“Lost Boy” of Sudan Keeps Hope Alive
James Alic Garang, a PhD candidate in economics, is part of a group nobody would want to join: the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. The term refers to the estimated 27,000 boys who were either orphaned or taken from their homes during the civil war in Sudan from 1983 to 2005. Garang, who is about 32—he’s not exactly sure—left his home in the village of Ajok in southern Sudan when he was 10 or 11. In the mid- to late-1980s, the violence perpetrated by the government militia in small villages like Ajok, he says, was escalating.
“They would come and take your cattle, and burn your houses and destroy your crops,” he says. “In 1987 it became so bad, the killing was indiscriminate.” That year, he left home to head to Ethiopia with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which his uncle had joined in 1983. "It wasn’t a difficult decision," he says. “Most of the boys were going, and also the rebels wanted us."
After walking three months and 600 miles, he made it. Along the way, the group had grown ever larger as bands of other young boys joined the rebel forces. Conditions were harsh. There was little food and many mouths; many died along the way. In Ethiopia, the boys were separated. The older boys began military training, while the younger ones like Garang enrolled in school. He spent three years in school before undergoing military training for a year in Ethiopia, before Ethiopian rebels attacked his refugee camp. “Everything was falling apart,” Garang says. “So we ran back to Sudan.”
Then, in December 1991, the Sudanese government attacked the town where the Lost Boys lived, which prompted the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army to help evacuate them to a refugee camp in 1992. Eventually Garang found himself in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, which housed about 54,000 Sudanese refugees (an estimated 16,000 of whom were Lost Boys), and another 45,000 from Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Congo until 1998. That year, visiting delegations from the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and the Catholic Conference of Bishops decided to do something.
“The war in Sudan was not coming to an end and life in the camp wasn’t getting any better,” Garang recalls. The first group arrived in the United States in 2000. Garang came on June 12, 2001, a date he considers his lucky day. He was resettled in a Utah apartment building, with 22 other young Sudanese men. Social workers helped them adjust to their new lives.
For Garang, that meant working various jobs. His first was for UPS. “What can ‘the Brown’ do for you?” he says with a smile, referring to the UPS nickname. He went on to work for a clothing company, a convenience store and a cleaning company, before enrolling in a community college in Utah. Garang graduated from the University of Utah in 2006 and, based on a recommendation from a professor, decided to apply to UMass Amherst.
However, before starting his graduate program, Garang made his first visit home in 19 years. He found many changes. The war was winding down, but many in his family had been killed or displaced and many lived in poverty. Garang also, on that trip, met the woman he would marry.
On his second, two-month visit the following year, Garang married Maria Ayak. He hasn’t been home since, not even for the birth of their son, Alic Alic Garang, now 19 months old. But he hopes to bring his wife and son from Kenya, where they live, to Amherst, providing he can raise enough money. It’s an expensive and time-consuming effort, involving much paperwork, medical checkups, DNA tests (to prove paternity) and visits to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
Another trip Garang hopes to make to Africa will be in 2011, when a vote is planned as part of a 2005 peace agreement that will allow southern Sudan to decide if it wants to be an independent country. Meanwhile, here in the United States, Garang is in his third year of his graduate six-year graduate program. This fall he moved in with the Slack/Garbus family in Northampton. Their generosity in opening their home to him, coupled with his job as a teaching assistant, allows him to send money home to support his family. There is a lot going on, Garang admits. “The head is always reeling around. Being Sudanese is not easy because you were born into war and you grew up in war.”
Still, Garang is full of warmth, characterized by a wide, welcoming smile. Asked how this can be amid so much hardship, Garang credits his faith in God, his belief in a better future and even, in part, all he endured. “We have seen a lot worse than what is happening now, so it doesn’t feel so bad now,” he says. “Things are getting better. I have a wife and although we are not together, we will meet later,” he said. “There’s hope now.”
December 8, 2009
Adapted from a story by Laurie Loisel, published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 1, 2009.