Whole new world for refugee teens

Emmanuel Ajak's story begins:

"Once upon a time one of the Sudanese people got a dream that the still-growing children should move from their homes, leaving their parents to where they had not seen before. And it was 1987 that (the) dream occurred. . . ."

Ajak was 4 that year, and although he says what occurred was a dream, most people would see it as a nightmare.

For that was the year he became one of the "lost boys" of the Sudan, one of thousands of children - boys and a few girls - whose homes were destroyed and families scattered in that country's persistent civil war.

They grew up orphans, wandering about East Africa's war zones and refugee camps, led by other children, struggling to survive war, disease, starvation and attacks by wild animals. They got their name from international aid workers who compared them to the lost boys who clung to Peter Pan, reluctant to grow up to a hostile, adult world.

Now, just in time, Ajak's nightmare has begun to transform into the dream he hoped it was when he packed a copy of his story, typewritten on coarse yellowed paper, into his backpack to bring along with him to America.

For last week, Ajak, now 17, and three other Sudanese teens arrived in Seattle - bewildered by the cold and baffled by the artifacts of everyday life in America, but eager to start all over again.

They were part of a group of 12 children plucked from a bleak refugee camp to be resettled in the U.S. while they're still young enough to qualify for foster homes and make lives for themselves.

First of 3,500

The teens are the vanguard of a United Nations effort to bring about 3,500 refugees from Kakuma camp in northern Sudan to the U.S. - the only country that is accepting them - by the end of the year. The group includes 600 children under 18, who will be settled with foster families until they reach 21.

"The U.N. wanted to clear the camps before all the kids got so old they couldn't be put in foster homes," said Chak Ng of Lutheran Social Services, which is sponsoring the teens in Seattle. "The longer they are in the camps the less able they'll be to adapt."

In addition to Ajak, the four who came to Seattle are his sister, Mary, 15, and Veronica Abbas, 16, and her brother, Victor, 14. Ng met the teens at the airport along with their new foster parents, Pat and Young-Hee Dwyer of North Seattle, who'll take the two girls, and Mollie Hughes, who lives in the University District and will parent the boys.

"We know you'll be cold here, but we hope you'll be happy," Young-Hee Dwyer said as she hugged the girls and wrapped them in pink down and Black-Watch plaid jackets she had brought with her, figuring the children would need them to make up for the difference in temperature between Seattle and Kakuma, which is in equatorial Africa.

Everything's new

Nothing about Seattle is familiar to the teens.

The food, the escalator at the mall, the running water, freeways, November rain, presidential elections, money, telephones - all are things they didn't have in Kakuma, things they'll have to get used to quickly.

It hasn't been easy for the teens or their foster parents. At first, Veronica and Mary stared at the food put in front of them, gagging at the thought of eating whatever strange thing it was after a bland and meager diet of beans, corn mush and flat bread.

Emmanuel and Victor may have wanted to glue themselves to a television to watch MTV, but Hughes let them know there may be time for that later but not while there was so much else to learn.

But, a week after bringing them home, the foster parents say things are going well. "At first it was hard, because they were very tired, we thought. But they wouldn't eat the things I'd fix for them. And the milk was too cold. Finally they asked us to heat it in the microwave, and that's worked."

Culture shock is to be expected, said John Lat, one of 16 Sudanese teens who came to the U.S. five years ago in a U.N. experiment designed to make sure the lost boys could adapt. Lat, now 20, and two others came to Seattle. All three are in college; Lat attends Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon.

The teens will be hesitant to talk about the terrors of their lives, Lat said, even though many of the children who ended up in Kakuma saw family members shot to death and their homes burned. They saw other children drop from bullets, starvation or disease during their wanderings across Africa. Some have told aid workers of being stalked by lions in the night, crossing crocodile-infested rivers and being attacked by pro-government militias before being pressed into service themselves.

"Everyone that's come out of Kakuma has gone to war as a soldier," Lat said. "If you were too small to hold a gun, they would dig a hole and put you in it, and you would put the gun on the dirt and aim it that way."

Lat was 8 when his village was attacked. He and his family, including eight brothers and sisters, scattered in different directions as soldiers stormed the village.

A hunt for food

Somewhere along the way, Lat met up with two other boys, 12 and 11. The 12-year-old was armed and in charge. They hid out during the day and walked at night.

"We hunted for food," Lat said, "but I won't tell you the things we ate. We ate anything we could find, and many times we had nothing."

Lat was on the road for a year and a half as a lost boy. Eventually he lived at Kakuma and other refugee camps.

Aid workers consider it a mystery that the Sudanese children survived with little or no adult supervision during those years of wandering; they estimate the children walked 600 miles. No one knows exactly why they all headed for Ethiopia, and many of the survivors, such as Lat, were too young to remember.

Kakuma, one of a number of refugee camps scattered about the region, opened in 1992. It is a collection of mud huts, dust and flies. Estimates of the number of refugees living there ranges from 70,000 to 90,000.

"It's hot, desolate, on a piece of land that no one wanted," said Molly Daggett, a social worker with Lutheran Social Services who spent three months there last summer. She interviewed children who might be part of the resettlement program to make sure they could cope with the next assault to their stability: life in America.

`Remarkably resilient'

"All the kids have nightmares or startle awake," Daggett said. "But they are remarkably resilient, given all the trauma they've experienced. They don't have behavioral problems, any more than other children. We feel they'll do well because in their early years they had families that they bonded with and formed attachments to. They are all survivors. And they have had each other; there's collective healing in that."

Many Sudanese traditions have been lost in the war and the camps, according to reports from aid workers. Most of the boys, including Victor and Emmanuel, have not undergone male initiation rites that normally would have taken place when they were about 13 - rites that would have left their faces striped with decorative scars and missing teeth.

Education is important to the children of Kakuma, Daggett said, and most of those on the list to come to America are determined to finish high school and go on to college. The teens who arrived last week speak Arabic, English and Dinka, their native language, although the girls don't read as well as he had expected, foster mother Dwyer said.

Help is available

Seattle has a small Sudanese community, but the teens will have plenty of support, Ng said. A Mount Vernon church got Lat a scholarship and a job in the school library. Church members are helping him arrange for several family members to join him in America.

Solomon Stephen, who lived in Kakuma and came to the Seattle area about five years ago, met the teens at the airport and assured them he'll help.

Victor recognized Stephen at once as a distant relative from his village.

"We are all relatives," said Stephen, 27, a Green River Community College student who works at Lutheran Social Services. "We are from the same clan, and we count back to this great-grandfather or that great-grandfather, and we are suddenly connected. They don't know it yet, but they have family here. Me. I am here to tell them that everything will be OK for them."

Sally Macdonald's phone message number is 206-464-2248. Her e-mail address is smacdonald@seattletimes.com


To learn more

Licensed foster families are needed for Sudanese teens being resettled from refugee camps in Africa. For more information, call Lutheran Social Services, 206-694-5700.

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