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Sudan’s Lost Boys turn eyes homeward at US summer conference

By Daniel Van Oudenaren

June 21, 2009 (SAN DIEGO) – For those "Lost Boys" of Sudan who made it to San Diego, California this weekend for a national networking conference, future opportunities and service to homeland were foremost before a community whose energies largely have long gone toward maintaining internal bonds and adjusting to life in America.

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A delegation from the Lost Boys & Girls of Sudan National Network met at the house of SPLM Secretary-General Pa’gan Amum in March 2009. From left to right: Michael Glassman, Tut Gatyiel, Teddy Newmyer, Deng Chol, Julie Hines Mabus, Atem Da’Hajhock, Randee Brady (kneeling), Pa’gan Amum, Deb Newmyer, Mamer Ajak, Joan Hecht, and Abraham Bul Aguer.

Some 200 or more of the Lost Boys and Girls – who survived the brutalities of Sudan’s 1983-2005 civil war before arriving in the United States from refugee camps beginning in 2001 – gathered Friday through Sunday at Point Loma Nazarene University overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The young refugees from south Sudan are resettled in dozens of different cities and are separated by place of origin, tribe and diverse life experiences since coming to the United States. But they generally have a common interest in returning to contribute to their homeland or otherwise maintaining ties to their native community.

"I just feel that we should do whatever we can to help these boys move forward, particularly into leadership positions, and that’s where we’re were kind of trending now," said Reita Hutson of Scottsdale, Arizona, an Advisory Board member to the conference organizer, a group called The Lost Boys & Girls of Sudan: the National Network.

Hutson is the founder of Gabriel’s Dream, an organization named for a refugee child whom she mentored. She said that past gatherings have focused just on the Lost Boys, but this one turned its attention to the Sudan itself.

The National Network was formally launched in 2008 and chose to move ahead with the conference after conducting an assessment mission to Sudan in March 2009. The event was not formally endorsed by the elected leadership of the Lost Boys community, who were selected at a conference in Phoenix, Arizona in 2004. It follows a separate conference held by the organization United Sudanese Youth from May 23 to 24 at American University in Washington, D.C. One key organizer of the Phoenix event, Tut Luony Gatyiel, on Saturday presented the conference with his findings from a part of the assessment mission he led to Yei.

AMERICAN AND SUDANESE

When south Sudan’s so-called "Lost Boys" first fled their villages in the 1980s, many of them trekked to an area of Ethiopia held by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. They lived there until they were later forced to walk to Kenya.

Many of the young refugees, steeped in an identity of shared hardship and liberation forestalled, at one point were designated for training to become child soldiers — a sort of strategic reserve force for the SPLA. (On Sunday, they broke into song when a speaker recalled times when rebel advances were announced over Radio SPLA).

As they now pursue their own careers or education, these Sudanese refugees have grown more closely intertwined with American political ideals. Participants on Saturday appeared to embrace the advocacy tools, if not the message, presented by a speaker from the Darfur-focused Genocide Intervention Network, who encouraged participants to lobby their US elected officials.

Deng Chol, who has taken a leading role in the National Network, pointed to a bill proposed in the US House of Representatives by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va). He urged advocacy on behalf of the pending legislation, which is called the "Return of the Lost Boys and Lost Girls of Sudan Act."

Abraham Bul Aguer, founding Board Member and representative of SPLM-Utah, said that during the trip in March the Lost Boys’ team was able to spend some time teaching youth in Jonglei about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and how to get involved in upcoming 2010 elections. Likewise, other speakers highlighted the role that the US-educated refugees might be able to play in civic education and development, advocacy in the United States, or in other fields such as administration of Sudan’s oil resources.

Hosted in a place of much serenity, the event at Point Loma comes as delegations from the Government of Sudan and SPLM negotiate implementation of the CPA at a conference in Washington, D.C., grappling with questions ultimately fundamental to state and society in the youths’ native south Sudan.

No certain destiny awaits the semi-autonomous region, which will hold a referendum for independence in 2011. The San Diego event’s keynote speaker, former US Special Representative on Sudan Roger Winter, pointed out that earlier this year there had been disagreement within the US State Department about whether even to respect the decision of the southerners should they opt for independence, with some officials suggesting that an independent South would be a "failed state."

The US-Sudan bilateral relationship is grounded in a tactical partnership between the Sudanese intelligence apparatus and the US Central Intelligence Agency, one which drew the praise of Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in a piece last month in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, following a dinner event he attended in Khartoum hosted by the head of the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services.

In an interview, Winter said that he did not see indications that the US would walk away from past support for the CPA. He said that the peace conference in Washington was "warranted if in fact there is a genuine response" from the Government of Sudan.

Nevertheless, he pointed to signs of "confusion within the administration" and added, "I see them with a learning curve right now."

‘INCREDIBLY UPBEAT’

Standing before an uncertain future, Lost Boys on Saturday received career advice, a briefing on post-traumatic stress counselling, and presentations from Americans with experience in implementing development projects in south Sudan.

"I hope that the experts that are here this weekend touch a couple of lives, for the Lost Boys who are lost still, or those who have a specific goal, whether it’s finding a scholarship, whether it’s bring their wife to America, et cetera," said Michael Glassman, Vice President of Outlaw Productions.

Glassman’s company aims to create a film adaptation of "What is the What", the best-selling novelized autobiography of a Lost Boy named Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers.

He credited his late colleague Bobby Newmyer with deeply engaging the Lost Boys community even before the Eggers novel. According to Polly Street, Secretary of the Board of Directors of the National Network, the conference would not have been possible without Newmyer’s vision.

Newmyer, said Glassman, recognized that the American public might be able to grasp the story of south Sudan through the Lost Boys in their midst. Newmyer had discovered the Lost Boys’ story through a 60 Minutes television special in 2003. He optioned the rights to the TV piece and started approaching Lost Boys around the country.

"I think it was just a matter of spending more and more time with the boys that he just fell in love with the story," said Glassman, "He realized that this group of 4,000 boys, or men, really are the ideal PR candidates for making the American public aware of the tragedy of Sudan, because they’re living here, because they are the most charming, lovable guys you’ll ever meet and you know they went through the worst possible imaginable scenario and yet are incredibly upbeat. And he believed through a film he could wake up America and get them to pay attention. And we still believe that."

Street, who met the first Lost Boys on the day that they arrived in the United States in 2001, said she wants to see them finish their education and find jobs before launching initiatives to help their homeland. "My fear is that time is running out – because people get on with their lives and they get older. What I want to see happen is that even if a thousand out of the 3,500 refugees here went back to help their country, I’d be happy with that," she said.

"They all want to give back: that’s very important to them," said Reita Hutson of Gabriel’s Dream. "Every one of these boys is sending money to their families in Sudan. Almost every one of them has some sort of a project, because they want to heal their land."

"I personally think it’s an impossibility, but I can’t blame them for that feeling," she said.

(ST)