A Personal Reflection on The Lost Boys and the Film - The Good Lie

By 2003 There were an estimated four million people displaced inside Sudan, that was over 10% of the total population. © IOM/Jeff Labovitz 2003

By Pindie Stephen

Several months ago I was invited to attend a private showing of The Good Lie, a film that Hollywood would be releasing to the public on October 5th. The film held special significance for those of us who had worked with this remarkable group of mostly orphaned refugees in the late 1990s and early 2000s.   Half a dozen of us piled into the IOM van and headed downtown, across the river, to an exclusive movie house in Geneva’s posh Rive Gauche district.  While others were braving the rush hour traffic, snarled by an early summer rain, some of us took secret delight in the anticipation of watching and reviewing a yet-to-be released Hollywood film at ten o’clock on a morning work day.  There was something exhilarating -- almost like a “snow day” -- about the prospect of spending time inside a dark theatre, watching a film and its cast of characters, whose aim was to essentially   capture one of the most dramatic resettlement undertakings over the past three decades.

Two hours later, as the credits ran, I felt numb.  As we spilled out of the theatre and onto the slick, rich, orderly streets of the Swiss capital, I couldn’t shirk the sensation of once again having been part of something truly great. While I carried on what I hoped was seemingly intelligent conversation with my peers -- confirming that yes, indeed, the film had done justice to the Lost Boys’ story -- a big part of me was back in the dustbowl of Kakuma, recalling some of the moments that had unfolded  –  many as endearing and as honorable as the individuals portrayed in the film. 

Having been responsible for coordinating the pre-departure orientation which IOM carried out for almost 99% of the 4000+ lost boys and girls who passed through the US Refugee Program, I was privileged to hear from some of them afterwards, and follow the trajectory of their life as they shared tidbits of challenges and successes experienced over the years as they slowly began to integrate into US society.   Back at the office, still overcome with emotion, I quickly shot Sasha Chanoff an email – knowing he would be able to put me in touch with one of the Lost Boys whose face I was reminded of while watching the film.

Within a few hours of my message to Sasha, and his quick intervention, I received an email from William Deng, the young man who had stood up in my class and thanked IOM and the U.S. Government on behalf of his group following their “graduation” from Cultural Orientation.  He wrote me that in the meantime he had gotten his Master’s Degree, and was currently working on his Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Management. You will be the last person I will forget.  He shared a litany of impressive accomplishments, and mentioned that he was now working for a U.S. Senator in Washington.  BTW, I still carry the business card that you gave me in Kakuma almost 14 years ago now.

I remembered being unable to hold back the tears that afternoon, as each one of them -- painfully thin and lanky --  came up to me after class, clutching my hands, awkwardly hugging me while asking whether the next time we would meet would be in America.  For all they knew, America was slightly bigger than Kakuma, and we would all soon be neighbors.   I tried to calm them down and asked them to be good ambassadors for their group and to be strong and to study hard.  I am an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church, currently serving as a part-time pastor. My brothers are doing well too; all graduated from college and working at the moment.

It was almost impossible to believe that the young man writing me this email in 2014 had once endured the unimaginable suffering which had just played out across the screen of The Good Lie.    For the first thirty minutes of the film, you didn’t see Reese Witherspoon, but were forced rather to witness some of the more uncompromising and painful events which played out across the cattle camps (from which they fled), and the barren desert and scrub of the inhospitable wilderness through which they trekked, in search of salvation.  I thought of their resilience and their unfailing Christian faith -- so often cited as one of the enduring factors that contributed to their defeating the almost certain odds of death during that journey which saw almost half perish.

The film will undoubtedly be debated at length, and there will be controversy.  It goes without saying that a narrative as rich and as captivating as this, addressing the myriad sociological and political dimensions of resettlement, defies easy explanation.   I found it as true as a film could be, in terms of both  exposing the complexities and difficulties of cross-cultural adaptation, as well as in conveying the resilience, commitment and unparalleled will of these individuals, determined to triumph when so much was against them.   We left Kakuma on the 12/15/2000, and arrived in New York on the 12/20/2000. The orientation prepared me very well for the journey and the new country.  Hey, snow was too cold…you didn’t tell us!