Triumph over Tragedy
John Kuk Wichyoah flashes a full-body smile, the kind that starts with a generous grin that engulfs his fine-featured, youngish-looking face and lights his eyes with brilliant facets before settling over his body in a relaxed, easy pose. It’s quick, confident and engaging, the kind of smile that makes anyone who receives it want to know him; the triumphant smile of a survivor, remarkable given the brutality, death and despair he’s witnessed in his 24 years. Make no mistake about this: The hope reflected in it is a choice.
Wichyoah is one of thousands of young Sudanese boys who fled their villages around 1983 in a bloody civil war fueled by religious, ethnic and regional strife. Not knowing if their parents survived the attack by the rogue government’s soldiers, they banded together in a yearlong, 1,000 mile journey across some of southern Sudan’s most unforgiving territory. They were named after Peter Pan’s cadre of orphans who clung together to escape a hostile adult world, and though they’re collectively called the Lost Boys of Sudan, their souls never were.
“God is great,” says Wichyoah, a member of the Neur tribe who was only 7 or 8 when he ran from his village to escape the marauders who would “take you somewhere to grow you up and make you a soldier.” He says it simply, indisputably: “God is great.” And it is God that he credits for guiding him safely through the brutality that mars his homeland.
Faith continues to guide Wichyoah and 34 other Lost Boys – they’re still known collectively by the moniker, though they’re young men now – who resettled in Central Iowa three years ago. Wichyoah obtained his high school equivalency diploma through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps training and employment program and is working as a certified nurse assistant, juggling a rigorous work schedule with an equally demanding course-load at Des Moines Area Community College, where he’s working toward a nursing degree. His ultimate goal is to become a doctor, “to help people,” he says. Wichyoah’s father was an African tribal doctor who used roots and herbs to heal, but in the free world, the son can get the education that wasn’t available to the father.
Wichyoah smiles at the opportunities before him, a furrow creasing his brow only when he remembers the mind-numbing horrors that brought him here.
An essay he wrote provides a glimpse of it: “In the early 1980s, many villages became vacant due to death by disease (kalazar). In that incident, we experienced total death without remedy and eventual support from the outside world. From such great horror and harassment, many people lost their lives, both young and old. Imagine a fate when you can look on your people dying and see the birds of the air feeding on them. Moreover, the dead people were not buried, because who can you bury when the survivors are fewer than the deceased? That incident was followed by great famine, which further depopulated the number of people.
“At the same time in 1983, the Sudan civil war began and made the whole southern part into a war zone. As a result of this, many young people were separated from their parents to lead their own lives. Due to this terrible incident, I separated from my parents and ran away as my home was attacked by the enemies and burnt to ashes. … I have never seen my own parents no longer receiving their love for me as their own son. The trek from home went on to Ethiopia as the only refuge place. In Ethiopia, we stayed for four years.
The Lost Boys’ numbers were thinned on the harrowing journey to Ethiopia. Attacks by lions and other wild animals claimed the lives of some of the youngest and weakest. There was neither adequate food nor water nor medicine. Some children starved when fruit and tree leaves were not enough to sustain them. They drank their own urine to stave off dehydration. Mental illness brought on by the trauma they endured claimed other lives.
“The life was somehow good” Wichyoah wrote of his time in Ethiopia, “but memories brought pain.”
The better life was short lived. When civil war broke out in Ethiopia in 1990, the refugees were forced back into Sudan to a place called Pachella, after crossing the treacherous Gillo River.
“It was a painful time when the enemies chase us into a river full of crocodile. … Some people did not know how to swim. We were being pressured to wade across underneath the crocodile inside the water. It was such a frightening scene. However, we chose to die by being eaten by the crocodile inside the river, than shot by guns. The few of us who managed to reach the other side … entered safely in to Pachella. In Pachella, we experienced more famine and death, since there was no food.”
Vulnerable in Sudan because as Christians, they faced religious persecution, they continued their journey on foot to Kenya, to a place called Kakuma, where the Red Cross and United Nations had set up a refugee camp. They arrived in 1992. Not quite a decade later, 3,600 of the Lost Boys were given special refugee status by the U.S. government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handles refugee cases from around the world. They were resettled in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Washington state, as well as in Iowa.
John Kuk Wichyoah lost many friends on the long journey from starvation to relative security in America. Still bone-thin and wearing the scars of the ordeal, he chooses not to dwell on all he lost. “I think about friends who lost their lives,” he says. “It’s hard to think about all that.”
“Imagine seeing your friends eaten by lions and seeing others dying of hunger …However, the major problem was crocodiles in the Gillo River and the drowning that my friends underwent. Which mean that many friends die in that river.”
“Hard to think about” indeed. Instead, he thanks God for guiding him safely to America, where he is making a new life.
“Everything could be worse for me,” he says, meaning it. “I give myself hope and encouragement.”
In spoken prayers in their native Dinka tongue, the voices of Mayom Jok and Abraham Mayom drop almost to a whisper as they bow their heads over clasped hands and offer praise. But then the singing begins, and their strong voices swell and fill the room at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, resonating so deeply that the listener’s heart feels the reverberations and adjusts its beat to keep time with the music’s rhythm. Also sung in their native language, the song is a spiritual, a song of strength and praise from a deeply held source. If you weren’t in church, you’d still recognize it as such. The hymns they have chosen on this recent Sunday, “Thy Kingdom is Coming” and “There Is a Happy Land,” were composed in the Kakuma refugee camp, spiritual roadmaps to lead them through the suffering.
Mayom, 27, lives in South Dakota and is honeymooning in Des Moines, where his friend Jok lives. Both plan to become Episcopal priests, Jok under a program set up by the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa.
“Most have a very deep faith,” says Jennifer Gibson, coordinator of Refugee Cooperative Services for Lutheran Services of Iowa, whose national affiliate, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, contracts with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. “They really believe that God took care of them through their journey and protected them. It isn’t about religion or one denomination. It really is about their faith.”
On this Sunday, Jok and Mayom are alone in joining Peggie Harris, an ordained Episcopal deacon and an assistant case director at Lutheran Services of Iowa, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal church, where weekly services are held for members of the Dinka tribe, the cattle herders who dominate southern Sudan. Most of the congregation has been lost to Cottage Grove Presbyterian church, where the Lost Boys who resettled in Greater Des Moines are meeting. Seated around oblong tables arranged in a square, about two dozen young Sudanese men debate bylaws that will become part of the group’s official incorporation papers.
Young men take turns bouncing Michael Madit’s young son, Reech, on their knees. The baby is happy and healthy, stout and well filled out for a toddler. He doesn’t fuss or cry during the more than three-hour meeting in the basement room, where there is neither air-conditioning nor a breeze from the church’s open doors to stir the hot, sultry air. The baby drinks from a bottle, taking more nourishment in an 8-ounce bottle than his father likely received in 15 days at the Kenyan refugee camp. There, the refugees subsisted for more than two weeks on a ration of one cup each of oil, beans, wheat and lentil, and a gallon of flour.
“Sometimes only corn,” says James Madut, admitting his stomach still hurts from years of malnutrition and confessing that he sometimes goes several days without eating.
Eventually, Reech drifts off to sleep. His father, one of the officers of the Lost Boys group, is soliciting input from each of the young men seated around the tables, as is the custom in Sudan. Though he may not remember it, Madit’s young son gets an introduction into the ways of Sudanese leadership and cultural nuances the Lost Boys strive desperately to retain in America.
Despite that, they are becoming increasingly American. Cell phones, as foreign a contraption as the toilets they learned to flush in the Kenyan refugee camp, interrupt the meeting. Nyiel Dot Duoi dashes out of the room to answer his several times, a signal to observers that he occupies a position of some authority with the Lost Boys. “He’s quite the organizer,” Harris says, explaining that Duoi travels throughout the Midwest to meet with other Lost Boys and retain the sense of community that was forged during their desperate flight and in the refugee camps.
Meetings such as the one at the Cottage Grove Presbyterian church are held regularly to ensure that. “If somebody is having a problem, we help him or her,” Duoi says. “We were united in Sudan, and we took care of each other as Lost Boys. We need to come together to deal with problems.”
Problems that might come before the council run the gamut. Someone might be having financial difficulty – a constant for the Lost Boys, but more difficult for some to overcome than others. In other instances, they act as parents by proxy, helping each other work through the perplexing problems posed by assimilation into a pluralistic society. Before coming to the United States, the Lost Boys were warned specifically to stay away from American vices such as tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs, and to seize the opportunity for an education, which is highly valued in the Sudanese culture.
“When you know your brother is doing something wrong that will cause problems, you have to condemn him, tell him, ‘We are not going that way,’” Duoi says. “We have to retain our culture.”
Duoi and Gabriel Garang, the new president of the Lost Boys group, are roommates. They’re deep thinkers, philosophers willing to talk to a reporter not to garner sympathy or pity, but to take advantage of the forum the Western press offers to discuss the genocide still occurring in Sudan. “If something like that happened in the Midwest, it would be an embarrassment,” says Duoi, who listens to BBC reports daily with Garang to remain informed on the political situation in Sudan. “We need to talk to Congress and the Senate in the U.S. to assure them there’s a problem.”
They hope that by telling their story – truly a story of triumph of the human spirit – they will awaken the world to the fact that ethnic cleansing continues in their homeland. Last week, the Sudanese government begrudgingly agreed to comply with a United Nations Security Council resolution, sponsored by the United States, that requires them to disarm the Arab militias blamed for the savage deaths of thousands of mostly black Africans in the western Darfur region of Sudan or face diplomatic and economic sanctions. Peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel groups from Darfur ended last week without agreement.
If the Lost Boys of Sudan thought the streets of America were paved in gold, they’ve learned in the three years they’ve been here how difficult it is to survive on the complex U.S. economy. They received four months’ worth of assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the sprawling U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, after resettling in Iowa. When that money was depleted, they were on their own financially.
Of all the riches afforded by life in the United States, education has proved to be most elusive. Neither the Lost Boys nor the agencies helping with resettlement efforts knew their correct ages, so they simply guessed. The boys who came to Central Iowa were, for the most part, adults and, therefore, ineligible for education through the public school systems. Getting an education costs money, and young men like James Madut are caught in the Catch-22 situation that denies them high-paying jobs that would pay the tuition.
Madut works three jobs, one at Wal-Mart, a second job at the Bennigan’s Grill & Tavern restaurant on Army Post Road and yet another job at Sodexho, a food-service management company in West Des Moines. He’s working toward his general equivalency diploma at Des Moines Area Community College, and has received certificates in three of the five competency areas required to receive it. Time is precious, money to survive even more precious.
“What did you eat today?” asks Harris, the Lutheran Services of Iowa caseworker. It’s about 9 o’clock on a Wednesday night, and Harris, who has worked closely with the Lost Boys since they came to Des Moines in 2001, is disappointed to learn that Madut has eaten only a hamburger, at breakfast time, and isn’t figuring on an evening meal. She pushes the importance of fruits and vegetables in the refugees’ diets, knowing as she mothers them that some of the money they could spend on food to improve their health will be sent home to Africa to surviving family members in the refugee camps. Harris calls it “African guilt.”
Madut’s friend, Akek Malou, is visiting, and they talk in broken English about the struggles in their homeland. Malou wears his passion for the subject in his face, his expressions more than his words conveying the force of his beliefs. He talks rapidly, excitedly, perhaps frustrated that the plight of his homeland, engaged in one civil war after another since 1955, is not top-of-mind for the rest of the world. “Why isn’t it important?” he asks angrily. “What about southern Sudan? There is still killing.
“America needs to help the Sudanese,” he says resolutely.
Malou has already received his GED and works for Drake University’s buildings and grounds department while studying at DMACC for his licensed practical nursing degree. Eventually, he wants to become a registered nurse. “It’s good money,” he says.
Madut is considering joining the U.S. Army Reserve, a development Harris questions him about closely. “People go to war to defend their country,” Madut says, explaining that he can learn skills that will help him if he decides to return home and join the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the rebel forces fighting the extremist government in the civil war that has claimed more than 2 million lives and displaced another 4.5 million people.
Men like Madut and Malou have one foot on American soil, the other in Africa. Posters of NBA basketball stars, pop singers like the late R&B singer Aaliyah and Drake University sports schedules are interspersed with maps of Sudan on the walls of Madut’s small apartment in Lee Township. He shares it with three other Lost Boys to be able to make the $600 monthly rent payments.
Both Madut and Malou yearn for home, to be part of the peace plan for the new Sudan they hope will emerge from the conflict. “Our country needs us to be there,” Madut says. “Civilians don’t know how to defend the country.”
Perhaps mercifully, Madut, 20, was too young to remember the cruel flight through the bush, jungles and desert of Sudan. “I don’t remember,” he says. “I just know I do it.”
His heart aches with longing for his family. When soldiers attacked his village, his sister ran to the north, while he ran east toward Ethiopia. She’s living in New Hampshire now, and he recently visited her. “My life has been difficult since I was young with no mother and father,” Madut says. “Life is good for me, but I hope to go back to see my family. I hope to be married and have children.”
Many of the Lost Boys left wives or sweethearts in the Kenyan refugee camp. So far, the women have been refused entry under the U.S. government’s rigid refugee standards, a matter of great concern among the Lost Boys. And their hearts ache with longing for the families left behind.
“It is difficult to live by yourself without family,” Wichyoah says. “It is a hard thing.”
Though their lives have certainly improved since coming to the United States, they cling frantically to the traditions of the life they left behind. Amid all the other things they have learned – how to operate an elevator that carries them to the top of multi-story buildings they still marvel haven’t collapsed, drive cars, operate can openers, other small things Americans take for granted – they also must learn the cultural nuances of their new home. For example, in Sudan, eye contact is forbidden, a sign of disrespect. Conversely, failing to maintain eye contact in the United States tells people “you are a criminal or untruthful,” says Abraham Mayom, and it could mean the difference between landing a job or being turned down.
Harris has asked the young men about the chances of survival of the Dinka tribal tradition of dowries, often paid in the form of as many as 100 cattle, to the family of the bride. She suggests that such a custom would be misunderstood in the United States, but the young men are insistent that it must be retained. Dowries, Madut and Malou say, are a sign of respect in their culture, the ceremony itself, resplendent with dancing and singing, as important as the transfer of cattle – suspended, for the most part, by the war that has ravaged their country and deprived them of the symbol central to their identity and culture.
Malou insists the tradition followed him to the United States. “If in the United States you found someone, you would still do it,” he says. Later, John Kuk Wichyoah confirms he sent $26, “three or four cows back home,” he says, to observe the marriage of a friend living on the East Coast.
After five years in the United States, each of the Lost Boys will be eligible for citizenship, provided he is 21. Tightened security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has made it difficult for them to receive their Green Cards, a first step on the road to citizenship. Harris and other refugee resettlement officials help them work through the labyrinth of regulations, but other dilemmas are not so easily solved.
Wichyoah, whose affable good humor allows him to make friends in the United States as easily as he did in the refugee camps, still struggles. “If you don’t know the direction or where to go, you don’t know who to ask,” he says. “If you don’t have somebody to ask, you will never find it.”
“It is difficult to live here,” says Mayom Jok. “You work, and then you lose all the money – it goes to the government. Everything is based on money.”
It’s a hard, complicated life, but Nancy Galeazzi, executive director of Catholic Charities, the social services and social justice agency of the Des Moines Diocese that helped resettle Sudanese refugees, says the Lost Boys are a resourceful group who have already defied the odds by getting out of Africa alive.
“They may not know anything different,” she says. “We look at, ‘How did you survive?’ We are looking at it through our lens. Humans are very adaptable, and the Lost Boys show that. How much loss and grief they have adapted to is beyond what we can imagine, but they can still be a bright, shining, spiritual person.”
Wayne Johnson, chief of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, holds high hope for the Lost Boys of Sudan. “They are the definition of a survivor in many ways,” he says “Is life a struggle for them? Yes it is. But they will persevere. They’ve been through so much, they have to believe there’s something better out there.”
“We went through all of this. We know how good it is to be a responsible person,” Duoi says. “I will survive because I have been through all of that.”