Simon Garang is running behind. He is hunched over a burrito in the student-union food court at the University of Colorado during finals week, backpack sagging with books. He's supposed to be on break, but for Simon, there are no breaks. He glances at his wristwatch, inhales a forkful of food, glances at his watch.
He can't help himself. He is haunted by time. Time that he should have spent with his family. Time that he should have spent studying in grade school. Time that was stolen from him by a nineteen-year-old civil war that has killed two million people in Sudan. Even now, eighteen months and a world away from the blood and the famine, Simon cannot help but look back and imagine what might have been.
It is like this, Simon says in his soft British accent. During the death marches through hostile terrain, during the monotonous years in the refugee camps of Ethiopia and Kenya, he waited for his life to begin. And now that it has, he must dole out his spare moments as carefully as he rationed the maize that kept him alive for thirteen years.
Two minutes to chat. Thirty-five minutes for Thanksgiving dinner. He cannot waste time, Simon says. He is 23 years old. He has lost too much already.
Simon is among the chosen, one of 3,700 young men and boys from the Dinka and Nuer tribes who were plucked from the killing fields of Africa, transported to the richest country on earth and resettled across the United States in an unprecedented program with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He arrived in July 2001, one of the so-called Lost Boys, with little more than the government-issued clothing on his back. In Denver, he was given a chance to start anew.
And he has. But like everything else in Simon's life, it hasn't been easy.
In Colorado's contingent of 61 Lost Boys, Simon is the serious one. He's intense, thoughtful, obsessive. Like his friends, the tall and rumpled scholar can be warm, good-natured and talkative, but among peers who are usually serious, focused and driven, he is particularly serious, focused and driven. He has to be, he says. There is too much at stake.
Simon came in the middle of six children born to a farmer in the village of Baping, in the marshlands of southern Sudan. The village boys herded goats, gathered firewood, attended school and swam in the Nile. But when Simon turned eight, everything changed.
As part of a scorched-earth policy to drive southern Sudanese from their homes, particularly near oil-rich areas, troops and hired militia from the hard-line Islamic government in Khartoum began wiping out village after village. Baping was attacked one day in November 1987, at 3:00 in the afternoon, while Simon attended a second-grade class five miles from his village. He saw the smoke and heard the crackle of gunfire. His teacher told the children to "run this way," so Simon fled into the bush. And he and the others kept running, because they learned "there is no village."
As the exodus progressed, Simon's group met others whose villages had been attacked: men, women and girls, but mostly boys between the ages of six and eighteen, who'd been attending classes or herding animals when the troops came. Some would flee to Uganda or Kenya. Simon's group of survivors headed east to Ethiopia, where they hoped to find a safe haven in a country that had supported the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. But death found many first.
On their trek through hundreds of miles of unforgiving terrain, dozens of refugees, particularly the very young and the very old, became exhausted and fell behind, then were killed by lions or leopards. Others died in bombings by enemy Antonovs. Simon survived by watching, listening and heeding the advice of adults who told them to stay together in groups of twenty to keep wild animals at bay, and walk during the cool of the night. They marched for eleven hours at a time, slept in the brush, sipped from watering holes, ate wild fruit and leaves. Sometimes they encountered SPLA rebels, who shared what food and water they could spare.
Twenty-eight days after the attack on his village, Simon wandered into southwestern Ethiopia, where the communist regime reluctantly allowed Western relief agencies to establish camps. Refugees were counted, classified and grouped according to age. In the camp, Simon was baptized and selected the biblical name of a prophet.
Simon had attended first and second grade in Baping, but under the dictates of Islamic law, which had been imposed upon the entire country, he had studied only in Arabic. In Ethiopia, he started from scratch. In makeshift classrooms in mud huts and underneath trees, they learned their "ABCs and 123s" in English. But Simon and his classmates didn't mind the lessons. They developed songs about the alphabet, worked arduously on penmanship and turned vocabulary assignments into contests.
Dinka boys are extremely competitive, Simon explains. In the villages of their homeland, hierarchy is established by wrestling, and the strongest becomes leader. But in the camps, scholastics replaced physical combat.
Kur Deng, now Simon's roommate in Boulder, remembers how the boys jostled to become the head of the class. "Prior to that instruction, nothing was as interesting to me in my life," Kur recalls. "Who would take first was a big deal. The biggest deal ever. And when you make 100 percent, it is like winning the whole world."
Still, they missed their homes -- lost to them because Sudan was at war, Simon says. But in 1991, war found them. The Ethiopian government collapsed, and the refugee camps became targets. Simon and the others fled again, back toward the Sudanese border, pitching camp along the rain-swollen Gilo River. Ethiopian insurgents attacked, sending thousands of refugees to their deaths in the crocodile-infested waters.
An adult ferried Simon to safety, carrying a pack that contained the one item Simon had chosen to bring with him: a fourth-grade textbook. Not food. Not water. A grade-school textbook. "I like conversing with books," he explains. "And if there is no one to converse with, I am just reading. I tell myself that if I should survive, wherever I should be, I should read something. I do not want to waste time."
And so, on another deadly trek through southern Sudan, along riverbeds, through SPLA-controlled towns, between bombing raids, Simon studied.
In 1992, the refugees wandered into Kenya like ghosts. At an international relief base in Lokichoggio, they were given food, water and medical care; eventually they were trucked from the Sudanese border to the dusty town of Kakuma, where a massive camp had been built.
Of the 17,000 "unaccompanied minors" from southern Sudan who'd been counted in Ethiopia, only 10,500 made it to Kenya.
Once he'd settled in at Kakuma, Simon again focused on education. And again, his study habits paid dividends. The textbook he'd lugged from Ethiopia gave him an edge.
"When the teacher asked a question, my hand shot up first," he recalls.
In Kakuma, Simon also saw the tangible benefits of scholarship: Educated people won what few jobs existed. They received respect. They adapted easier. They had something inside that no one could take away. "If you speak English," he says, "no one will overlook you."
But competition was fierce in a camp where people often survived on one meal a day. Kakuma had only three secondary schools but thousands of eligible children. Continued enrollment was often determined by academic natural selection; a single failure could mean expulsion. Simon crammed until late at night. He was fortunate enough to win a part-time job, which provided money for books and extra food for himself, his housemates and his friends. But after receiving his high school diploma, Simon hit a wall. Kakuma did not offer college courses, so he studied and taught primary school.
By 1998, word had spread through the camp that the U.S. would resettle thousands of the young male refugees now nicknamed the Lost Boys, after the orphan tribe in the tale of Peter Pan. After passing interviews and background checks, Simon made the list. He found his name on a camp bulletin board beside this notation: "CO, Denver, African Community Center." He was worried about coming to Colorado; he'd heard a radio broadcast about two high school boys "who were shooting their classmates and teachers," he remembers. After the Columbine massacre, he imagined Denver as "very dangerous."
Still, in the summer of 2001, Simon boarded an airplane for the first time, gripping his chair while his friends wailed, "We are going to fall!" But that was only the first of many wonders he and the other Lost Boys would encounter as they came to America. Some marveled at the gleaming airport restrooms, which they hesitated to use for fear of dirtying them. Others scowled at the airline servings of salad, which they considered cattle food. Landing in Denver, Simon was most taken with the abundance of groceries. "When you go to King Soopers, you see meat and chicken on the shelves," he says, "but if you go outside, you don't see cows, you don't see chickens. Where does it come from? It is a mystery."
With the aid of agencies such as the African Community Center and Refugee Ecumenical Services, Simon and his friends organized their paperwork, received job referrals and settled into rental homes. Volunteers also arrived with food, clothes, furniture and advice on everything from shopping to housecleaning.
Among the helpers was Bruce Bassoff, an English professor at the University of Colorado, and his wife, Evi. When Bassoff came down from Boulder with a carload of donated books and supplies, Simon introduced himself and rattled off his favorite authors. Bassoff, who did not know that the Lost Boys had received an education in the camps, was impressed. And when Simon shared a Dinka saying -- "The friend who gives a book is better than a friend who gives food" -- the professor was smitten.
"As someone who's rather bookish himself, that really hooked me," Bassoff says.
Five months after he arrived in this country, Simon passed his GED on the first try. Two months after that, while working long shifts at the CU-Boulder food court and without much preparation, Simon scored reasonably well on his ACT. Astonished by those achievements, Bassoff decided to see if Simon and another Lost Boy, Kur Deng, could win admittance to the university.
Bassoff met with admissions, testing and financial-aid officials, citing CU's commitment to diversity and asking them to place Simon's and Kur's test scores in context. He issued a promise: "Whatever limitations they have now, I know they will outwork any other student on campus."
To Bassoff's surprise, administrators not only accepted Simon, but also Deng, who'd taken the ACT after the deadline for fall admission. Under the McNeill Academic Program, which helps non-traditional students with tutoring, counseling and smaller class sizes, the two friends entered the university this past August. To pay the $4,000 in annual tuition and fees, they received a combination of federal and state grants, loans and scholarships.
"When I learned that I was accepted, that day was one of the greatest in my 23 years," Simon says. "That night, I don't go to bed. I stay up and listen to music."
For other Lost Boys, the adjustment to life in Denver has been more difficult. Almost all have jobs, but those jobs are often minimum-wage food service, clerical, janitorial, factory or grocery-sacking positions. Even when they work forty hours a week or more, they struggle to make the rent, pay bills and buy groceries. A number have been laid off because of the recession.
"The job market is terrible," says Marilyn Eaton, a program supervisor with Colorado Refugee and Immigrant Service. "It is for all Americans, but they don't know the systems as well, and that makes it more of a struggle for them."
Affordable housing is another problem, particularly in Boulder, where volunteers have had to step in to find apartments and loan security deposits. Transportation is tough, too, with some Lost Boys spending several hours a day commuting by bus. Those who have cars are saddled with high insurance costs, expensive repairs and the occasional fender bender.
But for some, the biggest worry by far is health care. The Lost Boys have had to take whatever jobs they can, insurance benefits or no.
When Simon Yiep arrived in Denver eighteen months ago, he could barely walk. His right foot was swollen and bleeding, the result of a mysterious ailment he'd developed nine years earlier in the camps of Ethiopia. He might have stepped on a thorn; he might have been bitten by an insect. However it started, the itching wound would open several times a year, leaving Yiep bedridden for months. Still, he managed to make it to Kenya, and in Kakuma, doctors performed a skin graft. But the procedure didn't work.
Doctors here say he needs a $40,000 operation to replace the scarred tissue -- but Simon Yiep doesn't have anything close to $40,000. All the shy twenty-year-old has is aspirin, antibiotics and a $7-an-hour job at a coffeehouse at Metropolitan State College. The African Community Center has established a fund and volunteers are seeking donations, but in the meantime, Yiep can only hope that his foot problem doesn't flare up again. If that happens, he could lose his job and his place at Metro -- and with it, what little insurance he has from student coverage.
"When it is open, it is really, really hard," Yiep says of his ailment. "I can do nothing but listen to my music and watch the news. But if I don't work, who will pay my bills? If I don't go to school, what will happen to me in the future? It is putting pressure on me."
Peter Garang faces a similar dilemma. Shortly after he arrived in this country, he was struck by a car while riding a bike. The accident put him in a coma. He recovered, but he still suffers memory loss and organizational difficulties consistent with head injuries. He has few health-care options other than indigent care, which is overwhelmed and underfunded.
The pressure of work, school, wading through government bureaucracy and simply adjusting to the American way of life has some of the Lost Boys yearning for the simplicity of the refugee camps.
In Kenya, Kur Deng points out, their basic worries were finding water and food. But in America, there are deadlines, schedules, obligations and millions of choices. Problems are smaller here, but they buzz around his head like gnats. "In some ways," he says, "Kakuma is easier."
But when he sees a news report on the war that's now displaced more than four million people in Sudan, any nostalgia vanishes.
Rich Wildau is a project director for the Spring Institute, a Denver nonprofit supporting immigrants and refugees. Over the past year, he's befriended many of the Lost Boys. And for eleven days in November, as a guest of the Office of International Migration, Wildau visited the sprawling camp of Kakuma, which has now grown into 85,000 refugees from eight war-ravaged nations.
In the 110-degree heat, Wildau saw a dire situation getting worse.
Despite the growing refugee problem, the budget for the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, which oversees Kakuma and other camps, has been cut worldwide by 20 percent. In Kakuma, that has translated into reductions in food rations. Refugees who had been living on 1,500-calorie daily allotments of maize, sorghum, oil and flour now scratch by on 1,000 calories a day. Unless emergency funds are forthcoming, rations could be cut even more. And in the meantime, Wildau learned, 25 infants died of malnutrition over several months last fall.
Kakuma sits in the middle of a desert, and water is also scarce. Drought and the camp's growing population have steadily lowered the water table. Refugees receive twelve liters of water a day for drinking, cooking and bathing. At times, water lines have stretched for blocks. And if refugees don't fill their yellow buckets, they go without.
To survive, refugees share what they have among friends and family members. Many sell rations to buy fish and vegetables. Some earn meager wages at the few jobs available in the camp, such as teaching children and clerking for aid organizations. An underground economy has emerged, with entrepreneurs setting up cafes, clothing stalls, bicycle taxis, telephones powered by car batteries and makeshift theaters featuring satellite TV.
As he walked through the camp distributing letters, gifts and money from the Colorado contingent of refugees, Wildau was struck by how many Lost Boys -- and Lost Girls -- had been left behind. Time and again, he was approached by people who'd fallen through the cracks. Their files were lost, their names confused.
Some were so desperate that they slipped letters into Wildau's backpack, begging for his "sponsorship as a father." One refugee wrote that he would work as a domestic servant for "any family willing to take me.... My life is at risk. There is nobody who can come to my rescue." Another young man simply asked for a helping hand from Americans: "When you have a white man for a friend," he wrote, "you will remain in comfort for the rest of your life."
Many of the camp's residents are under the mistaken impression that a sponsor is all they need -- but it doesn't work that way. Even if Wildau had the money to sponsor refugees, they must still pass government checks. "It was painful for me," he says. "I didn't want to say no, but at the same time, I knew I couldn't do anything to help them. It left me feeling powerless."
Wildau also learned that the Lost Boys resettlement program has essentially ended. Once the 280 men remaining on the list are sent to the U.S., the Sudanese special-group designation will cease to exist. Refugees can still apply for resettlement individually -- by demonstrating extreme need, or under a family-reunification classification -- but those applications can take months. Or longer.
With camp conditions as bad as they are, fraud is rampant. Bribery, corruption and identify theft are rampant, particularly among the Somali Bantu -- the next wave of refugees to be settled in the U.S. under a special-group classification. Competition for spots in that group is so fierce that razor wire has been placed around the Somali encampments to prevent people from sneaking inside.
INS verification procedures are a nightmare, since tribal lineages are complex and refugees often have identical Christian names. Records from home countries are almost impossible to produce. In Africa, INS officials estimate that half of all family-reunification applications are fakes, Wildau says.
Even the tale of the Lost Boys is clouded. In Emma's War, Deborah Scroggins describes how the young men were often used as "pawns in a complicated game" by the southern Sudan rebels and the Western relief agencies. Some of the young men were encouraged by the SPLA to travel to Ethiopia in order to receive educations, she writes. Others were accompanied on their journeys by adult "caretakers" and were used to attract food shipments for adult soldiers. Still others were used by Western relief agencies as justification for keeping their jobs in Africa.
Wildau saw the complexities. Although many of the Lost Boys thought they'd been orphaned, it turned out that some of their kin had survived -- and relatives had even shown up at the camp. While they were still in Kakuma, some of the Lost Boys had gotten involved with women -- but since young men had to be single and without families to qualify for relocation under the Lost Boys special-group classification, that information was left out of the files, Wildau learned. As a result, some young men left spouses behind.
Still, even if the stories are confused, the hardships in Kakuma are clearly real. Anyone who's there deserves a chance to be resettled, Wildau says. "If you were in the hellhole," he points out, "wouldn't you do everything you possibly could to get out?"
But since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, getting out -- and into the U.S. -- is far more difficult. Refugees must now pass new and exhaustive INS background and security checks. Jennifer Gueddiche is the director of Denver's African Community Center, a satellite office of the New York-based Ethiopian Development Council, a nonprofit that resettles refugees from around the world. In her office, she has a list of 47 people who have been cleared to enter the U.S. but have yet to arrive -- "who knows why," she says. Among them are eight Lost Boys approved in 2001 and a southern Sudanese family that's waited four years to come to this country.
The refugee program was suspended entirely in the fall of 2001; after it was resumed, the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. shrank dramatically. Before September 11, Gueddiche had been slated to receive 130 refugees -- but only 77 arrived in the fiscal year that followed. "And we were lucky to get them," says Gueddiche, who had to lay off a case manager as a result.
Ecumenical Refugee Services, which normally handles 500 to 600 refugees a year in this city, received only 147 in 2002. It laid off staff, too, says Genevieve Cruz, ERS director of sponsorship and development.
Although they understand and support the INS's need to clamp down on security, these advocates say the extra precautions are harming the wrong people. After fleeing death and famine, refugees like the Lost Boys shouldn't be further penalized.
"They are among the most screened groups of people out there," says Eaton. "They're among the most patriotic groups, too. I don't think people would be so nervous about them if they really knew the facts. They're a wonderful addition to our society."
Although the refugees in Kakuma remain hopeful, resettlement officials are not -- particularly with a pending war in Iraq and continued terrorism in Africa. "I hate to say it," Gueddiche says, "but the way things are going now, they could be there for a very long time. And it's getting bleaker every day."
Several weeks after returning to Colorado, Wildau held a potluck for the Lost Boys. As the highlight of the gathering, he shared photographs he'd taken in Kakuma of their friends, family, sweethearts.
At the start, the young men laughed and cheered, raising their hands to explain the scenery and identify the faces popping on the screen.
"I know this guy!"
"This is my house!"
"He is my brother!"
"That one is my cousin!"
But after a while, the young men grew quiet as the realization sank in: Their friends and family members could remain in Kakuma for many years to come.
In the camp, Isaac Bher had shared a hut and hardships with his best friend. Yet Isaac was selected for resettlement and his friend was not, and every day, for months on end, Isaac's friend waited outside the interview office in Kakuma, wondering why. When Isaac left, his friend was still waiting.
"I do not understand," Isaac says. "He is a good worker. A good friend. Every day, he waits. Without relief. It is very bad."
His burden is made heavier by the knowledge that refugees back in Kakuma rely on him and the other Lost Boys to send money for food, clothing and education. Under Dinka culture, the young men here are obligated to help, and they do so willingly. That is how they survived their journeys through Sudan. That is how they survived the camps.
"Anyone who is working, it is not just for him," Simon Garang says. "It is for his friends. His brothers. His relatives. There is no way he can close his eyes and use the money for himself."
Colorado's Lost Boys work as hard as they can and save as much as possible so that they can send money to the camps. Arok Garang, who works in Black Hawk, managed to send home a sizable amount with Wildau. But no matter how much they send, it is never enough.
"The need is too great," says Lado Lual, whose girlfriend is still in Kakuma. She gave birth to their daughter in December 2001.
The money they do send can take 45 days to arrive in Kakuma. Although funds are wired to cities like Nairobi, which is three days from the camp, couriers must then shuttle it through bandit-infested territory, where even security officials demand bribes. "If they know you are going, they will wait for you to return," Lado says.
Communication is spotty, particularly in Sudan. Many Lost Boys have contacted relatives back in Africa -- Simon Garang's communicated with a brother in Uganda -- but mail delivery is haphazard, and phone calls crackle with static. And miscommunications can be heartbreaking. With the help of an intermediary, Lado Lual spoke to his mother in southern Sudan last year. He had not seen her in many years, though, and the woman did not believe he was her son. Not long afterward, Lual discovered that his father had died -- and his kin hadn't even mentioned that his father was sick.
"I ask them why, but they do not say," says Lual, whose American friends helped raise money for a proper burial. "It was very hard."
Refugees still back in the camp don't understand what life is like in this country. They think the Lost Boys who made it here live lives of abundance. When camp residents hear that one of the refugees owns a car, they assume he has thousands of dollars in the bank. And they send letters to Colorado, asking why they have been forsaken.
"We tell them it is not that easy," Lado says. "In reality, I am just trying to make a life here. I need to support myself."
Simon and Kur, who are attending CU full-time, face particular difficulties. Since they're not working forty hours a week, they have little extra money to send home. But if they increased their work hours, their studies would suffer and their scholarships might be jeopardized. "It is hard to concentrate," Simon explains. "When I personally reflect on their situation, it is terrible. I know their situation exactly. By just putting myself in their place, I think, 'Are they getting enough water? Are they getting enough food? How are they going to make it? How is it to be there today?' It is very hard. It gives you psychological difficulties."
But Simon and Kur know their limitations. They know they must focus on education. That is the best way to help their people. And ultimately, their friends and family members back in Kakuma understand that.
"They do not want us to fail," Simon says. "If we get ahead here in America, that is enough. They want us to succeed."
Although Lost Boys resettled in other cities have stumbled into booze or drugs, the young men in Colorado "are all good guys," Wildau says. If one steps out of line, his friends set him straight.
But they haven't had to do that often: In Denver, the young men are too busy to get into trouble. If they aren't working, they're studying. If they have any free time, they visit their friends, listen to music or attend church services, including a Dinka mass at St. John's Cathedral. Nathaniel Garang, an Episcopal bishop from southern Sudan, even visited here during a U.S. tour.
"They're model citizens," says the Colorado Refugee Services' Eaton. "Polite. Grateful. A joy to work with."
And work they do. Isaac Bher parlayed his vocational training in Kakuma into a maintenance job for Equity Residential Properties in Aurora. He wears a pager. He carries a cell phone. He drives a Nissan. If anything breaks in the 27 units under his care, "it will be me who takes care of it," he says.
Lado Lual works at a Mexican-food counter in CU's student union; he changed his name from Daniel to reconnect with his roots ("Coming to America," December 6, 2001). He's saving money, taking psychology courses and dabbling in politics. As a vice president for the Colorado branch of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, he's spoken publicly about the civil war, the Lost Boys' odyssey and the struggle for autonomy in southern Sudan. He's contacted his countrymen in this country, traveled to Washington, D.C., and even established contacts with high-ranking SPLA officers in Africa.
"It is our obligation," Lado says. "We are raising awareness for a voiceless people."
Lual Ayuen is a promising electrician's apprentice. Joseph Ayany has been promoted at Whole Foods and is studying to be a nurse. Elijah Gai works for immigration attorneys. Simon Yiep, despite his injury, has earned a B average at the Community College of Denver. John Abraham Panchol worked so hard at one of his two jobs, he fell asleep riding his bike home.
"That should tell you something about them," Bruce Bassoff says. "They've survived things you and I cannot imagine. This has given them enormous will, strength and discipline."
When they do need a hand, the Lost Boys rely upon volunteers who've offered everything from computers to rides to work to loans for education and living expenses. Although donations of time and money have dwindled, the volunteers' commitment remains strong.
"I'm as attached to them as my own kids," says Carol Rinehart, who has "adopted" Simon Yiep and Isaac Bher. "It's like a mom. You're preoccupied with their well-being."
Boulder volunteers gave hundred-dollar Christmas checks to their town's Lost Boys contingent. The young men returned the gifts, though, because they didn't want their friends in Denver to be excluded. "They're very big on fairness," Bassoff says. "Extremely ethical."
After speaking about his journey at a church function, Isaac Bher was invited to visit a family farm in Texas. He saw chickens, livestock and land that reminded him of home. He milked cows, rode a horse for the first time and even shot a deer. When he left, he fumbled to express his gratitude. "'Thank you' is not enough," he told his hosts. "Please give me a piece of paper so I can write more."
He returned to Denver a changed man. "Do not call me Isaac anymore," the boot-clicking, cowboy-hat-wearing, blue-jean-clad immigrant told his friends. "I am now Tall Black Cowboy Texan!"
In his cluttered Boulder apartment, Simon Garang sits amid computer terminals, GED guides and dictionaries. A class schedule is taped to the wall; a backpack rests in the corner. His first semester is behind him, and his grades are in: one A, two B's and a C. Although most freshmen would be proud, Simon is disappointed. The A in math might not stand because the course must be completed this spring. And the C in geology, well, the C will remain. And he's not happy about that. Not happy at all. "I do not like it," he grumbles.
Which is why, as the Christmas holiday comes to an end, Simon is eyeing his upcoming workload. This past fall, he and Kur, who also earned a 3.0 GPA, did not know what to expect. But now they do. In the spring term, there will be no excuses.
"It is a matter of setting goals and making sure they are materialized," Simon says simply.
In Kakuma, he explains, he and his friends depended on other people for food, water, clothes, books, their very survival. If aid was not forthcoming, they had to do without. But here the responsibility is all theirs. And it's a responsibility they embrace wholeheartedly.
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Says Simon, "The pride comes from doing something of your own making."
"After seeing all the horrible events that we have seen and going through them, we want to live life and appreciate it always," Kur adds. "We do not want to squander it."
And so they will tape class schedules to their walls, inhale their burritos on lunch breaks and fret about lost time. America is not the paradise they once imagined, but here, despite the economic challenges, confusing gadgets and endless deadlines, they have found opportunities. For this, they are forever grateful -- and ever mindful.
"Rest? There is no resting," Simon says. "Perhaps when there is peace in Sudan, I can rest. But now it is not so easy for me to say. There is still so much to do."