KAKUMA, KENYA — The word epic only begins to cover Nhial Fata Daniel's journey.
When he was just five years old, he fled his home in southern Sudan after an attack by government forces. Over the next two years, he was forced to move twice, walking more than 600 miles with 12,000 other children into Kenya.
Along the way, Nhial and the other children were stalked by lions and attacked by pro-government militias, crossed crocodile-infested rivers, and at times ate nothing but the leaves off trees and drank rainwater.
Now, more than a decade after their trek began, this group - which became known as the "Lost Boys" - is about to move yet again, but this journey won't be as arduous. The US State Department has designated the 4,300 Lost Boys who remain in Kakuma, Kenya, for permanent resettlement to the United States - the largest-ever for children already settled in a second country and not accompanied by parents.
The first group of 28 teenagers, including Nhial, arrives in New York this week.
Sudan's 'Lost Boys' prepare for their new lives in America
The rest will follow in coming months. With help from local church and voluntary agencies, they will settle in places like Seattle; Richmond, Va.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and the Boston suburb of Newton.
All of the Sudanese will have refugee status, so they are allowed to work immediately. They'll be eligible for a green card after one year and citizenship after five.
Those who are under 18 when they arrive will be cared for in foster families and attend school. They will remain eligible for these benefits until they turn 21. Those over 18 will be eligible for a range of services funded by government but provided by volunteer agencies: temporary help with accommodation and living expenses, education, and job-search programs.
"These boys are the survivors of a great tragedy," says Charles Fillinger, an Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who is in the refugee camp to interview the boys and young men. "I can think of no other group on the planet that has that kind of compelling story of a long flight from persecution."
The civil war in southern Sudan is among the world's longest-running conflicts, and one of the deadliest since World War II. An estimated 2 million people have died since 1983, and about 500,000 are living as refugees in surrounding countries. The war pits the Arab-dominated Islamic government of the North against the Christian and animist black African population of the south. The survivors have refugee status because of the persecution they've faced because their religion and race.
Yet the war is as much about resources as ethnicity. Southern Sudan is one of the most undeveloped places on earth - with no telephones, electrical grid, or paved roads, and few buildings made of anything other than mud in an area the size of New England. The rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army wants southern Sudanese to have a share of the rich oil deposits currently being tapped by the government.
Despite their anger against the Sudanese government, the remaining refugees have refused to join the rebel army, which is notorious for its own human rights abuses, including recruitment of child soldiers. Some observers speculate that the rebels wanted the youngsters kept together as a pool of potential fighters.
About 300 of the 4,300 Lost Boys are still under 18. This is the first time the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recommended such a large group of unaccompanied minors for resettlement to a third country. "For a long time, there was a debate about what was in the best interests of these children," says spokesman Paul Stromberg. The decision to resettle them in the US was made because they have little prospect of returning to Sudan, the Kenyan government does not allow them to settle, and tracing efforts by the Red Cross to find surviving family members came up empty.
One of the young people heading to the US today, Kuol John Kuir, did not know what became of his parents until 1997. Tracing efforts finally revealed that his father had died in 1992 and his mother in 1994. He had been separated from his parents in 1989 while doing what many Sudanese boys do - tending his family's cattle. "We were attacked at night by the Arabs, and I ran away with my neighbors," he says. They spent three days hiding out in the bush and trying to find his parents, but then had to set out on the month-long walk to Ethiopia.
The past eight years in Kenya have been difficult for the Lost Boys, mainly members of the pastoralist, or herding, Dinka and Nuer tribes, accustomed to wide-open spaces rather than the desolation of a refugee camp. They live in huts about the size of a one-car garage, with dirt floors, mud walls, sometimes covered by flattened tins of vegetable oil.
Most of the boys reached adulthood in this time, but unable to raise cattle - the centerpiece of normal life - many of their traditions have fallen by the wayside, setting them further apart from Sudanese society. Few went through the manhood initiation ceremonies of facial scarification and removal of lower front teeth. None of those being resettled have married because marriage requires the man to give cattle to the bride's family. "How can I marry if I can't even feed myself first?" asks Manyiel Makender, 17. Only 68 of the 4,300 US-bound refugees are female. Because of the cultural belief that a girl is owned by her father, few girls fled in the original journey, and many of those who did have returned to Sudan.
During their years in the camp, the group has placed a major emphasis on education. "We are not worried about their failure in the schools," says Saber Azam, a former Afghan refugee, now head of UNHCR in Kakuma. "They are very hard-working people." Culture shock, he says, will be the biggest problem for the boys.
Nhial, the boy who fled on foot to Kenya when he was just 5, wants to study social science in the US. And someday, he wants to help rebuild southern Sudan: "If we get independence, I want to come back."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society