Reflections on the Sudanese Lost Boys

Photos from 60 Minutes Overtime by CBSNews.

By Pindie Stephen

PICTURE the scene:  Representatives from  IOM, UNHCR, JVA (Church World Service) and the US  Embassy sitting around a conference table on the second floor of a relatively spacious two-story converted home which served as the offices for Church World Services at the time. Here we sparred; our team -- IOM Medical, Cultural Orientation, and Operations staff – and our partners in crime – all engaged in one of the regular resettlement coordination pow wows held every month in Nairobi.

Towering eucalyptus and flowering jacaranda beckoned outside, drawing our attention away from the discussion at hand.  It could have been just another meeting, where we shared respective updates and plans for circuit rides across the continent;   churning out our quarterly numbers for departures, block bookings, medical holds and pending security checks.  However, looking back, I can remember that this particular meeting –somewhere  in early 1999 – turned out to be one of the more memorable (and decisive) meetings I can remember ever sitting through during the span of those 12  years we spent working on resettlement in East Africa. 

Two large, significant and equally vulnerable and in-need resettlement population groups were in the pipeline at that time.  Nairobi was one of the largest resettlement processing centers in the world and IOM resettlement staff were working simultaneously in over 30 countries throughout Africa.  The refugees we assisted ranged from Somalis, Ethiopian, Congolese, Eritrean, and Sudanese to many others.  Our cultural orientation classes were bursting at the seams, with our CO trainers crisscrossing the continent, and setting up pre-departure orientation courses under banyan trees in Senegal, in convents in Cote D’Ivoire, in technical colleges in Rwanda, and in state-of-the art classrooms replete with refrigerators, Western toilets and simulated aircraft seats in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya.   

So, essentially our discussion at this meeting centered around  two major groups:  The Somali Bantus -- a marginalized ethnic minority group of approximately 14,000 who had fled from southern Somalia and were  living in Dadaab refugee camp at the time, and  a group of almost equal number - the Sudanese “Lost Boys”  who had been living in Kakuma  since they literally wandered in across the arid plans from Sudan, via Ethiopia,  in the early 90’s, into the welcoming arms of humanitarian aid workers.  No one had ever seen anything quite like them before; these were children barely clothed in mud-baked rags, clutching nothing more than the hand of their brother or sister; hungry, traumatized, sick and orphaned after wandering the harsh, famine-ridden expanses of neighboring countries,  having crossed rivers where many of the original 10,000 were either picked off by crocodiles, devoured by lions, or dropped dead from starvation and left to the scavenging vultures.   Years later, they were to recount stories of how they were scattered from their native Sudan when rebels opened fire on many of the cattle farms they were working on at the time of the attacks. 

Fast forward a decade, and now you have a band of strapping young boys and girls – primarily from the ethnic Dinka and Nuer tribes -- under serious consideration by the US Government for resettlement.  Of the 4,000 “Lost Boys” a quarter were unaccompanied minors, under 18, with only a sibling, if that, to call “family” – the vast majority were barely over 18, “adults” by our standard, but children by any other – whose only experience of life had been either on the run, dispersed and separated from village and family for the past ten years – and in a refugee camp, living in groups of 6-10 with a self-appointed “care-taker”.     They were ill-equipped to start independent lives, but all seemed eager to finish their education, and give back to their native Sudan.

The deciding point on which group was to be resettled first, during that auspicious meeting in Nairobi, essentially came down to one thing:  age.  Many of these unaccompanied Sudanese minors would be aging out (turning 19) and therefore would no longer eligible for either US foster care nor the free public education which would make a significant difference in their lives.  By the end of that morning, a decision to prioritize the resettlement of the Sudanese Lost Boys and Girls was made.  And we had our work cut out for us.  The rest really is history, but perhaps a few reflections before I end my story.

No single refugee group, either before or after, has captured our attention quite like this one.  At the time, we couldn’t know that the New York Times Magazine would feature one of the boys on the front of their Sunday cover, destined for Fargo, North Dakota nor that several films, including one Hollywood block buster, or novels, including What is the What, by Dave Eggers, would delve into the unimaginable tale of their journey, which both defined these survivors, and haunted them, for years to come.

While I was the CO Coordinator, responsible for pre-departure orientation classes for various IOM migrant training projects throughout Africa, our largest, by far, was the US Cultural Orientation programme.  Over the span of the twelve years (1994-2007), IOM provided orientation to over 100,000 US-bound refugees, in 56 refugee processing sites in Africa.  No single group warranted closer attention, nor inspired us as did this group of Sudanese boys and girls.  We quickly realized how important it was to capitalize on their resilience, faith, and innate love of education.  We had to re-design our curriculum, taking into consideration that a quarter of our participants would be heading off to live with foster families in suburban America.  We had to prepare them for everything from adjusting to sleeping in a room by themselves, to joining a “dating” and consumer-oriented society.  We had to simulate what a typical day at school might look like, replete with combination locks and fire-drills, to how to use an alarm clock, help with chores around the house and much much more.  When we described seasons, showing them pictures and videos of snow, their questions often signaled their inability to comprehend what reality awaited them.  Some assumed that during the winter months they would stay indoors and build fires to keep themselves warm.  They asked, innocently, Can we die of this coldness?  

We outfitted our classrooms with large wall clocks to help them learn how to tell time and gave them empty schedules to fill, so that they would understand concepts like time management.  This was not easy after years of living by the rising and setting of the sun, with survival tasks such as collecting water and food rations as their only constants.  The CO teachers approached topics on hygiene with a measure of humor, hoping that they would convey the quirks of a society obsessed with cleansing products and round-the-clock bathing.  Although we often only had a few days with them, the bonds that were forged during those classes lasted years. 

I’ll never forget showing up one afternoon at the Nairobi Transit Center and meeting a group that I had taught in the refugee camp only weeks before.   Standing in the parking lot, on a mid-wintry July afternoon – in equatorial Africa’s southern hemisphere-- surrounded by hundreds of newly arrived refugees, a face emerged from the crowd.  It was Deng, grinning wide, with 2 IOM distributed blankets draped around his 6 foot 9 inch frame.  He came to me, slowly, dignified, and put out both of his hands in a gesture which spoke volumes, Teacher, I am here.  We were quickly joined by the rest of his mates, and repaired to one of the empty classrooms which was used to deliver pre-embarkation briefings for soon-to-depart refugees.  Their first impressions and questions came out hurriedly, with great excitement and anticipation.  What about the problem of Colgate? (They were worried that they didn’t have toothpaste for their trip); Is America bigger than this place?  (They admitted they had never been in a city as large as Nairobi); We never saw red cars before (UN vehicles in the camps are always white); Who will come with us when we go from this place?

An estimated 4000 Sudanese Lost Boys and Girls passed through IOM’s Cultural Orientation program.  About 525 of those were officially termed Unaccompanied Minors; the rest were either older than 18, or younger siblings that were cross-referenced to one of the older Sudanese Lost Boys.  All were resettled out of Kakuma and the majority was resettled between 1999 and 2002. Some were in transit when 9/11 hit and their planes were forced to make emergency landings in Canada.   Many of these young men and women have gone on to get university degrees, are now holding steady jobs, and have integrated into mainstream society.  Some have even returned and are involved in rebuilding their native South Sudan.  All carry with them the scars of their years spent wandering across war-torn neighboring countries following their exile in the early 90’s. No group has ever quite matched their extraordinary and remarkable story of survival.  I am inspired to this day.


Pindie Stephen is a Senior Migrant Training Specialist/Integration Focal Point in IOM