Lost and found: The Lost Boys of Sudan find their way in Louisville

Aug 19, 2015 at 3:38 pm
Martin Nhial
Martin Nhial Photo by Jessica Ebelhar

On Saturday, August 15, Sudanese refugees gathered at the Americana Community Center to celebrate South Sudan’s independence from Sudan. Among those gathered together were several of the approximately 75 “Lost Boys” who survived the assault of the Sudanese Army in the 1980s and now call Louisville home. Despite the trauma of their youth, most of the Sudanese refugee community has prevailed, gaining an education, finding work and establishing their families, yet a small percentage are as lost in America as they were in Sudan. Among the lost are seven homeless men, the ranks of which once included Deng Manyuon, who was shot and killed by a police officer on June 13, 2015. As the Sudanese community in Louisville bonds together to celebrate the independence of South Sudan, they also bond together in an effort to help their brothers who are lost again find their way home.

At 9 years old, Martin Nhial couldn’t hide from the monsters in his closet. Nothing unusual happened that 1986 morning. As always, Martin attended school in Yirol, a small town in Southern Sudan surrounded by life-giving lakes. Chores started after he returned home to his parents and siblings. He trudged to the bush to fulfill his daily duties.

The gunshots began to echo around 3 p.m.

Martin — alone, vulnerable, scared — survived the Sudanese Army’s assault by hiding in the overgrowth. Death wasn’t the only result of capture. The army often gathered children and forced them to fight against their own homeland, a future that made Martin shiver.

Silence, though, eventually enticed him from his safe place.

Horror was the only thing that greeted him when he untangled from the shrubs.

Puddled blood. Mangled dead. A village emptied of its inhabitants. Martin’s family now scattered like blowing sand in a desert storm.

“You don’t even know where they are,” the man with the gentle smile said while recalling his childhood memories.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Martin had joined the ranks of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

War displaces populations. The brutality of ISIS in Iraq and Syria today illustrates this to perfection. But the conflict in Sudan during the 1980s proved unique among even the most gut-wrenching tragedies.

Children — some as young as three and four — survived the killing and displacement of their caregivers by banding together. Alone, yet 20,000 strong, the children trekked thousands of miles across the brutal African landscape. More than half died along the way.

In the early 2000s, around 3,600 of the boys entered the United States as part of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and U.S. State Department resettlement program. Of these survivors, 125 settled in Louisville to begin a new chapter.

Martin was one.

“Life is whatever God blesses you with,” Martin said in his upbeat way. “You don’t have to do anything to be happy.”

The journey

Martin stood among the massacre for only a short time. Gunfire exploded close by, and he fled again to the bush.

Here in the chaos he found his Uncle Aliet. Aliet comforted Martin. No, he hadn’t seen Martin’s family since before the assault, he answered to the frightened child. In truth, Aliet discovered the bodies of Martin’s father and several siblings among the blood-drenched corpses.

But that was to be discussed later. For now, the pair scrambled together to an agricultural village more than two hours away.

After a few days, the Sudanese Government bombed that village too.

So began Martin’s new cyclical life. The people scattered away from the attacks and found safety, but lacked food, shelter and water as a result. Disease, however, uncovered them.

“There’s nothing I haven’t seen in my life. I’ve seen it all,” Martin said. “If you are lucky, you will be well. If you are not lucky, then you’ll die.”

On an unmapped island in the middle of the Nile River they rested, only to flee again when too many fellow refugees descended on the land. Some wore no clothes, stripped of even their most basic possession. The thorns stung Martin’s bare feet as he followed the masses onward into oblivion.

Instead of counting weeks, Martin began counting lives.

The Sahara Desert soon welcomed the ever-growing tribe of boys with an unfazed brutality. Thirst weakened the already frail. Wild animals picked off the most vulnerable.

“The hyena became a factor, eating people who weren’t strong enough. Lions, even foxes, were also eating people. It became horrible,” Martin said.

“Death was an easy thing. You could find someone just dying. What can you do? There was nothing you could do.”

Against the odds, Martin persevered. Roughly a year into his travels, he reached a refugee camp in Ethiopia where he split with his uncle. No Sudanese soldiers bothered them here. Food remained an issue, as did shelter. Trees provided the boys with shade to sleep. Local rivers swelled with much-needed water. Without supplies, teachers educated the boys as best they could. Martin received one of his most cherished possessions: half an English dictionary. The battered book served as a muse while he learned the language, at least the words from M to Z.

More than 25,000 Sudanese refugees called this makeshift city their home. But an Ethiopian regime change in 1991 forced the survivors into the wilds of Sudan once again.

Just across the border, as they fled again, Martin witnessed thousands die as they attempted to cross the mighty Gilo River. Hippos, snakes and crocodiles proved less dangerous than the paramilitary members who fired on the masses.

With assistance from the United Nations, Martin walked across the desert once more to the Kakuma refugee camp where he stayed for nine years. Educated and fed during that time, the 23-year-old boy from Yirol applied to start a new life in America.

And in America he has stayed and prospered. Two jobs occupied Martin’s time early on, so that he could obtain a GED and then a college degree. He set aside money as dowry to marry a girl he met in a refugee camp. In 2004, they wed.

Three little girls followed his visits back home. His wife and daughters continue to live in Uganda. The Congregation Adath Jeshurun as well as Jewish Hospital, where Martin works as a surgical tech, began an assistance fund to help him reunite with his family. (Online gifts can be made at KentuckyOneHealth.org/giving. Select “Jewish Hospital — Adath Jeshurun Pikuach Nefesh Fund.”)

For the first time since he was 9, Martin should soon have a family of his own living with him again.

A life like never before

Tiny feet rush around Anyuon Manyuon’s Louisville home.

Five children give the 35-year-old an appreciation for a childhood he never had. His oldest son plays a learning game on the family computer. A big screen television whispers an educational show to his youngest. The girls burst with excitement when they enter the room, their ideas showing in their grins. Youth shines in all its glory.

Anyoun sits on the sofa with his wife of 11 years, Asunta. Unlike when he was a child, his family remains together and happy. His kids thrive in their parents’ love and attention.

“You have somebody beside you,” the head of the Lost Boys of Louisville said. “It has become a new chapter for us.”

His story turned pages from its beginning.

Both Asunta and Anyoun survived the horrors of the Second Sudanese Civil War, a conflict fought over government subjection in the south and religious intolerance of the north. Control of oil along their natural border added an extra incentive to prolong the bloodshed.

At 9 years old, Anyoun hid from the Sudanese as they attacked his town of Wau. Ethiopia, then the Kenyan refugee camp of Kakuma served as his homes after hundreds of miles of excruciating travel. In 2001, the United States granted him refugee status, and he moved to Louisville with the assistance of Catholic Charities.

Firsts then dominated Anyoun’s life. Snow fell into his open mouth at first sight. New foods filled his stomach. Never-before-seen objects assisted him in his shared apartment.

And a new culture introduced itself.

Differences and misunderstandings occurred in this strange land. Men don’t look unknown women in the eye in his Dinka tribe. In America, that could be a negative in a job interview. Communication, at times, also proved difficult.

Anyoun steeled himself and worked hard. Further education helped him to obtain a good job in public safety administration at Jeff Boat in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He’s been with the company for nine years.

During his time in the U.S., the population of the Lost Boys in Louisville surged to more than 225. Since the 2008 recession, that number has dropped to 75. Most moved to find employment. A few returned home to settle again in South Sudan after the country gained independence from Sudan following a referendum in 2011.

“America, land of freedom, you can move place to place,” he said. “Now we have independence, we have a county called South Sudan, and if you go there you can at least find one of your relatives.”

In all these years, Anyoun has yet to make a return visit to witness the freedom firsthand. He hopes to do so in the future.

Miracles do happen. In 2004, more than 15 years after they laid eyes on one another, Anyoun spoke to his mother again, this time as a grown man. With a civil war in South Sudan disrupting food supplies and daily life since 2013, he sends money back to his mother so that she may purchase sustenance and basic necessities.

“God brought me here to help,” Anyoun said.

Matur Reclow , the head of the South Sudanese Community in Louisville also talked about the additional challenges refugees face. Although not technically considered a Lost Boy, Matur witnessed the war from Khartoum after leaving his home of Rumbek in South Sudan. He, his wife and family immigrated to America in 2005.

“We have a lot of responsibility back home. Some of us — parents, aunties, cousins — we support them. You give divide your paycheck — rent, gas — and the rest you send home,” Matur said. “People depend on you. Without you, they cannot survive.”

“It’s a lot of struggle,” he said. “When you see us here, we bear a weight on our back. We cannot throw it away easily.”

Resilience and reaching out

Like Martin and Anyoun, an overwhelming majority of the Lost Boys from Sudan succeeded in America. That success extends beyond their educational and economic achievement.

Dr. Paul Geltman, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, conducted several studies on the health status outcomes of unaccompanied refugee minors from South Sudan. While his research focused on Sudanese kids under the age of 18 who were placed in foster care in the U.S. through the aforementioned refugee program, his core findings could apply to those over 18 as well.

What did he learn?

Among other discoveries, only 20 percent of the 221 subjects who had completed the questionnaire showed clinical signs of PTSD, an amazing statistic given the trauma suffered by this survivors.

“When you think about other refugee populations or high-risk groups like the military you think, ‘20 percent. That’s not too bad.’ And that was what we emphasized, that you would expect these guys to be traumatized,” Geltman said.

“The larger picture of the entire population is that they’ve done very well, especially these kids who were in the unaccompanied minors programs.”

Still, as in any community, a few lose their way.

The media reports about them now and again, mentioning their crimes with their refugee status as if one description correlates to the other. Deng Manyoun, a Lost Boy, fell under this heading after he was shot and killed by a Louisville Metro Police Officer on June 14 of this year.

Deng, who suffered from alcoholism, suicidal tendencies and recurrent homelessness, charged the police officer with a flagpole. In response, the officer fired multiple shots that resulted in Deng’s death.

“When you get lost again, that’s a tragedy we have,” Matur said. “You could be lost in the bush, but God help us when we come to this country … and you can lose it again and be homeless.”

Matur and Anyoun helped bury their friend, though problems confronted them even at the funeral home.

“We tried to fill out the form and we couldn’t find the name of his mother. But I’ve known this guy since 1989,” Anyoun said. “Our name fits. We are called Lost Boys and he became the living example.”

Finding a resolution

Familiar faces from long ago confronted Darko Mihaylovich at Deng’s funeral. During the last decade, Darko, as the Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Migration and Refugee Services Director of Programs, provided hundreds of refugees including many Sudanese the chance of new lives in America.

Reuniting with those who he has helped brought back memories: a boy from Sudan shuddering from hunger instead of cold as he exited the plane in Louisville, their excitement at new gadgets.

A former client approached Darko and announced he became a police officer in Nashville. Success stories abounded at the funeral of the man who became lost again.

“Every refugee has his or her story, and we cannot generalize,” Darko said. “My personal saying is unless you have a kidney stone, you don’t know how it hurts. I don’t know what it means to be in a camp. We don’t know. We can say, ‘Yeah we understand,’ but unless you were in that situation, you don’t know.”

Catholic Charities stands at the forefront of refugee assistance. In 40 years, their Louisville office has helped more than 26,000 people settle in America, enough folks to fill the KFC Yum! Center. Cultural training, job placement, English language learning and money for basic necessities including shelter are but a few of the services they provide.

Their record speaks for itself. More than 80 percent of their clients find employment within 90 days of arriving, a vital step in ensuring self-reliance.

Bart Weigel, Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Director of Operations, said only a very small number of cases haven’t been successful. Of those, addiction and mental health problems most likely contributed to the refugee’s difficulties.

“Generally, it would probably stem back to either some type of mental problem, mental health either PTSD or addiction or something like that,” Weigel said. “Again, if you talk about the general population, there’s always a percentage that is prone to that.”

In other words, no matter what community people live in, country they come from, or culture they identify with, a portion of the population will not always succeed. Refugee or natural born citizen, difficulties can exist regardless.

Likewise, Catholic Charities monitors the refugees for only a set amount of time. If issues arise say five years down the road, refugees or their friends must tell the organization that they require additional services. Through their partnerships with other local aid groups such as Seven Counties, assistance may be available.

“We only know if there is a problem if they come forward and say we need your help,” Darko said.

Seven Lost Boys in Louisville still require this help. According to Anyoun, these few remain without permanent housing. Dependence on alcohol may complicate matters. Due to a lack of certified IDs and other papers, employment can also be difficult to find.

“For those who drop out in life, how will we help them come back to a normal life? Most of those boys lost their documents, and when they’ve lost their documents there is no way that they can find a job,” Anyoun said. “Some people go mad. They go crazy because there’s no way for you now.”

Bonding together again, Anyoun, Matur and the South Sudanese community want to assist these men by providing them with temporary shelter and training. Purchasing a ticket for them to return to South Sudan remains a viable solution for those looking to go home.

Finances remain the primary hurdle. The whole Louisville area, though, can help by donating funds so they can see the realization of their plan. (In addition to monetary donations, Catholic Charities of Louisville needs furniture and other household goods to ready apartments for incoming refugees. Call 636-9263 or visit cclou.org/donate-now for more info.)

“It’s only we don’t have money to help,” Anyoun said. “That would be easy for the community to help our brothers to come back.”

Despite these rare setbacks, don’t discount the Lost Boys of Sudan. Their presence vibrates throughout Kentucky and across the Ohio Valley. As in the desert of Sudan, they will persevere. And even higher aspirations may await those willing to journey back to the land of their youth to fulfill a mission.

“The Lost Boys are the seeds of the future of South Sudan,” Matur said. “We’re not going to change anything in American society, but there, we’ll change a lot there. We’ll go there and use what we’ve done here. We will change a lot.”