The ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan Find a Home

March 21, 2001 7 min read
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Asked what Americans ought most to know about him and his companions from Sudan, 17-year-old Abraham K. says: “They need to know we are willing to learn.”

Abraham is one of 3,600 Sudanese youths, ages 10 to 21, who were orphaned by war and are being resettled in the United States under a special initiative by the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, or UNHCR, that began last fall and will continue through this year. The media have dubbed them the “lost boys” of Sudan.

Abraham, his brother, Peter N., who is 21, and another set of brothers, David and Jacob G., ages 20 and 17, met in a refugee camp in Kenya, called Kakuma. They arrived here in Philadelphia last November and live with a local couple, Susan and Hector P. Badeau, and their children.

(At the request of officials with the Baltimore- based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the agency in charge of the youths’ resettlement in Philadelphia, Education Week agreed to withhold the last names of the youths because of concerns about the their privacy.)

The youths’ strong desire to learn has impressed many of the adults they’ve encountered in their new homes and the school system here.

Susan Badeau recalls that the Sudanese youths in her household could hardly stand to be out of school during the first few days of their arrival, when they had to fill out paperwork and get shots. And when asked to make wish lists for Christmas, they requested textbooks.

But some of the youths’ peers initially made their welcome rough. The Sudanese students’ adjustment here, and how the school system is trying to smooth the way, illustrates that even in urban areas that serve as “salad bowls” for a mélange of immigrant groups, the integration of a new, little-known group of newcomers can pose an unusual challenge.

Schools and foster parents need to be prepared that even in places where there is a lot of diversity, [the Sudanese] are going to get singled out,” says Susan Badeau. The Badeaus have formed an interracial family through adoption and dealt with a lot of race-related issues over the years, but she says the frequency and intensity of the racial incidents directed at the Sudanese students caught even her off-guard.

On the first day that the four Sudanese youths went to school on their own on public transportation, for example, some African-American youths shouted, “Why are you so black?” and “Go back to Africa,” according to Susan Badeau. And someone threw a glass bottle, which shattered at the Sudanese’ feet.

Afterward, school staff members reported that the Sudanese seemed both upset and perplexed, says Mary Yee, an administrative program specialist for the Philadelphia school district’s office of language-equity issues, who is supervising the youths’ placement in schools. “Abraham said something to the effect that he didn’t understand why kids would be doing this because they have a father and mother and food every day,” she says.

Yee believes native Philadelphia youths reacted negatively to the Sudanese youths simply because they appeared different. “They tend to be quite tall. They are very dark-skinned. They don’t dress quite like other urban African-American kids,” Yee says. “They have different mannerisms.”

David recalls that when he and some other Sudanese first visited Roxborough High School, the predominantly minority school that they now attend, some students laughed. “It was not friendly,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘Why are they laughing?’ Then I said, ‘It’s ignorance.’ ”

Because of such incidents and because, unlike many other immigrants, the Sudanese youths are without their natural parents, Yee says she’s paid more attention to their placement than she might with other newcomers. So far, the 208,000-student school system has received 33 Sudanese from the Kakuma camp.

Yee has sought out for them smaller-than-average schools with well-developed programs for students who aren’t proficient in English. And she’s seeking approval to move some of the Sudanese next fall to magnet schools, which are particularly small and known for rigorous academic standards.

“They can’t go to any old neighborhood high school,” Yee says. “I won’t put them in a place where they don’t have advocates. They’re really courteous and great kids, but they may not be ready for how people are going to react to them.”

Most of the “lost boys” fled Sudan in the late 1980s, when a war that still rages erupted between Muslim and Christian ethnic groups. A majority of the Sudanese being resettled are Christians from the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, who were cattle herders in southern Sudan.

When war broke out, thousands of children and some families banded together and walked more than 500 miles into neighboring Ethiopia. But eventually they were forced out of that country. During their journeys, some witnessed family members or other children being shot by soldiers, drowned in rivers, and devoured by crocodiles or lions.

In 1992, the UNHCR established the Kakuma camp for about 30,000 refugees from Sudan who ended up in Kenya; all of the youths who are being resettled in the United States this year come from that camp. There are a few girls, but not many because they tended to be taken in by families either to become full- fledged members or household servants, experts say.

The youths who are making their home in Philadelphia, for the most part, have grown up in the camp, which provides basic shelters with dirt floors and a meager diet. The camp also has a school run by the Lutheran World Federation.

Most of the Sudanese youths have solid English and academic skills, says Yee, who has tested them. Though they’re all in need of English-as-a-second-language classes, many have reached an intermediate or advanced level of English. Some had already taken high school courses at the refugee camp, though only about a quarter of the high- school-age youths in the camp actually attended high school, experts say.

“Schooling,” Yee says, “has been a central part of their lives.”

In their first days of regular high schools here—after attending a transitional program for for several months—the Sudanese youths are surprised at some of the differences in classroom culture between Africa and the United States.

Several are incredulous about what they perceive as a lack of discipline of American youths in class. “Whenever the teacher is talking, the people make noise,” observes Abraham. In Africa, says David, for such behavior “you will be sent to a discipline committee.”

Marko K., 19, a Sudanese who arrived in Philadelphia in December along with Angelo A., another Sudanese who was like a brother to him at Kakuma, says he was surprised to see students playing cards in one class. Both Marko and Angelo attend Horace Howard Furness High School.

Some students at Furness High go out of their way to show their support for Marko and Angelo during their first days of classes. One girl gives Angelo a friendly punch on the arm in a stairway, and he notes, smiling, “I met her yesterday.”

At Roxborough High school, school officials have taken some unusual steps before David, Jacob, and Abraham (his older brother, Peter, is working rather than attending school) arrive for their first days of classes to prevent the kind of student reaction that occurred on their first visit.

Joyce K. Stubbs, an assistant principal, held an assembly for students in the 9th and 10th grades, the same grades as the Sudanese, to tell them about the youths’ past experiences. She recalls that when the Sudanese told her the students at her school had laughed at them and asked her why, “I got teary- eyed, because I knew what they’d gone through. I said, inside myself, ‘These kids have gone through so much and they come to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, and have teenagers make fun of them.’ ”

She concluded that it had been a mistake to spring the Sudanese on Roxborough’s students without providing any information about them, particularly because the youths—by appearance alone—might strike students as more of a curiosity than other immigrant students who have arrived previously.

Roxborough students tend to be “preppy,” she says, so just the fact that the Sudanese wore inexpensive sneakers with white socks, wore their hair short rather than in the longer styles now popular among African-American youths, and didn’t wear designer jeans on their initial visit made them stick out, she explains.

At the assembly, she described what the Sudanese youths had accomplished and challenged Roxborough students to question if they could have done the same had they been in a similar situation. And she told them the Sudanese should be admired for the obstacles they’ve overcome.

The approach seems to have worked.

“They’re real nice,” says Tasia M. Lewis, 15, about a few of the Sudanese youths during their second day in her 9th grade history class. She repeats what she learned in the assembly about them. “They came from Sudan. They lost their parents. They walked miles to get to food.”

In English class, one girl gives a little clap of affirmation when Jacob answers a question, and she helps the teacher keep the Sudanese students’ names straight. And in history, some boys seem eager to pair with the Sudanese on an exercise on Africa’s geographic characteristics.

In general, the Sudanese who live with the Badeaus say their approach to American culture is “to go with the climate,” as David puts it. “To learn another culture will be difficult,” he says.

“It’s difficult,” adds Abraham, “because there are so many differences.”

—Mary Ann Zehr

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as The ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan Find a Home


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