Lost & Found

One year ago, the Lost Boys of Sudan came to Houston in search of America, a future, safety and an education simple things that got somewhat complicated in the translation

On the wall of the simply furnished apartment in southwest Houston hangs a large religious calendar, the cheaply made kind that churches sometimes give out for free. It is opened to March. This year, the most holy Christian holiday of Easter falls on the last day of that month. But the painted picture on the calendar is not of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, in a celebration of glory and triumph. No, the image on this particular calendar is much bleaker than that. Jesus is shown dressed in a white robe, and he is straining under the weight of a large wooden cross pressed against his back. The look on his face is one of terrible suffering. Although it is simple, the portrait tells a story of pain, struggle and a certain kind of inhuman sacrifice.

It seems like a proper metaphor for everything that has happened to the four boys who live in this apartment.

Of course, they aren't really boys anymore. And it could easily be argued that their lives have been so difficult that maybe they never really were. But that is what they are used to being called: the Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a compelling title, eaten up by the American media that descended upon the refugee boys when they arrived in Houston and other parts of the United States just over a year ago.

Jacob works in the laundry at a Memorial Hermann hospital, but he would like to go to college.
Deron Neblett
Jacob works in the laundry at a Memorial Hermann hospital, but he would like to go to college.
Most of the Sudanese refugees live in the same complex -- usually four boys to a two-bedroom apartment.
Deron Neblett
Most of the Sudanese refugees live in the same complex -- usually four boys to a two-bedroom apartment.

Jacob Guot, who lives in this apartment, is one of the Lost Boys, although he shuns the title. His story is similar to those of almost 100 Lost Boys who resettled in Houston, but that does not make it any less horrific. Displaced by a brutal Sudanese civil war in the late 1980s, Jacob and almost 20,000 newly orphaned boys began a years-long escape on foot to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan, and finally to Kenya. Over the years of walking from country to country, they were chased by wild animals, were shot at by rebels and drowned in swollen rivers. Almost 6,000 died. Those who didn't often ate mud to survive.

Once they reached the relative safety of the United Nations refugee camps in Kakuma, Kenya, they waited almost a decade -- living in huts they built themselves, eating mostly maize and sorghum -- before the United States granted them refugee status and allowed nearly 4,000 of them to come to America and build a new life.

Twenty-two-year-old Jacob and his friends tell these stories almost by rote. It is obvious they've repeated them many times to international aid workers, local resettlement agencies and reporters.

"We walked because we were small children," says Jacob in stilted English that is tinged with a British accent. On his forehead are thin, V-shaped scars, tribal markings made with a razor when he was a young child in Sudan. "We got hungry on the way, and thirsty." Asked if his parents are still living, he can say only that he does not know; the last time he caught a glimpse of them alive was when he was nine, running into the bushes to escape gunfire. When he emerged, they were nowhere to be found.

But Jacob, like the other Lost Boys, would rather talk about his present and his future. In this last year of intense adjustment, Jacob and his friends have learned everything from how to open a bank account to how to flush a toilet. But at the same time, they have come up with many more questions for which there are no quick replies. And these questions are much more difficult than, say, how to turn on the stove or how to ride the bus.

They want to know why it is so hard for them to get an education here. They want to know why some of them are getting laid off. They don't understand all the reasons the United States was attacked on September 11. And they wonder if Americans even care or know about the war ravaging their homeland of Sudan.

As Jacob talks about these complicated things, sitting on the couch in his two-bedroom apartment, he gets agitated, eventually stands up, and starts to speak with the courage and conviction of a would-be politician.

"It is very difficult here," he says. "If you get the job, one month, two months later you can get laid off. And the economy is slow, because of what happened in September. In Africa, you can go to the forest for trees and build a house. Here, you pay rent, the electric bill, the water bill, gas, telephone. If you make $6 an hour, how do you divide that between those bills?"

Jacob talks, on and on, his voice shaking a bit with emotion. It is strange to hear this newcomer with a thick accent already sounding so much like a determined but worried working-class American. But perhaps that is the paradox at the heart of the Lost Boys' story. In Kakuma, the boys referred to America as a "second heaven," where they believed they would exist in peace and receive free education. But now that they have settled in, lived through the tumult of the terrorist attacks and faced the red tape of American bureaucracy, life in this second heaven has proved much more complicated than they ever imagined.

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