Three teens move from nightmare to dream

Sudanese siblings, who were forced from their country by civil war and wandered around Africa, begin a new life in the US

Rebecca, Helen, and John, three teenagers from Sudan, were glued to the television, something they'd seen for the first time only a few months ago.

I wanted to talk with them, so to break the ice, I grabbed an inflatable globe that was on the floor and showed them where I was from, pointing to the northwest corner of Oregon, and pointed to where they're from, southern Sudan. I told them I'd grown up on a farm, hoping to find some common ground.

They just stared at me. This wasn't going to be easy.

I had come to visit the recently arrived Sudanese refugee siblings to see how they were adjusting to life in their new country. They, however, didn't seem to want anything to do with me. Which is understandable, given what they'd been through.

Rebecca, Helen, and John are just three of the more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 1983, about 2 million of their countrymen have died, many of them Christians, as the country's Islamic government has been locked in a civil war with Christians and animists in the south.

The Dinka (the group to which these teens belong) and Nuer tribes have been devastated by the fighting, with families being torn apart. The result: thousands of uprooted kids. The children banded together in the late 1980s and roamed hundreds of miles over the searing sands of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya - avoiding bombs, soldiers, and wild animals. Lions picked off stragglers, malaria attacked others.

But to John, the war is not about military factions or government policies.

"They [the ruling class] are brown. We are black," he says, staring straight ahead. "They want to kill all who are black."

These teens were part of a group referred to as the "Lost Boys" of Sudan - about 12,000 boys, along with a handful of girls.

They ate whatever they could find, often tasteless maize and sorghum. "You just eat it," John says of their limited diet. "It keeps you from not to die."

In 1992, most of the children arrived at Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, a "city" of about 33,000 refugees. Finally their lives had some stability. Still, it was far from normal because the camp lacked security. Residents would wake up to find neighbors slaughtered outside their huts. There was no way, the three teenagers said, to find the culprits.

"We could not sleep comfortably," Rebecca says quietly of their six years in the camp.

They talked matter-of-factly about that part of their life and showed no emotion. I, however, had knots in my stomach hearing the horrors they went through.

They still have nightmares about life there. Unexpected noises at night - like one evening when their American foster mother hung pictures on the wall - still startle these light sleepers. When Rebecca heard the pounding, she was afraid to leave her room and investigate.

"You are going to a new life," John says the people at Kakuma told him, "and we don't [care] about the camp."

Still, camp workers gave them photographs of friends taken in the camp, "so we wouldn't forget," Rebecca says.

"They block a lot of things out," says Pam, their new foster mom, whose last name - like the teens' - is withheld because of privacy regulations by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which is overseeing the refugee resettlement. "They don't want to think about it. They just want to move on."

Pam, a Sunday school teacher and single woman who works for a high-tech company, opened her doors to the three siblings after reading "White Oleander," a book dealing with foster care in America.

While the first wave of refugees left Kenya Nov. 6, John, Helen, and Rebecca made it out in late December. They - along with 3,600 to 4,000 other refugees - were granted resettlement rights in the US. The State Department, along with the UNHCR, made the decision, given the impossibility of resettlement in war-torn Sudan and the fact that Kenyan officials would not allow the children to resettle there.

After a long, bewildering plane ride, the trio arrived at Boston's Logan International Airport to a world that looked like it had been buried in frozen sugar.

"We asked [Pam] what is the problem," John says. "She said it came from the sky."

To combat the cold, one of their first tasks was to pick out clothes donated by the Division of Social Services. Pam told them to take what they liked, and the rest would be given to other refugees. But they hesitated, concerned about making sure the new Sudanese kids were well dressed and had enough - a trait burned into them from years of sharing the little they had.

Adjusting to life in America after years in a developing country has been no easy task.

Everything is so new to them they don't bother asking what it is. Pumpernickel bread, peas, yogurt, and Pepsi. "We don't know the names, but we just eat it," says Rebecca.

"They're very good at finding things out," Pam says. The alarm clocks by their beds were mysteries. So they read the instruction manuals to figure out how they worked. They wondered if they were going to eventually eat the pet guinea pig and were leery of toothbrushes. They weren't sure such new implements would clean their teeth as well as the sticks they used from a particular tree in Africa.

In many aspects, they are not like the stereotype of typical American teenagers: They mop the kitchen floor without being asked and clean the bathroom. After a recent trip food shopping, the girls put away the groceries without prompting.

Another difference: their remarkable politeness toward strangers.

For lunch one day, they poured a steaming stew over rice and included me in their meal. John made me lip-curlingly sweet tea, a sign, says Pam, that he was warming to me (she also says they go through five pounds of sugar a week).

Before lunch I had wandered upstairs to talk with the girls about their Dinka language. They were more than willing to teach me the lilting, gulping language. Soon, the cloud of awkwardness that had hung over the room dissipated. I watched how they pronounced the words, but it didn't help; my mistakes delighted them, especially the throaty sounds. Helen buried her face in a pillow, gushing with laughter. Rebecca couldn't stop giggling.

Now that we had loosened up, they cranked up the battered audiotape they had brought from Africa.

"Who's this?" I ask.

"Koffi," answers Helen. "Have you heard of him? He's from Zaire." The girls started dancing, throbbing and singing to the music. What had been an awkward exchange had just turned into a frolicking party.

Dancing at home is one thing, dancing at school is quite another. At a recent school dance, the girls waved off interested boys. "I refused to dance with other people," Rebecca says, her nose ring twinkling. "I just dance with Helen."

"We don't dance like that in Africa," John chips in.

Only a few of the Sudanese refugees have been girls, and that means frequent phone calls from refugee boys. When the phone rings, Rebecca answers. She giggles and sprints for her room just like an American teenager. The phone calls from all over the the US have been so frequent, Pam got the teens their own phone line.

John, quiet and pensive, often comes up with the most insightful answers and questions. Pam was concerned when he first arrived because he was withdrawn, always watching TV and not talking much. When they went out to McDonald's, John sat at a table by himself while the girls gabbed and ate hamburgers with Pam. During a reunion with other refugees, he talked with no one.

But at times, it's as though a window cracks open and Pam sees into his world. He asks her who pays for the people to shovel the snow, and how the school system in America works. Before his first day of high school, he asked Pam if kids smoked cigarettes at high school. When she said not everyone did, he seemed relieved.

Out of the blue one day, John asked me if the blacks on TV are American. I explained to him that their ancestors were African, but I'm not sure how much he absorbed about American slavery.

Yet this sometimes-brooding boy surges with vitality, and it's evident that US culture is seeping in.

Television, America's great "acculturator," has its grip on all three. They are fond of the Discovery Channel, the Cartoon Network (they love Tom and Jerry), and Black Entertainment Television (BET). But some things continue to shock them. Helen recoils when she sees near-naked women on BET and doesn't understand why women wear such tight pants in the United States.

"We don't like these fashions," she says.

John sings along to his rap CDs from groups like Mystikal or Lil Bow Wow, a 13-year-old rapper (but admits he can't understand all the words). While in the grocery store lingering over the magazine rack, he points out Jennifer Lopez on the cover of "In Style."

While the kids assimilate into American culture, Pam slowly glides into motherhood.

She melts when they call her Mom, and is still getting a crash course in "Parenting 101," as she calls it - driving kids around, organizing schedules, taking the girls to get their hair braided (an all-day affair).

"What would I have been doing on this particular weekend [if the teens weren't there]?" Pam wonders. "Chores, errands? There's this whole added dimension you get with a family."

What's one thing that surprises her about being a mom?

"How quickly," she says, "I've fallen in love with the kids."

For more information, contact Nikki Massie at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, 700 Light St., Baltimore, MD 21230. Telephone (410) 230-2757. E-mail:

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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