Lost & Found

Jacob works in the laundry at a Memorial Hermann hospital, but he would like to go to college.
Deron Neblett

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 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.  

Jacob's apartment in the Glendale Park complex near U.S. 59 and Gessner is neat and clean. A card table and four chairs sit in the back by the kitchen, and the beds -- two in each bedroom -- are made up with simple cotton sheets. There is not much on the bedroom walls except for two tiny pictures of cute, smiling women in bathing suits torn from a Sports Illustrated desk calendar. There is a television and even a VCR, but otherwise decorations are sparse. Although it is long past November, small paper turkeys that someone gave Jacob and his three roommates still sit proudly on a shelf.

Like the other Lost Boys, Jacob was resettled in Houston with the help of a local agency. In his case, YMCA International Services assisted him in making the gigantic adjustment. When he first arrived, his resettlement agency helped him locate an apartment, furnish it, purchase food and then begin the daunting task of finding work. (As all the Lost Boys in Houston were over 18 when they arrived, they would not be enrolling in public school. Other U.S. cities that received younger boys placed them in foster homes and sent them to school.) The Y also inundated Jacob with a dizzying array of new concepts: This is how a faucet works, this is how to lock the door, this is how to run a vacuum. The idea was to have the boys self-sufficient and paying their own way in about three months.

Although he had received a brief orientation from United Nations workers in the Kakuma camp, Jacob still experienced the culture shock of arriving in such a foreign place -- probably similar to that of an American being dropped in the middle of the jungles of southern Sudan and politely being told to try to survive. Jacob was confused when he saw American couples displaying affection for each other in public. That was something only done in private back in Sudan. He would sometimes see drunk people walking around in his housing complex, or children misbehaving who were not being disciplined by their parents -- both examples of things not tolerated back home in Africa. The concept of a girlfriend confused him, too. Back in Sudan, there was no such thing -- marriages are arranged by the parents.

But even simple things were not always explained. An American friend, Terri Seifert, who met Jacob when her church reached out to help the boys, says she remembers the time she discovered that Jacob and his roommates didn't have an alarm clock. While having dinner with them at her home, she asked them how they knew when to wake up for work. Terrified of oversleeping, Jacob and his three roommates told her they had been taking turns staying awake and keeping an eye on their wristwatches.

"Of course, they left my house with two alarm clocks and a lesson on how to use them," remembers Seifert, human resources director for Memorial Hermann Healthcare System.

Seifert helped Jacob get a job working in the laundry at the Memorial Hermann Continuing Care Hospital on Gessner. Like most of the Lost Boys, Jacob does manual labor -- others work at car washes, fast food restaurants or even catering at the rodeo. Seifert, like the countless number of people who have been drawn to help the Lost Boys, says it is impossible to not want to assist this group of parentless young men who are often achingly quiet and polite. Indeed, the Lost Boys -- devout Christians -- regularly end phone calls and conversations with the phrases "Thank you so much" and "God bless you."

"They are just so grateful," says Seifert. "I've never met a group so unassuming. Once you have done something to help them, you are revered. They pray for you daily, for your family, for your friends."

But despite their good manners and sweet natures, they are still full of questions and concerns. One of Jacob's friends, Abraham Wei, arrived in August but has not been able to find work because of the slow economy. But Abraham, who probably would be qualified for only a minimum-wage job, says he does not understand how his small salary could possibly affect the bigger picture.  

"Only $6 cannot be affecting the economy," says Abraham. "There are people making $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, and they are not getting laid off."

The Reverend Samson Diko, an Anglican priest who himself was a refugee from Nigeria, has heard these worries before. "Really, at this moment it is difficult for them, because they are just trying to settle down," says the 36-year-old Diko, who arrived in Houston seven years ago. Diko now holds church services for some of the Lost Boys at a chapel in St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Bellaire. Familiar with the feelings of being a refugee, he is also making plans to start a soccer team so the boys will have a chance to relax and socialize together. In addition, Diko is working with Terri Seifert and people from other concerned local religious groups to plan a May conference about Sudan in Houston. The conference organizers, who are inviting politicians and Lost Boys from the region, say they want to address domestic and international issues of interest to the Lost Boys. One of the biggest concerns the boys have is how to get an education.

"They want to go to school, but it is not easy," says Diko. "In the camps, they attended school and they had a free education. But when they arrived here, it became the opposite, because they were above 18."

Jacob, like the other Lost Boys, says he is desperate to get to college. He wishes this could happen right away. But he is filled with frustration over the fact that he must first get his GED before attending a university. He carefully shares his certificates from the UN school in Kakuma, which he keeps like sacred treasures in a large manila envelope.

"He is industrious, responsible and obedient," reads a report from the Don Bosco Vocational Training Centre in Kakuma. Jacob has an orange-and-white diploma that says he has completed course work in masonry, as well as a small green card from the Don Bosco Past Pupils Association, which is inscribed with the motto "Keep United and Help Each Other."

Jacob says he took these certificates to the local Houston Community College campus but was told he would have to get a GED before he could enroll in advanced classes.

"Houston is very confusing to me," he says, shaking his head. "I said, 'What's the difference?' and they said my papers do not work in this system. The GED is very difficult."

But Jacob and many of the other boys are accepting this obstacle as they have accepted so many others before, bearing down and taking GED night classes in addition to working during the day. A common phrase among the orphaned Lost Boys is that education is their mother and father, their hope for a better life.

But as quick as Jacob is to express the difficulties of life in America, he is equally quick to express his gratitude for being brought to what he calls "a place of security." A place where he will always have something to eat, or medical care if he gets sick. To make sure he has gotten all his thoughts together, Jacob has written them down in tiny, curled script on pieces of a yellow legal pad. It is titled "Points," and one of them reads, "What I can tell to America is thank you, because we lost before and Americans have found us. I like to tell America to keep doing this Godly ways of helping those who are in need of help. I would like to tell Americans to keep united because through unity everything is possible, even though there are some evil things which can sometimes bring in dispute and misunderstanding."

The Lost Boys know too much of dispute and misunderstanding, and their long, difficult story is really the long, difficult story of Sudan itself. The North African country was a British colony until 1956, but it has been plagued with political problems since civil war broke out in 1983. The conflict stems from tension between Muslims, who live mostly in the arid desert north, and Christians, who live in the tropical south. The Lost Boys come from the southern region. According to the Sudanese Christians, the Muslims, who dominate the political power structure, have tried to force the Christians to live under Islamic rule. They also claim the Muslims keep them from seeking education and employment.

The south formed the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, led by John Garang. But the struggle between north and south was further exacerbated in 1991 when there was a split among the SPLA. The Dinka and Nuer tribes, the largest tribes in Sudan, turned against each other, and a Nuer rebel named Riek Machar started leading a new faction of rebels. Suddenly southerners were killing not only northerners but other southerners as well.  

Although Garang recently announced that 2002 will be a year of peace and unity among the south, it is still too early to see if that promise stands. Not long ago, Garang and Machar traveled separately throughout the United States and Europe to meet with displaced Sudanese and political leaders. When Machar had a brief layover at Hobby Airport, dozens of Houston's Lost Boys, who closely follow homeland politics, came out to see him and have their pictures taken with him.

The Lost Boys "are victims of the war in Sudan, and they have come to make a life here in the U.S.," said Machar, as airport security tried to break up the large group of boys blocking the line to the metal detectors. "We hope when the war is over, one day they will be able to come back to Sudan. But that must be their own decision, just like it was their decision to come here."

But the decision to come to America was certainly made under the most difficult kind of pressure. So says Panos Moumtzis, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who spent three years working in the Kakuma camps. It was in April 1992, says Moumtzis, that the UN got word that thousands of young Sudanese boys were making their way to the Sudan-Kenya border, looking for safety and food. The situation was a mini-crisis, and the UN relief workers got to work setting up a camp practically overnight. One hot April day, the boys, ranging in age from seven to 14, began appearing in droves. And they didn't stop until almost 14,000 had settled in the camp.

"It was the most amazing sight I've ever seen in my life," recalls Moumtzis. "In the span of four or five days, children -- mainly boys -- began to arrive at the border. They had bare feet and were exhausted. And the one thing that struck me, usually when you have a group of children they are lively, perhaps making noise or being naughty. But there was total silence. They were walking in silence and looked very depressed. They had scars."

Moumtzis also recalls that many of the young boys were carrying books, something he had never seen refugees do before. But the boys had made it a point to carry Bibles and schoolbooks they had received at camps during their stay in Ethiopia (internal conflict in that country forced the boys to leave and walk to Kenya). They had carried those books almost 1,300 miles.

The tragic reason there were so many boys and hardly any girls is that many of the young Sudanese women either had been killed outright or had been married off or sold into slavery. In fact, out of the thousands of Sudanese youths to seek refuge in the United States, only about 70 are girls.

Under the direction of the UN, the boys got to work building their own huts out of mud bricks. They insisted on building a school, says Moumtzis, because they hoped it would give them the structure and discipline they were craving. Because there was no way of knowing their exact ages, the UN workers estimated and gave all the boys a birthday of January 1. They settled into a steady diet of maize and sorghum (for the almost ten years they spent in the camp, that was all they ate every day). As donations came in, the camp got its own library, filled mostly with children's books.

"I've never seen so many children in total silence in a library," says Moumtzis.

A team of Norwegian psychiatrists was brought to Kenya in an attempt to help the children sort out the feelings left behind by the extreme trauma they had seen and experienced. The psychiatrists used art and music therapy to help the boys release pent-up emotions, says Moumtzis. The boys were asked to paint what had happened to them. One young boy about 12 years old painted the picture that troubled Moumtzis the most. Like all the Lost Boys, he had made a frightening crossing of the Gilo River on the way out of Ethiopia. Chased by soldiers, the boys had been forced to jump and swim through the crocodile-infested waters. Some were eaten. Many who could not swim drowned. The young boy drawing the picture explained that he had lost hold of his brother's hand as they attempted the crossing, and he never saw his sibling again. In his painting, the little boy drew a wild blue river with dozens of hands reaching out of it.  

Although the camp offered relative safety from the hell they had experienced, it was still not a permanent solution to the Lost Boys' situation. As they grew old enough, some returned to fight in the war in Sudan. But the UN workers soon realized that the fighting was not coming to an end, and that these boys would have to either remain in the camps forever or make a new home in another country.

When the United States agreed to take in several thousand of the boys as political refugees, the UN began the complicated process of interviewing the boys -- now in their teens and early twenties -- and preparing them for placement. Only boys who expressed interest in leaving and who could safely assume they had no living relatives left were allowed to go (the placement of unaccompanied minors as refugees is extremely rare). A two-day cultural orientation was held, where the boys were taught how to shake hands and look people in the eye when they said hello. Relief workers even passed around ice to try to explain the concept of snow and cold to those boys who would be sent to such chilly places as North Dakota and Nebraska.

Once the boys arrived in the United States, they were assisted by local placement groups such as the YMCA or Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston.

"We thought it was going to be a complete nightmare," says Sheena Trotter-Dennis, associate director for refugee services at Interfaith. Interfaith had experience placing family groups who had a concept of things like running water. But the Lost Boys were a different story altogether.

"We thought, 'How will we help them become self-sufficient?' " says Trotter-Dennis. "But I have to say it has been my favorite group, and the easiest group to resettle. They want to learn. They have such a great attitude."

Adds Geleta Mekonnen, an Interfaith resettlement manager and a refugee himself from Ethiopia (who went on to earn his master's in political science), "There is positive competition among them. One wants to attend a class, they all want to attend a class. So that helps them. It gives them an appetite to work, to go to school. Immediately that first day they were asking, 'How do I get my GED?' "

The resettlement staff of 22 worked hard to get the boys accustomed to U.S. life, but they are full of memories about the young men's missteps. At first, the boys didn't know what food went into the refrigerator, so they put everything in it, until Interfaith set them up with free cooking classes at a local homeless shelter. One boy got a checking account, then accidentally sent his bills to the bank, thinking the bank would pay them (surprisingly, it did, until Interfaith taught the boy that wasn't how it worked). An Interfaith employee discovered one refugee walking along the side of busy U.S. 59, because that was the only way he knew how to get to Interfaith (the employee immediately got the boy into her car, and soon explained the bus system). And after receiving numerous hang-ups in their voice-mail boxes, staff members finally realized what was happening and taught the boys how to leave a phone message.

Trotter-Dennis and Mekonnen say the boys spend most of their time with each other, talking about life back home or watching CNN and Christian television. Some are also invited to the homes of their American mentors for meals and conversation. Although they are young men in their early twenties, many have expressed anxiety about venturing out into the Houston social scene. Trotter-Dennis says some have told her they don't like to go out after dark. And their devout Christianity and schoolwork keep most of them from exploring drinking or nightlife. But they are curious, and they do ask questions about women (one wanted to know how to find a wife) and about sexuality. When one wondered what a condom was, he asked Mekonnen. Interfaith staff responded with a frank seminar on sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent contracting them.

But Trotter-Dennis and Mekonnen worry less about the trouble the boys might get into and more about the impact of September 11 on the future of other refugees from all over the globe. In the early fall, President George W. Bush was busy meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and talk was about opening borders and increasing communication and contact between the two countries. The United States, it seemed, was about to become a much more open place. But after the terrorist attacks, Immigration and Naturalization officers were called back from the field and a moratorium was imposed until December 2001 on all prospective refugees, with the exception of those from Cuba and Vietnam. That meant 22,000 people already screened for resettlement had their lives put on hold. And even though Bush had already approved the settlement of 70,000 refugees in this country during the 2002 fiscal year, only 800 were able to come between October and December 2001. That was a 94 percent decrease from the year before, when over 14,000 displaced people made it to America in the same three-month period.  

But why even bother with these people? The Interfaith workers say it is a question they hear often. And while they understand that frightened Americans still shaken from the recent events would rather no foreigners venture onto U.S. soil, they strongly disagree with those who want to shut off the country from outsiders. Trotter-Dennis, her voice rising with emotion, reminds Americans that out of 14 million displaced people worldwide, the United States regularly accepts only about one-half of 1 percent each year. And those refugees are usually hardworking, devoted residents who have suffered greatly in their homelands.

"We're the richest country in the world," she says. "I think we can handle it."

And more than the importance of fulfilling humanitarian obligations, Mekonnen and Trotter-Dennis remind Americans that sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring potential conflicts in other countries has never proved wise before. Large movements of needy people from country to country, they say, open the door for tyrants and violent military leaders -- some who may not care much for the United States.

"In World War II, we thought we were surrounded by an ocean and no one was going to attack us," says Mekonnen. "And then Japan came and bombed us. The U.S. cannot afford a war between Pakistan and India, between Sudan and Ethiopia. The U.S. wants to put democracy into practice. If we do not focus on other countries, we lose our chance to implement democracy."

Looking at Abraham Gai and Samuel Biar sitting in the conference room of Houston Title Company, where they work as clerical aides, it is hard to imagine that once they trekked through the wilds of Africa with nothing to wear or eat. Today they are dressed in smart business slacks and shirts, and are seated quietly at a large table with their hands folded politely in front of them. But as soon as you ask them about their pasts, the sad words come quickly.

"They tortured my soul," says Abraham, 22, when asked about his life before the Kakuma camps. "I was without my relatives, without my parents." He later adds that being an orphan "makes it hard for a person like me to know if I am good or not."

"In Africa, people are very hostile," says Samuel, 21. "They want you to lose your life and take whatever you have. I ate wild berries. There is no manpower to bury the dead, so we just leave them under the tree."

While Samuel can talk about this horrific time with relative ease, as he does so, Abraham begins to shift back and forth in his seat. He is obviously uncomfortable with the course of the discussion.

"It gave me a kind of anxiety," explains Abraham, who says he has seen a doctor several times for his nervous feelings. "The doctor says the anxiety is because of escaping my bad situation."

The years of instability followed by the monotony of the camp fed his emotional distress. Now, people like their employer, Mary Chapman Cantu, are trying to help with jobs that offer a good wage and benefits. Chapman Cantu, president of Houston Title Company, learned about the boys through her church and offered to employ four of them, all resettled by Interfaith Ministries. Abraham and Samuel, along with their friends Abraham Ayuen and Joseph Mathor, do filing work Monday through Friday, preparing HTC's documents for a transfer from warehouses to electronic storage. Chapman Cantu says she was taken by the boys' sweet natures and often funny senses of humor. Recently, when she wrote a recommendation for Samuel for an Interfaith scholarship, Samuel called her and said, "If I was a dog and my tail were wagging, you would see how excited I am."

"They're gracious people, all gentlemen and really polite," she says. While she admits being a bit apprehensive about how the four would mix in with the rest of the staff, a year later she says the other employees have come to enjoy having them around.

The boys offer many thanks to Chapman Cantu and Interfaith for helping them find some stability. But now that they have been here a whole year and are eligible for residency (in four more years they can become U.S. citizens), they are full of all kinds of difficult questions.  

Like Jacob Guot, they express frustration with the complexity of the American education system. Interfaith workers admit that many of their Sudanese refugees expected to be able to attend school and not work. Like refugees of ages past who believed American streets were paved with gold, the Lost Boys too suffered some disappointments. And although they are trying to go to night school, the full schedule makes for a very busy life.

"It is not a matter of hardness, but when you get out of the job and school, there is no time to cook," says Abraham Gai.

Samuel adds, "Here in America, the money is the top. They say we must get a job and then go to school. But we want to go to school. According to the American way, the job is the best."

They are also puzzled, but somewhat pleasantly surprised, with the role of women in America. One of the most important things they had to learn in their cultural orientation was that American women needed to be treated as equal to American men -- something very different from Africa.

"Here in America, women can have more responsibility than men," says Abraham. "They do housekeeping, but there is a choice. You can cook or not. And if you don't cook, you go to a restaurant."

They insist on asking as many questions as they answer. The questions are often complicated and political. They want to know if Americans know of the situation in Sudan, and if they don't, why not? They also would like someone to explain exactly why the events of September 11 happened, and they even offer their own theories (Samuel, for example, thinks the extremist Muslims followed the Lost Boys from Sudan).

"I was concerned when September 11 happened," says Abraham. "I came here because I thought there was no violence and no bombings. When the towers burned, my heart burns too, because I did not think that happened here."

But perhaps the biggest question to answer is whether these boys will return to Sudan. As Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar put it, the decision is totally theirs. And that big decision may be the first truly free one they will ever make in their short but chaotic lives.

Some seem more excited and at ease with the cultural complexity of America than others (one of the HTC employees, Abraham Ayuen, was eager to share the new Spanish phrases he has learned). Some, like Samuel, say they do not want to go back to Sudan because the war has made things terrible. But others, like Abraham Gai, say they would like to return at some point. If none of them goes back, a whole generation of Sudanese will have left their homeland forever, dead or dispersed.

But whether they return to Sudan or stay here and make a life in America, the boys are clear on the one thing they do want. It is the one thing they have been missing for most of their lives.

"When you were young and taken care of, your parents loved you and got you educated," says Abraham Gai. "Now, when you get older, you marry your husband and you will bring your children up the way your parents brought you up." He pauses, then adds, "That is the life we are looking for."

It is a bright, sunny day outside, and a boom box in Jacob Guot's bedroom plays the joyful sounds of Awilo Longomba, a musician from the Congo. When a visitor says how beautiful the music sounds, he quickly takes the tape out of the player and offers it as a present. It is one of his few special possessions.

After the offer is politely rebuffed, Jacob insists, and finally the tape is accepted.

"Why do Americans do that when you offer them a gift, first say no and then say yes?" asks Jacob, confused. It is one of the many cultural nuances he still has to grasp.

Jacob is one of the boys who says he really wants to return to Sudan. His country needs doctors, lawyers and engineers, he says. That is why education is so important to him. He hopes he can be a piece of hope for his country.

"If you go back without education, what are you going to do?" he asks. "Nothing. It's like that."

But after all that he has been through, and all that he still wants, Jacob insists he is fortunate. His yellow pages of "Points" are full of sentences thanking Americans for giving him and his friends a place to live, to be safe, to have food. He says he hopes that with America's help, there will someday be peace in his homeland and he will be able to get back there for good. The only thing he would like to emphasize is that people in this country don't need to call him a Lost Boy anymore. It is a title he doesn't think he or his friends want, or need.  

"I say, 'Why do you call me a Lost Boy?' because I am found now," says Jacob, standing in the middle of his tiny living room, pressing his hand to his chest. "If someone says we are lost, I say we were lost. For a long time. But if someone says, 'Are you found?' I say yes. And God is good."

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