IRC Helps Lost Boys Of Sudan Rebuild Their Lives In The United States
|The IRC is attending to the special needs of this group of Lost Boys, as they adjust to life in Tucson, Arizona..|
Zacharia Akol, a 23-year-old refugee from southern Sudan, is slowly adjusting to life in Tucson, Arizona. The story of his long journey to America is extraordinary, but not unique. He shares a common past with nearly 4,000 young Sudanese men known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, who are being resettled in the United States by a handful of voluntary aid organizations, including the International Rescue Committee.
The War in Sudan
The outbreak of civil war in Sudan in 1983 brought with it circumstances that would permanently alter the lives of thousands of Sudanese boys and young men. As forces of the predominantly Muslim government of northern Sudan resumed its campaign against the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern-based rebel group began inducting boys into the movement. In the next few years, an estimated 17,000 Sudanese boys, mostly from the Dinka and Nuer tribes, fled their homeland in search of safety.
Zacharia, who was nine at the time, left his mother, father and three siblings and joined this band of boys on what turned out to be a treacherous 1000-mile journey to Ethiopia. Wandering in and out of war zones, they spent the next four years in dire conditions. Zacharia survived to tell his tale, but thousands of other boys lost their lives to hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. Some were attacked and killed by wild animals; others drowned crossing rivers and many were caught in the crossfire of fighting forces. Zacharia witnessed the deaths of too many friends and relatives.
Kakuma Refugee Camp
In 1991, war in Ethiopia sent the young refugees fleeing again and approximately a year later they began trickling into northern Kenya. Some 10,000 boys, between the ages of eight and 18, eventually made it to the Kakuma refugee camp-a sprawling parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years under the care of refugee relief organizations like the IRC.
Nearly a decade later, as the war in Sudan continued to rage, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determined that repatriation and family reunification was no longer an option for the Lost Boys. The UNHCR recommended approximately 3,600 of them for resettlement in the United States and the U.S. State Department concurred.
Starting over in the United States
The Kakuma youth began arriving in the United States in small groups in the fall of 2000. Since that time, the IRC has helped 175 resettle in and around Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle and Tucson. It is projected that the IRC will resettle a total of 400 Kakuma youth this year.
Zacharia arrived in Tucson in early May. Because he and the others in his group are over 18 and considered adults, they are not placed into foster care. The IRC found Zacharia a large apartment, which he is sharing with three other Sudanese boys from Kakuma.
"We place the older boys together in apartments to try to maintain the kind of support network that they developed throughout their difficult journey and while living in the Kakuma camp," says Jon Merrill, director of IRC's resettlement program in Tucson. "They have been like family to each other for so long now, so it's best for them to continue to live as a family unit here."
Zacharia is the oldest of the group of boys in Tucson, and whether it is because of his age, wisdom, or his grasp of the English language, he has become a sort of paternal figure that the others look up to. In speaking about his experience thus far, he is quick to express how significant it is that for the first time in many years they do not live each day in fear and that their basic needs are being met. "Often the food provided in the camp was insufficient," said Zacharia. " Here you can eat until you are full, not just until you run out of food, which in the camp there was always very little of."
Quest for Education
|David Malual Gai and Peter Leek Nyian enjoy a day on the Charles River. After learning that the IRC would be helping Kakuma youth resettle in Boston, the Community Boating, Inc. donated memberships and sailing lessons for all the new arrivals.|
Most of the older boys came to the United States eager to capitalize on opportunities for higher education, but are finding that their idea of becoming full time students is not a realistic goal. Since most are over 18 and living on their own they need to support themselves. And even though the majority attended school within Kakuma camp and had completed or were well on their way to completing high school, they do not necessarily qualify for entry into U.S. colleges. For these young men, IRC staff members have been stressing the importance of finding a job soon after arrival, and continuing their educational pursuits part-time.
The IRC found Zacharia a job at a resort hotel in Tucson, and with the help of an IRC volunteer, he is now studying for an exam that will enable him to receive his General Equivalency Diploma, and in turn, apply for college. And he says he would like to help ease the educational transition of his roommates and other Kakuma youths resettling in the area by finding a study program that will help them prepare for the GED exam. Still, he expresses frustration at not being able to enroll in a university right away. "I finished high school in 2000. I should have been on my way to a university to continue with my education. I have taken chemistry, physics, and biology. I have studied English, written compositions, read literature, anthologies, essays, poetry, and plays."
Adjusting to Life in America
Nearly all the new arrivals talk about the challenge in adjusting to American culture and modern society. "America and Tucson are very different from my homeland," Zacharia says. "We are trying to adjust as we can - to live according to the way that people live here." IRC case workers have been working closely with the boys in orienting them to their new communities, making sure that they are as comfortable as possible, and offering guidance on such issues as personal safety, social customs, public transportation, shopping, cooking, nutrition and hygiene.
Volunteers, many of whom became aware of the immense needs of this group through recent media coverage, have also played a significant role in this area. They have been serving as an essential link to the greater community, helping to generate additional employment opportunities, as well as increase donations and awareness. Volunteers at the IRC's Boston office have taken part in a mentoring program for newly arrived Kakuma youth, providing support and guidance, and organizing recreational activities that bring the young men together.
|Peter Matiop Walis is preparing for a job interview, arranged by the IRC's Boston office. Peter, a Sudanese refugee, spent years at Kakuma Camp in Kenya before he was resettled with other Lost Boys in Boston.|
Many of the Sudanese youth resettled by the IRC are also taking part in IRC programs aimed at helping them cope with their traumatic past and easing their transition into such a different culture. The IRC's Phoenix resettlement office works with clinical psychologists, to provide counseling services that involve spiritual and testimonial therapies.
As they settle into a new way of life, Zacharia and the other Sudanese youths wonder whether they will some day have the opportunity to return to their homeland and reunite with the families they left behind. Zacharia communicates through mail with his older brother and younger sister, who are living along Sudan's border with Uganda. However, he has no immediate plans to return to Sudan. "Time will tell," he says. "The outcome of this war will determine whether or not it would be wise to do so."