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Strangers in a strange land

(THE LOST BOYS -- On Dec. 17, a dozen teenage boys left mud huts in the Kenyan plain for a new life they could only vaguely imagine. As they prepared to board their first motorized vehicle for their first airplane flight and their first glimpse of the West, someone taught them a new word: Massachusetts.)

FIRST IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya -- Here, amid the cracked earth and grizzled acacias of northwestern Kenya, rumors were running rampant about North Dakota.

Dozens of boys crowded around the UN compound where someone, somewhere, held a list of the US cities where they might be offered homes. An older boy asserted that North Dakota is colder than Nairobi, but this was impossible to confirm. Another was enraptured with the idea of Albany, and dreamily repeated the phrase "Albany, New York. Albany, New York," a spot whose distance he estimated at a million, or possibly 2 million, kilometers.

And a 17-year-old, John Deng, had his heart set on Chicago, having learned that it is home to an abundance of bulls. To the son and grandson and great-grandson of cattle herders from the Dinka tribe - men who still sing adoring songs about the horns of their favorite oxen - Chicago has enormous appeal.

"I see that on some shirts, like Chicago Bulls. We believe that in Chicago we will have a lot of bulls," said Deng, a young man with a gap-toothed smile who speaks a formal English akin to that of a BBC announcer.

Within hours, however, Deng would be told the name of a place that suggests a landscape without cattle: Arlington, Mass. It would mean nothing to him.

The flights to America are leaving every day now, screaming out of the bush in a huge cloud of orange dust, as the great migration of the group known as the Lost Boys of Sudan gets underway. Heads down, barefoot except for shower thongs, the departing boys file into the aircraft as grave as spacemen, sometimes without even looking back at the friends standing five deep against the barbed wire.

As far as their tribes are concerned, they may as well be spacemen. Most had never ridden in a motorized vehicle before leaving for America; their grandparents, some said later, were not necessarily aware that other countries existed.

"They were afraid," said Peter Lagad, a 27-year-old who watched the first groups of boys climb aboard in November. "It was as if they are doing a test on you. It was like getting shot to the moon."

The decision by the US State Department to resettle 3,800 Sudanese boys across America - in places like Arlington and Fargo and Phoenix and Grand Rapids - seems extraordinary on two levels.

It is a testament, first of all, to the power of the story they have to tell: Forced from their homes by civil war, 33,000 boys from the Dinka and Nuer tribes have lived for 13 years as a virtual city of children wandering across Africa. They protected one another, raised one another, and, in the months spent fending off wild animals and enemy soldiers, buried one another.

The story was retold many times, percolating through the international community, and by the end of last year the US government had decided that finding homes for this group of long-limbed 16- and 17-year-olds was a national priority.

The second extraordinary thing will take place over the next year, in the United States, as these teenagers plunge into the Western world of cellphones, traffic lights, and public high schools.

In the days before they started their journey to Logan Airport, the boys received classes in "cultural orientation" from two African women who said they felt a stab of pity at the naivete of the boys' questions. Would there be a toilet on the airplane? How will I know when it is safe to cross the street? If a girl asks a boy on a date in America, can the boy refuse? How many cows are required to buy a wife in America? Is it possible to get a government grant to pay a dowry?

For some, the trip felt like a leap into pure oxygen. As the final flights of 2000 were filling up, one young man of 17 tried again and again, but found he could not bring himself to leave Africa. His third attempt to board an airplane to the West collapsed under rainy skies in Nairobi. Limp, with his eyes shut, the young man folded his 6-foot-plus frame like a broken umbrella over the shoulders of an American aid worker.

His friend Bol Thiik explained that his problem was not physical. Rather, he was convinced that his father, a well-known magician in his home village, would curse him rather than allow him to go to America.

"There are many Sudanese who believe that if your child goes to America or Europe he will not come back," said Thiik, who shivered through the embroidered robe he had bought for the journey. "It is as if your child died."

Leaving Africa, the departing boys would shake off the rhythms of a thousand years. Thirteen years after they were removed from Dinka cattle camps, eight years after they settled into refugee life in Kakuma, the lost boys still structure their lives around invisible herds of cattle: They gather weekly to sing the praises of their cattle, and they measure a woman's beauty in terms of a bride's price; a particularly tall and curvaceous daughter would thus cost 100 cows.

Asked what the Dinka do for fun, Deng explained that it is possible, using a hot poker, to mold the horns of one's favorite bull into extraordinary and hilarious shapes.

"Then," he said, grinning, "there is a lot of happiness."

Crossing to safety

The cattle vanished from their lives long ago. Beginning in 1983, when a tenuous peace in southern Sudan reignited into civil war, the predominantly Muslim government in the north renewed its campaign against black Christian separatists in the south.

Male children were drained from the landscape, snatched up as recruits for the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army, targeted by northern militias, or forced to flee. Those old enough to remember recalled joining a moving column of people headed across the border to Ethiopia, passing through strange towns that they still imagine with the eyes of 4-year-olds.

It would be a long time before they could stop walking. Joseph Kuir Maker, a former member of Parliament from Sudan's Christian south, recalled having been sent to organize the boys in Ethiopian camps in the late 1980s. They stumbled in, he said, in groups of 10 and 100, naked and exhausted, and simply lay down on the ground.

Some seemed close to losing their minds, Maker said. He mentioned one child who had stuck in his memory, who would force the other children to sing, and who would beat them if they stopped.

"When children are alone, they can get wild and lose their culture," he said. "You could just see they were dying people. Some of them were skeletons."

Maker and the other adult caretakers, about 300 to look after 33,000 boys, helped to organize the boys into family-like units, but did not quite succeed in protecting them. In 1991, Ethiopia was engulfed in its own civil war, and the boys were driven back to Sudan. This time, they would walk some 300 miles before crossing south into Kenya and eventually arriving at Kakuma; Maker estimates that a quarter of them died.

On the way, on a day they can't unstick from their memory, the whole column of boys crossed the Gilo River with Ethiopian soldiers at their backs and crocodiles under the surface. Many of the children drowned that day. Simon Galuk, a 20-year-old with jutting cheekbones, spent years dreaming about a boy who grabbed onto his foot until he jerked it away. His colleague, as he put it, drowned. At the time, Galuk was 10.

"We crossed the Sahara Desert. That was bad. But not like the tragedy of Gilo River," he said, with an enormous, high-pitched sigh. "The issue of Gilo River was very unique."

Now, the roughly 5,000 boys who survived and stayed together have grown to adulthood at Kakuma, in the 14-day stretches between distributions of UN wheat flour. Then, last year, when the rumored resettlement began to seem real, the boys gathered for another great transit. America, Deng was told, "is not a country where someone can just come and kill you. There is a law." He wrote it - AMERICA - in chalk on the wall of his 3-by-4-meter mud hut.

Last month, the adults who had been watching over the young men for 13 years gathered to send them off to an unimaginable American future. The old men, their eyes misted by cataracts, sat in shady seats of honor and drank glasses of water poured for them from a gasoline can. The elders spoke words of advice into a Sanyo boom box so the young men could carry cassettes of recorded wisdom with them to America.

"Don't go and be attracted by the high life," one bearded and bony man admonished. "Beer is a new thing to you. Don't just go and get involved in that. There are many Negroes in America. Don't think you know them just because of their hair."

Another, a headmaster at the camp's primary school, warned: "I advise you to be very careful with the ladies."

In the afternoons, when the planes departed, Maker and his deputy came out to bid the boys farewell. Maker looked around at these sons of rural cattle-herders - whose T-shirts read "2Pac" and "Harley-Davidson" and "Alabama Conference on Autism" - and saw the raw material of an elite. By the end of the day, they would have seen more of the world than any of their forebears; by next year, they will be some of the best-educated people from their country.

In the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, the justice minister had denounced the resettlement, telling a news service that it "creates a nucleus for a new rebellion," but Maker insisted that these boys are too important to put in danger.

Among them, he is certain, is the future president of southern Sudan.

"They will be in America," said Maker. "They will be a few boys inside of thousands and thousands of white mens and ladies. They are going to see a very big, tall building." He was not worried about them, he said, as they disappeared from view. "They are the people who are going to the safe place."

`Our skin is shrinking'

The week they flew into Logan Airport, a wall of cold air moved into New England, glazing tree branches with ice and freezing the water inside hydrants. The 12 boys who arrived on USAir Flight 6806 were so cold that their teeth pained them. Alith Ayuen, a 17-year-old whose name refers to the gray-brown color of a favorite cow, began to feel that the cold had passed into his bones, and offered a long hand that was cool as marble.

Met at the airport by Lutheran resettlement agents with bags full of clothing, they tucked themselves into ski parkas and knit caps and gloves that they wouldn't take off for days - in an effort, Ayuen said, to prevent their hearts from freezing.

The air was somehow different in America. Some felt so odd that they wondered if they had contracted malaria. John Bul looked down at his own arm, which was chalky from the strange dryness of indoor heating. He announced, in a whisper, what worried him: "Our skin is shrinking."

And so the lost boys found themselves in a fresh wilderness. Placed in local homes by Lutheran Social Services, 12 bone-thin youths began to eat in earnest: whole loaves of bread and peanut butter; six trips to the buffet table in a Worcester Chinese restaurant; glasses and glasses and glasses of milk. Some said they began to feel an unfamiliar buzz of energy in their muscles. In a suburb west of Boston - the Lutheran group requested that the locations of foster homes not be identified and full names of the boys not be used - four Dinka boys sit down at Pastor Ross Goodman's dinner table under an embroidered sampler that reads: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware."

Bol Thiik opened the small backpack he had brought with him from Africa and took out a bundle of the sticks that they used at Kakuma to brush their teeth. The day after he arrived, 13-year-old Mou Deng walked around clutching a pocket calculator by one corner. There was too much to take in.

"I meet many things of which I cannot explain," said John Deng. "There are a lot of lights. There are a lot of cars. They are like cattle moving. We see a lot of white mens and we are being few. They look the same, I cannot differentiate them. What make me nervous is I see so many white mens and they are not saying hello to me."

"As for the position of the sun," he added, "I give up."

The strangeness was everywhere. The sun appeared to shine without creating warmth. Houses were as hot as Kenya while the air outside was freezing. Four boys staying with Ray Maesto in a yellow ranch home near Worcester went off into gales of laughter at the turns he was constantly making in his car; on the plains of Africa, a trip from one point to another might have taken hours, but it had always been a straight line. They were engines of questions. Why don't black people live outside the city? Why don't American trees have any leaves? Why aren't there any young people in church? Why don't Americans eat dinner at home?

And there was a moment, in Maesto's house, when something happened to Ayuen that he knew would happen: The telephone rang, and for the first time in his life, he picked up the receiver and spoke to the voice inside it. The people who raised him used smoke signals for long-distance communication, or they blew through the hollowed-out horns of bulls, he said.

Ayuen can talk about life with the cattle endlessly, still, but a week after he arrived he had realized he would never return to it.

"When I was there, according to me, it was a good life," he said. "The way I compare the life now, it is very different. I have seen so much more of the world. I would not be happy. That life is bad actually. It is very far from the modern life."

For the moment, the modern life is sweet. But this month is the refugees' honeymoon, says Julianne Duncan, a child welfare worker who spent a year working with the group in Kakuma. Next week, three of the boys will show up for their first day in public high school, a place where men and women talk and touch with a familiarity that unsettles the Dinka. Six months will bring the disenchantment and depression that so often sets in among new immigrants, Duncan said. In a year, they will be able to apply for permanent residency in the United States. But first there is the strange business of building an American life.

On the day after he finally reached America, Bol Thiik, who had watched over his brothers with a statesmanlike gravity through the transit, found himself undone when he walked out of the public library with a book he intended to read.

"The gate started crying," Thiik said, in a tone of wonder.

Gently, his foster mother led him back inside the library, where they scanned a bar code and demagnetized the sticker that had triggered the alarm.

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