The Lost Boys

September 17, 2001

Reproduced from the St. Pete Times.

 

NEW PORT RICHEY -- On the first day of Abraham Deng's new life, he looked into his plastic cup and saw clear, slippery-looking things floating in his drink. When he took a sip, they tickled him under the nose. "Ice cream?" he asked.

 

 It was midday and hot. Abraham, 19, had just arrived in Tampa on his way to New Port Richey, a place he had never heard of. At the airport, the staircases moved. Now he stood in a parking lot alongside the Courtney Campbell Parkway, looking out on the glittering water of Tampa Bay.

 

He spotted the crescent of a dolphin's dorsal fin. It troubled him. In his experience, most water creatures were deadly.

 

He turned to someone familiar with this strange place.

"Do you," he asked, "have a lot of hippopotamuses in this water?"

 

* * *

 

 

 

About 17,000 Sudanese children fled their farming villages during a civil war in 1987 and began a tenuous existence in the bush. Most were boys; the girls were killed or sold into slavery. International refugee workers dubbed these children the Lost Boys, after the characters in the novel Peter Pan. After months or years of near-starvation, brushes with armed rebels and wild animal attacks, most ended up at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. They cannot return to Sudan because the war continues, their families are dead, and they have nothing to go back to.

 

In 1998, the U.S. government agreed to take in about 4,000 Lost Boys who passed health screenings and wanted to relocate. In the Tampa Bay area, World Relief and the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture are in charge of resettling them. World Relief has its regional headquarters in New Port Richey, so the refugees assisted by the agency are housed in apartments in west Pasco County. About 50 Lost Boys are expected to start new lives in Pasco by the end of the year. Thirty-two already have.

Abraham Deng is one of them. (We are using his first name because several other people in this story are also named Deng.)

 

He was 7 when Muslims from northern Sudan attacked his village. Four soldiers barged into his home, killing his parents. He walked about 1,000 miles with other boys, from Sudan to Ethiopia, back to Sudan and finally to the Kenya refugee camp, where he spent his teen years.

 

On June 25, Abraham and 20 other young men waved goodbye to their friends at the camp and climbed aboard a cargo jet for the three-day journey to Tampa.

 

They arrived with small, carry-on backpacks. Volunteers who met them at the airport were incredulous that they didn't check any luggage.

 

The Lost Boys in New Port Richey considered themselves lucky to be in Florida, where the climate is similar to Africa's. Before coming to the United States, they had received letters from Sudanese friends in North Dakota, Washington and Michigan describing a substance called "snow."

 

So far, most Americans the Lost Boys have come into contact with have been friendly and helpful. Some have given them jobs, and others have tutored them in household budgets and donated much-needed furniture.

 

Still, the culture shock for the young men in Florida has been enormous. They have been forced to adapt to an unthinkable new world -- from using a phone to seeing a girl in a miniskirt. They look at each new food, place and person with wonder. All Abraham knew of Florida before he arrived was that it is "maybe sunny." And somewhere in his travels he had heard of a place called Palm Beach.

 

* * *

 

Four days before he left Kenya, Abraham went to a market and spent about 1,800 shillings, or $22, on the following:

  • A pair of dark-rinse baggy jeans.

  • A gray V-neck Adidas T-shirt.

  • A black nylon baseball jersey with the letters "FUBU" on the chest.

Those were the only clothes he brought to America, and he wore the entire ensemble on the trip. When the Lost Boys' plane landed in Tampa on June 28, the black shirt was layered over the T-shirt, and the jeans rode low on his bony hips.

After checking for hippos on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, the caravan of 21 Lost Boys drove north on U.S. 19 from the Tampa airport. Wide-eyed, they stared out the van windows.

 

Everywhere, from every angle, billboards and signs and placards spoke to them: "DO IT UR SELF." "EAT HERE." "ON THE RUN?" Occasionally, someone would whisper the name of a sign: "Chili's." "Fresh Market."

 

About 2 p.m., the caravan arrived in New Port Richey. One of the young men asked: "Are there a lot of other Sudanese boys in Pasco County?"

The answer, of course, was no. By that time, only seven other Sudanese had been resettled in New Port Richey.

 

Even in small numbers, the Sudanese stand out. According to the 2000 Census, only 283 people in New Port Richey listed their race as black. When all 50 Sudanese have resettled in the area, their presence will increase the black population in New Port Richey by about 17 percent.

 

On that first day, Abraham and his group were driven to a sagging stucco two-story apartment complex on Illinois Avenue, near downtown New Port Richey. Andrew McCray, a World Relief employee, showed them the lock on the door, the switch to cool the air and the box that keeps the food fresh.

 

When 25-year-old Abraham Achiek saw his apartment's refrigerator stuffed with food, he asked McCray, "How many meals can we eat a day?" The young men were used to eating cornmeal and lentils and didn't know anything about processed food. During their first few weeks, the protein-rich American diet would make them sick to their stomachs.

 

For some, cooking would also be a challenge. "You are in the U.S. now," McCray told one group as they clustered around the stove in their apartment. "I realize, where you came from, the women did all the cooking. No more!" "We are cooks," Joseph Alaak said, shaking his head as if he couldn't believe what was happening to him.

 

Abraham lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his cousins, Magai About and Abraham Malok. The trio have been traveling together for more than 10 years. A fourth Sudanese, John Deng, also lives with them. When they're not reading or watching PBS on an old TV -- they don't have cable and that's the only channel that comes in -- the young men blast the air conditioning, listen to music and write letters to their friends back in the camp.

 

Since discovering one-hour photo processing, the four have developed a dozen rolls of film taken in Kenya, and a few rolls taken in Pasco. Abraham and Malok have stuffed the pictures in photo albums in random order, as disorganized as their lives: one of machine-gun-toting soldiers in Kenya, then one of Malok posing outside of the Eckerd pharmacy in New Port Richey.

 

They rarely venture out of the house, going only to the friends' apartments, the store and church. From the first week they arrived, Abraham and his roommates attended Word of Life, an evangelical church, in New Port Richey, because a World Relief volunteer offered to drive them there on Sunday mornings. They worshiped at an Episcopal church in Kenya and were shocked to hear guitars, drums and a boisterous chorus at their new church.

 

At home, they take turns cooking and usually eat giant plates of food. White rice is a staple, usually paired with chicken or cabbage. Their favorite drink is Florida Style Sunny Delight, a sugary drink with some fruit juice in it. They buy it by the gallon.

One day shortly after they arrived in Pasco County, they went to Kash n' Karry, an unimaginable trove of wonders. Tucked in the back of the store was a tank containing a dozen swimming creatures.

 

"Is it a scorpion?" Abraham asked. "It's like an insect." They read the sign: "LIVE MAINE LOBSTER." Abraham and About doubled over in laughter. Lobster? People eat them?

 

* * *

In the novel and the Disney movie, Peter Pan is the leader of the Lost Boys.

In west Pasco, 22-year-old Peter Deng is the leader of the Lost Boys.

Peter's life story varies slightly from the other Lost Boys' -- his father, a lawyer for the Sudanese government, was shot and killed because of his political ties. Peter watched his father die.

 

When Peter was 8, he was imprisoned by Muslim soldiers, who held a hot spear to his shin. He often wears shorts, so the large raised scar is clearly visible. With the help of a school headmaster, he was able to escape his captors and flee to refugee camps.

Peter arrived in Pasco in April. Because of his excellent English and affable personality, he was hired by World Relief to be the agency's liaison with the Sudanese youth.

With a red cell phone attached to his belt, Peter appears confident and American when talking to the other refugees. But he is unsure what to make of his new life and is hesitant to say whether he likes Florida.

 

"I'm like a person that has been lost for a long time," he said. One day, Peter stood before a large group of young men gathered in Abraham's apartment. They sat close to each other on couches, chairs and the floor. In their culture, men are affectionate with each other -- they often sling their thin arms around each other's shoulders and hug one another hello. Peter, wearing a T-shirt and camouflage cargo pants, switched off the TV and pulled out his wallet.

 

"In the U.S., you can do whatever you like. It is the land of freedom," he said. "Provided that it is not against the law." He showed them his bus pass, his food stamp card and a third gold card that said "PASCO COUNTY LIBRARY SYSTEM." "I would like you guys to apply for this," he said. "You can borrow the books and study the books." The group nodded and made clicking noises with their tongues. In their native language, one later explained, the clicking noise means "wow."

 

* * *

 

Abraham has giant black eyes. A member of the Dinka tribe, a characteristically tall and thin people, he is 6 feet 5 inches and weighed 150 pounds when he arrived in the United States. He looks like a walking Benetton advertisement.

 

Like other Lost Boys, Abraham's exact age is unclear because he fled from his home without a birth certificate or paperwork. International aid workers have assigned birthdays to the Lost Boys, so many say they were born on Jan. 1. Most are probably between 18 and 25.

 

Abraham smiles a lot. He often introduces himself to strangers. "I am an American now," he told a man one day at Kash n' Karry. Abraham's father was a cattle farmer and, because he owned hundreds of cows, was one of the richest men in the village. From the time Abraham could walk and talk, he herded, milked and even sang to the cows.

 

When the soldiers stormed his village, Abraham and dozens of other boys hid in the bush. He said he cried a lot during the march to Ethiopia. He was tired and thirsty; because they were trekking through the desert, they had little drinking water.

 

He lived in Ethiopia for four years, until war in that country forced him and the others back to Sudan. At one point they had to cross the Gilo River on the Ethiopia-Sudan border. Many of his friends drowned because they couldn't swim.

 

Back in Sudan, the children lived in a refugee camp that was short on food, shelter and security. Many boys got malaria from mosquitoes, and torrential rains turned the ground to muddy slop. When the civil war reached the camp, the boys fled again, this time to Kenya. More died on the way. Abraham was 10.

 

The 88,000 refugees at the Kakuma camp included about 9,000 Lost Boys. According to the Mail and Guardian in South Africa, life there was perilous, especially for the Sudanese. Fights and small riots were common.

 

Still, it was home. Some of the boys, including Abraham, met girls and started to date. They were exposed to American culture when outsiders brought tattered copies of People or tuned in a movie on an old TV. Abraham pored over the magazines and tore out photos of models and athletes to wallpaper his mud-thatched hut, a tiny structure he built himself.

 

Abraham was one of the lucky few hired to work in the camp; he was a guidance counselor, helping others with anxiety and depression. The boys also attended school six hours a day, learning to speak, read and write English and studying math and science.

"If there's a silver lining in the tragedy of their life, it is that once they reached refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, they were able to attend schools that simply were not available in their region in Sudan," said Jeff Drumtra, a policy analyst for the U.S. Committee on Refugees in Washington, D.C. "They recognized very quickly as a group that education was a ticket out of the life they had been subjected to."

 

* * *

 

Since they arrived in Florida, Abraham and his roommates have asked the same question: "When can we go to school?" They desperately want to study for their GEDs so they can prove that they have the knowledge it takes to attend college classes. Their English is excellent. Their writing is clear, concise and formal. Abraham wants to be a mental health counselor, as he was at Kakuma.

 

The Pasco aid workers admire the young men's interest in education. But first they want them to become self-supporting, so they can pay their $380 monthly rent and eventually buy a car. Through September, they are getting $180 a month through a federal grant provided to World Relief.

 

Less than three weeks after they arrived in America, a St. Petersburg businessman met the Lost Boys at a picnic. He was so moved by their stories that he told a World Relief volunteer he wanted to hire eight of them.

 

A worker for the Center for Survivors of Torture, Mike Salas, went to Abraham's apartment to tell him and his roommates about the job. When Magai About heard he was coming, he put on a brown suit and a red tie that he got from a thrift store. He had been told to wear his best clothes to a job interview.

 

The job? Roofing. Later, at Wal-Mart, About wore his suit to try on work boots.

The young men started work the next day. After the first day, Abraham folded himself over one of the chairs in the apartment. He was tired, but cheerful.

"It is hard work," he said. "We sweat a lot."

 

They all agreed that at $8 an hour, roofing was a good job. And since they got home about 4:30 p.m., they thought they would still have time to attend classes at night, perhaps at Pasco-Hernando Community College. They already had the application and knew they must send $20 with their form.

 

* * *

 

American popular culture is washing over the Lost Boys, as it does everyone. When John Deng is asked what music groups he likes, he is very specific.

"Tupac," he said, citing a rap star who was killed in 1997. "Snoop Dogg."

The young men's sweet and gentle personalities make some wonder: In their quest to become Americans, will they lose part of themselves?

 

"A year or two from now, will they be like us? Will they close everyone off?" said Drumtra, the policy analyst. "We don't greet people at the checkout counter. We're kind of cold to each other. And these boys are so refreshing because they're not."

It will be a while before the Lost Boys become jaded about America. For now everything is an adventure. Driving down the street. Eating pizza. Learning to use the vacuum, or as they call it, "the cleaning machine."

 

They ask lots of questions. Some have easy answers. "What is this?" John Deng asked, holding up a penny. "What does IHOP stand for?" Abraham Malok asked.

Others aren't as easy. "Why are there so many banks?" Magai About asked.

And from Abraham Deng: "Is the water in Florida safe to swim in?"

 

* * *

 

One night in mid-August, Abraham Deng and Abraham Malok used their new phone to call their cousins in Fargo, N.D. Their cousins, they learned, have part-time jobs at manufacturing firms. One has a car. And they have enrolled in a university.

 

Abraham and Malok made some comparisons. The roofing job wasn't going well; they came home exhausted every night. Transportation was often a problem because the job is in St. Petersburg and they had to rely on others for rides.

 

School seemed like a faraway dream. An admissions counselor at Pasco-Hernando Community College told them that they would have to pay about $175 a credit to take classes because they haven't met the one-year Florida residency requirement.

"Here in New Port Richey, we have seen that the chance of getting an education is very little," said Abraham Malok. "There are not many opportunities."

 

* * *

 

On August 30, nine weeks to the day after Abraham Deng arrived in Pasco, he packed all of his belongings into a large blue suitcase given to him by a World Relief volunteer. Abraham Malok did the same.

 

They stopped at Publix and bought a six-pack of Diet Mountain Dew, a package of shortbread cookies and four tins of sardines. "We are going on a journey," Abraham explained to the cashier as he set the Mountain Dew on the counter.

 

An acquaintance drove them to the Greyhound Bus Station. "We are going to Fargo," Abraham Malok said to the man behind the bus counter. The Abrahams paid $154 each for their tickets. The Greyhound worker ticked off the itinerary: Tallahassee, Birmingham, Nashville, Paducah. They would change buses in Chicago. Then they would stop in Milwaukee before arriving in Fargo. The 50-hour trip would cover eight states and 1,821 miles.

 

Abraham crossed his arms over his stomach and hunched over. His ribs were visible underneath his T-shirt. Would he lose his new blue suitcase? Would people be nice to him on the bus? Would he and Malok find the right bus in Chicago? "I am worried," he said, "that sometime we will get lost on the way."

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