Stephanie Caspelich

Reporting the news that matters.

The Lost Boys of Sudan: A Story of Survival, Resettlement and the Ongoing Struggle to Promote Peace in South Sudan

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The voices of South Sudan filled the halls of St. Paul’s Church by-the-Lake.

It was Sunday and a small group of refugees from South Sudan gathered at the Episcopal Church in Rogers Park, one of the most culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods on the far north side of Chicago. Most of the parishioners are male between the ages of 30 and 35. They have come to sing hymns and read the gospel of the week in Dinka, the dialect of South Sudan’s major ethnic group.

“The church has been our place of refuge since most of us arrived in Chicago in 2001,” said The Rev. Awan Abraham, 33, a deacon from South Sudan. “We use to have our community gatherings in the rectory on Thursday evenings, but the volunteers stopped coming in 2007. We have since transitioned to this more prayerful format.”

The Lost Boys of Sudan is a term given by aid workers in refugee camps to more than 20,000 young boys who were displaced during Sudan’s second civil war from 1983 to 2005. The children were caught in the middle of the conflict between the Islamic central Sudanese government led by Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army  led by rebel leader John Garang.

The SPLA spent years fighting for the independence of Southern Sudan from the oppressive government in the north, and actively campaigned for the rights and freedom of all non-Muslim Sudanese. In 2005, the warring factions signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement; this eventually led to South Sudan’s secession from the north on July 11, 2011.

“I was separated from my parents and five siblings in 1991,” said Jacob Dier, 31, who was among thousands of boys who walked about a thousand miles from villages in South Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya looking for safety. “It was hard to keep going, not knowing whether or not my parents and siblings were alive. We were all so young but we knew we needed to help each other to survive.”

Only  half of the young boys survived the long, arduous journey to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where about 10,000 boys stayed for nine years before being offered refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and resettlement in the United States by the State Department.

According to Ann-Elizabeth Young, volunteer coordinator at Refugee One, a refugee is someone who has fled his/her own country and seeks refugee status. The UNHCR or the U.S. Embassy then refers a refugee for resettlement. Once applications and interviews are conducted by the U.S. State Department, a refugee is placed with a voluntary agency. Upon arrival in the United States, refugees are received by a resettlement agency like Refugee One, a non-profit organization in contract with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees who have been displaced from their homelands due to war, terror and persecution.

“The first 90 days is what we call the core service period,” said Darwensi Clark, associate director of Heartland Alliance’s Refugee Resettlement and Placement Program. “We bring the refugees in, pick them up from the airport, provide them with a place to live (apartments in Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park and Albany Park) and then the next day we do an “intake interview” so we can figure out how to provide services they need and help them be self-sufficient. The government only provides funding for the first 90 days after resettlement; when that runs out they are pretty much on their own.”

A refugee’s adjustment to a new way of life away from home, family and friends can be difficult, especially until self-sufficiency is achieved. The assistance offered by organizations like Heartland Alliance and the Pan African Association is vital to surviving the emotional and physical challenges of a new environment.

“Heartland assisted me when I moved to Chicago in 2001. They helped me find a place to live in Rogers Park, showed me where to get food stamps and brought me to Truman College for job training skills and ESL classes,” Dier said. “My first job was at Target. Eventually, I was able to find my current position as a document imaging assistant at Winston & Strawn LLP. I am happy because this job has allowed me to send money regularly to my family in South Sudan, and has allowed me to send my two sisters to boarding school in Uganda.”

In spite of their harrowing past and the challenges they have had to overcome adjusting to life in America, these men are motivated to grow and develop in their own fields so that they can give back to the communities they left behind in South Sudan.

“We survived this ordeal for a reason. It would be an insult to the boys who did not make it if we waste the opportunity to make a difference in our country,” said Peter Magai Bul, 30, a political science major at Northeastern Illinois University and staunch advocate of promoting education and peace in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. “It is our responsibility to take what we have learned in the U.S. and share it with the children of South Sudan, who will continue our legacy and be the future leaders of our country.”

Jonglei state, one of the 10 states of the Republic of South Sudan, has struggled with tribal feuds over cattle for years. The recent spate of violence in the state has escalated mainly because of tribal differences and misunderstandings, and the lack of government resources to resolve the situation. The five main ethnic groups in the area-Dinka, Nuer, Anyuak, Jie and Murle-have followed rules set by their tribal chief leaders for decades.

According to Bul, the government must step up and bring all the tribal leaders together; people must be educated so they are not misled by divisive tribal beliefs but instead inspired by the unifying power of a newly independent country.

“I’ve been visiting South Sudan every year since 2007. Initially, it was to build a school and bring school supplies to Wangulei, the village where I was born,” Bul said. “Now, I have been travelling more as part of the Jonglei Peace of Neighbors project. I have been going around the state with 15 other Lost Boys from all over the U.S. and acting as a mediator between the tribe elders, the youth and government officials. It is easier for us to get through to them because we are neutral and we are from the area, so they trust us.”

For Peter Magai, Jacob and Rev. Awan Abraham, the quest for peace and reconciliation is an uphill battle that will take hard work, patience and persistence to realize.

“We are a young nation,” Bul said. “It will take some time before we understand one another and learn that we do not have to fight ourselves. We must all help one another, no matter our differences, because now we are all South Sudanese.”

The last hymn has been sung, and the closing prayer has been said. The service ends with blessings and good tidings.

The men congregate in small groups inside the church, their faces lit by the afternoon sun that pierces through its stained glass windows. They exchange stories about life-family, work, their dreams for South Sudan. The spirit of brotherhood is palpable and their camaraderie is inspiring.

Once, they were young boys frolicking in the winding red dirt roads of South Sudan. Now, they are men working toward a better future for their families and a better tomorrow for the land they call home.

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