans to resume the search for his family. One of Daniel's friends, Peter Deng, has already moved to Boulder and bought a Maxima and a laptop computer. Even David Kuer John has found a job.
But success has been bittersweet. When Simon imagines thinks of people starving in southern Sudan, he cannot enjoy his own meals. And when he pictures the wounded and diseased refugees suffering without medicine or proper care, his own body aches.
"Crossing the Atlantic cannot separate me emotionally from southern Sudan," he says. "To come and stay in America alone when you have a family of seven or eight is a traumatic thing. You cannot sleep. Some of my family may be there still. One day I will go to southern Sudan, whether it is peaceful or not peaceful. One day I will do it."
Daniel is also haunted. When he is cooking, he stares into the blue flames of the gas stove and imagines the march toward Kenya, when the barren landscape offered not even a stick of firewood. So he and his companions used what was available: the sun-bleached rib bones of fallen travelers.
"That fire, it burned the same blue as the stove," he says. "Even now that I am here, so far from that place, it is with me. It is still here."
Unlike Simon, Daniel is not certain when he will return to Sudan. If the opportunity arises, he would like to find his family; he visited the Red Cross office downtown and asked if he could somehow send a letter back to Sudan, but they told him they did not handle such things. And if he is able to complete a Ph.D., he would like to teach at an institute in his homeland. But for now, while the war continues, the best way he can help his people is to make sure that he and the other Lost Boys are successful in Denver. The best way to stop the suffering at home is to raise awareness in the United States.
Much work remains to be done. The journey is not over, and many difficult obstacles remain. Yet, after enduring so much for so long, he and his friends are comfortable now. They have steady jobs. They have textbooks to read. They have a future to imagine. And some of them, Daniel included, no longer have persistent nightmares. For the moment, that is enough.
"I have no real home," Daniel says. "I know this. So where I am peaceful, that is my home. In Denver, I am peaceful."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Pot Driving Study Suggests Colorado's Stoned Driving Standard Way Too Low
Sun., Oct. 11, 2:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 12:00am
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
- Reader: I Hate People Who Ride Their F*cking Bike on the Road as If It's a Car
- Remembering Gary Lee Bomar, a Denver Music Scene Original Gone Way Too Soon