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Sudan's Lost Boys find new home

Orphaned survivors of a savage civil war settling in Boston

Nine more of the Lost Boys arrived at Gate C14 last week, government-issued sweatshirts draped over bony shoulders, with a look in their eyes of unimaginable distance.

They have been walking together all their lives. First, the long trek from Sudan to Ethiopia, where some of the slower children were killed by lions. Then there was the terrible river crossing when thousands of them, not yet 10 years old, had to choose between enemy soldiers on the bank and sucking, swollen waters.

Then there was an eight-year wait in a Kenyan refugee camp, where those who had not drowned or starved learned to sleep with one eye open, jerking awake at the sound of a footstep.

The arrival of the boys in Boston - a place without wind or dust, they say wonderingly - marks the end of an extraordinary African journey and the entry into a strange, new world. The thousands of wandering orphans known as the "Lost Boys of the Sudan" have touched everyone who has worked with them, and inspired the State Department to undertake its largest-ever resettlement of unaccompanied minors. Last week's arrivals were among the 40 expected in Massachusetts by Christmas.

Their curious history has brought with it some unusual requirements; resettlement agencies have stipulated that the young men not be separated, as foster children generally are, but housed together in the family-like groups of eight or 10 that have clung together for years.

Filing through the airport terminal, holding most of what they own in white plastic bags, the recent wave of arrivals peered around like visitors from another planet. Days ago, when they left Nairobi, the Lost Boys were issued socks, but did not seem certain how to put them on. An American aid worker quietly explained flush toilets in a stall at the Nairobi airport. Then he peeled the "all-cotton" stickers off their chests, one by one, realizing they wouldn't have known to do it themselves.

"What a strange, monumental, historic moment for them," wrote Sasha Chanoff, who saw them off, to the Lutheran workers who would meet the boys at the end of the journey. "If toilets with water and escalators are new, it makes you think that almost everything we take for granted will present some kind of riddle or challenge."

Here, and in 14 cities across the country, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services workers are rushing to find homes for as many boys as possible before their 18th birthdays - for most, a randomly assigned date of Jan. 1, 2001 - so that they can receive benefits under government programs for unaccompanied minors. Thirty of the youths are slated to settle in Boston.

Among the pressing needs of refugee children everywhere, it was their extraordinary journey, and the way they helped each other to survive, that has set this group apart. From interviews with survivors, researchers guess that there were some 25,000 children - almost all of them boys, probably because girls were a target for capture - who originally left southern Sudan on foot in the late 1980s, when the savage civil war reached their homes. Many of them were 4 or 5 years old.

John Kuir Kuol, 17, remembers the night, shortly after his 6th birthday, when soldiers attacked his home and he hid in the woods for three days. Unable to find his family, Kuol was drawn into the mass of moving children, and the stick-and-ball games he loved as a young child ended for a long time. They walked all the way to Ethiopia, a journey of 1,000 kilometers that probably took about four months. Along the way, Kuol learned to catch rats and eat them.

"We were suffering with many things," Kuol said, abstractedly, at Logan Airport. "People who were with us died. We ate types of food we never ate before."

Disaster struck again in 1991, when the children were driven back to Sudan across the river Gila, and many of them drowned. In interviews, several of them said they can't get the river crossing out of their minds, all these years later: Bol, another 17-year-old, remembers that he crossed by walking across a rope that was strung between two trees. Mayuem, who had never met Bol until they were placed together in a Massachusetts foster home, recalled swimming across the same river at a different point.

Of the tens of thousands who began that journey, some 6,000 survived to register as "unaccompanied minors" in the Kakuma refugee camp. Most are in their late teens now, having spent most of their lives without any social structure imposed by adults. But those who have taken in some of the youths say they have been struck, if anything, by the sweetness of the young men. After she had left two 17-year-old Sudanese boys in the bedroom she had set aside for them, Gwynne Jamieson, a foster parent, would hear the sound of the door opening and closing, opening and closing. Suddenly it dawned on her: These were boys who who had never had their own door.

Indeed, the first days have brought a raft of mysteries, like the delicious new food that Kuol has learned about. It is "corn, but in a different form," he explains haltingly, not like the maize they received in ration cups once a day at the camp. He searches the ceiling for clues. It is bread, he says finally, and when he hears the word "cereal," he breaks into an enormous smile and exclaims, "Cereal!"

What will be difficult for the boys over the long term will be accepting that the long years of danger are over, said Ter Mat, a Lutheran Social Services refugee worker who came to this country from Sudan four years ago. At some point, in a nation that puts a high premium on individualism, the Sudanese will have to loosen their hold on each other. "When you start splitting these kids up," he said, "they say, `Wait a minute. We survived together.' "

Those bonds may have helped save them. In a mental health study conducted earlier this year at Kakuma, psychologist Julianne Duncan came to a strange set of conclusions. The 174 children and teens she interviewed all showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder - disturbed sleep, nightmares, and "startle reactions" - and, she wrote, "most children believe, based on their experience, that they may be killed or injured at any time." But, oddly, she found almost no delinquent behavior and few signs of depression.

As they arrived in America, most young men interviewed said their bonds with one another were as strong as ever, and many had brought cassette tapes of their friends' voices, which they played over and over.

Both the Lutheran group and Catholic Social Services - which will place youths over the age of 18 at the beginning of next year - are trying to place "attached minors" together. In the spacious parsonage of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Arlington, eight young men will live with two house parents.

And seeing each other remains a great comfort. On the day he arrived, alone and frightened, Bol "sort of swaggered off" toward the baggage claim, recalled Jamieson, his new foster mother.

But when he looked across the terminal and saw another boy from the camp, his whole expression changed. He looked overcome with relief, like a shipwrecked sailor who has finally reached dry land.

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