By Monica Rhor, Globe Staff, 3/28/2004
Gabriel Bol Akau is running, sinewy and strong as a colt, over the snow-frosted hills and past the apple orchards of Stow. Twelve miles have passed beneath his steady pace, but no sweat beads his brow. His fellow runners have stopped to rest. But Akau does not falter.
He is a long distance from his birthplace in the Bor Province of southern Sudan, and more than a decade removed from the day Muslim tribesmen burned his village and slaughtered his family.
He was but a boy then, like thousands of others who became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Left homeless and orphaned by the warfare, they formed an undulating stream of children who walked barefoot over 1,000 miles of punishing African terrain in search of refuge.
The throngs of orphans walked for months, their numbers dwindling, until the survivors finally stumbled into the teeming, fly-infested Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where they would remain for almost nine years.
It has been nearly three years since Akau, now a young man of 23, left the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and became one of the 3,700 Lost Boys resettled in the United States by the State Department and an assortment of refugee relief agencies.
But he is Dinka, still. And he runs for a purpose that pulses deep: He is running so that his brothers might have a better future.
Akau, who lives in Worcester and works night shifts in an envelope factory, is training to run in the Boston Marathon. His goal is to raise money for the Sudanese Education Fund, which helps the 170 Lost Boys in the Boston area pay for tuition, school supplies and books. He has risen early to log miles on the winding streets of Stow, where his road to the marathon has become a community affair like no other.
The entire town, it seems, has been moved, and charmed, and changed by these young men. Ed and Susan Lynch, both experienced marathoners, help to coach Akau. Nils Fischer, 18, a cross-country runner at Nashoba High School, serves as Akau's weekend running partner. A group of boys from Lincoln-Sudbury are teaching Lost Boys in Worcester to cook hamburgers and hot dogs. They, along with students from Nashoba, plan an April 4 walk-a-thon to benefit the education fund.
It is as if Stow, a picture-postcard New England town, were being visited by the spirit of the Dinka culture, in which all men call each other "brother" and no one can rest if even one person is suffering.
"Technologically, they may be 600 years behind, but in terms of the values I hope my children will emulate: honesty, integrity, and loyalty, they are streaks ahead," said Mary Kerr, a Stow resident who has become unofficial mentor, den mother and advocate for the Worcester group. "Everyone just falls in love with them."
'You are Dinka'
Before the Lost Boys left Kakuma and set off for new lives in places called Boston and Worcester, tribal elders offered this counsel: In America, there are many things. Good things, bad things. Hold onto the good things. Always remember you are Dinka.
And so, it has been.
Here, there have been moments of amazement and amusement: The first snow, on the 21st of December, 2001, awed the young men. There have been moments of hurt and pain: ugly racist graffiti scrawled on doors. Ridicule from strangers who saw the Sudanese holding hands, an accepted custom for men in their homeland. Landlords reluctant to rent apartments to groups of young single men.
Here, as in Kakuma, the Lost Boys live in clusters of five or more. The informal family units, echoing the communal culture of their Dinka cow-herding villages, were cemented during the perilous trek from Sudan. Older boys took care of younger; the strong looked after the weak. It is how they survived a journey in which thousands were killed by starvation and disease, dragged off by wild animals, or swallowed up by swollen rivers.
So strong is the bond between the survivors that it required a resettlement process like few the federal government has ever undertaken. Boys who lived together as family in Kakuma were brought here as family, and placed in the same homes.
Although few knew their exact birthdates, about 500 of the Lost Boys were categorized as minors, and placed together with foster families. Those considered "majors," including the 17 who arrived in Worcester, were greeted at the airport, placed in apartments, and given four months financial assistance before being left to navigate this new land on their own.
Though they accept the mantle of the "Lost Boys" with grace and humor, the refugees are no longer children. They are now grappling with issues of budding manhood.
In their villages, it would be time to take a Dinka name that would be bestowed by their fathers and other elders. Gabriel Bol Akau must become Reng Manyok, he says frequently. But how to do that here, where there are no fathers?
It is time to take a wife. But how to do that here, where there are so few Dinka women? Of the 3,700 orphans resettled in this country, only 100 were girls. In June, two of the Boston area Lost Boys plan to marry two of the "lost girls."
"The strong community is composed of men and ladies. When there are men alone, it is a noncommunity. We need our girls," said Abraham Gai Yol, 22, whose name means wonderful in Dinka.
Above all, they say, it is time to finish their education.
Many of the 36 minors who came to the Boston area are scheduled to graduate from high school in June. About 15 of the Boston-area refugees are full-time college students, attending the University of New Hampshire, the University of Massachusetts, and Brandeis University. Another 30 are attending community college, while holding down full-time jobs.
For most of the Lost Boys, however, college remains an unrealized dream. Their minimum-wage salaries, which often go to support relatives or friends left behind in the refugee camp, leave little or nothing to spare for tuition.
"Here in America, there are a lot, lot of bills. We cannot go to school, because if we do, we cannot pay our bills," Akau said on a recent Saturday afternoon. His living room was filled with his roommates and other Lost Boys, who spend much of their free time together, playing chess, debating politics, or meandering through local malls for some "eye-shopping," their term for window-shopping.
Often, their talk turns to those left behind: the thousands of Lost Boys still in Kakuma, the scattered family members just now starting to reappear from the dust of war and displacement, and of a homeland shred by violence.
"For me, I have a dream. I want to go back, to help my people and build the country," said Akau, who, like other Dinka, is as tall and thin as a bamboo shoot. The average height, even for women, is 6 feet.
"What we need to do is stand our own ground first. Some of us need to become professors, doctors, engineers. That is why we are here in America," said James Mayok, 21, one of Akau's six roommates, who towers at 6-feet-10. "We must do our best in America so we can help the people back there."
That concern for others remains an abiding theme in their lives, astonishing almost everyone whose life becomes interwined with the Lost Boys.
"This group has been through such violence, such trauma. You would expect people like that to have a hard edge, you would expect them to look at the world with cynical and jaundiced eyes. But, there is none of that," said David Chanoff, academic adviser to the Massachusetts Volunteer Alliance for Sudanese Refugees.
'We must keep going'
On the second day of spring, the New England skies loomed overcast and temperatures edged to raw, a far cry from the arid climate of Africa. But, with just 29 days and counting until the Boston Marathon, Akau needed to tackle his longest run so far.
He stood outside the home of Ed and Susan Lynch, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and blue shorts that flopped loosely on his angular frame. Milling around him was an ever-growing support team.
Yol, wearing a jersey emblazoned with the flag of Puerto Rico and new Asics sneakers, was there, bounding and hopping through an improvised warm-up routine.
Nils Fischer, the Nashoba cross-country runner, and two of his teammates, Ted Powers, 16, and Alexandra Lynch, 16, were there. Their job is to slow Akau down to an 8-minute-mile pace. He runs too fast and could burn himself out long before he reaches the finishing line.
A cadre of bicyclists, spokes whirring and gears shifting, circled the driveway and the street. They help guide the runners along the route. The first time Akau ran through Stow, he shot ahead of his companion and ended up lost on the unfamiliar path.
Two vans, one driven by Kerr, the other by Ed Lynch, would dole out water and Gatorade, and provide bicycles and rides for anyone needing a break. After every run, the team gathers back at someone's home, usually the Lynches, for a hearty meal and a round of board games. That Sunday, they would finish at the Fischers' home, a historic homestead built in 1710.
At 11:02 a.m, the 15.3-mile run began. Past Honey-Pot Hill Orchard, where winter-bare apple trees reached out with gnarled and twisted limbs. Past snow-rimmed roads, lined with fir trees and rough-hewn stone fences. Past Lake Boon, encircled by cottage homes and rolling hills steep enough to test the hardiest runner.
For miles, Akau and Nils Fischer owned the lead, followed closely by Yol. At mile 5, other runners began to capitulate, ceding to the harsh wind and the challenging roads. They grabbed rides in the van, then hopped on bicycles. At mile 12, Nils gave in to fatigue, and climbed into a van.
But, Akau, fresh and undaunted, kept going. Yol, arms pumping and forehead glimmering with sweat, hovered by his side.
Kerr, following the two runners in her van, recalled: "One of the guys told me: 'When we were young, we had no one along the roadside to help us. We must keep going. If we fell down, the animals would take us.' "
Near Lake Boon, close to the 14-mile mark, the bicyclists pushed hard on their pedals. Akau, joined again by Nils Fischer, clambered up with ease. This time, however, Yol jolted to a stop, and waved for a ride.
A few minutes later, just after 1 p.m., Akau and Nils Fischer arrived at the Fischer home, where the rest of the support crew was waiting with cheers and applause. "Yay! Yay!," they hooted.
"It was great. I'm feeling strong right now," said Akau, flashing a thumbs up. His forehead was dry, his breathing even.
Two years ago, Akau tried to run the Marathon without training, but he was tripped and fell at mile 13. This year, he is feeling more confident. "Last time, I was alone. Now, I have support."
It is, as a traditional Dinka prayer describes, part of God's plan, said Yol, who sat next to Akau at a long table filled with friends and supporters and warmed by a fire crackling in the stone hearth. As a hush spread over the room, he recited the verses in his own language: God visited us in peace. This peace came in the form of a human being. God is helped through human beings.
"I thanked God because he helps us in everything we are doing," Yol said. "How we came here was God's work. Now, the humans helping us are doing God's work."