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Revisiting Sudan's Haunted 'Lost Boys'

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

In the last decade, about 4,000 young Sudanese who fled from their country's civil war resettled in the United States. They became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Over the years, the boys gained a great deal of press attention, and a sense of peace after moving to a safer part of the world. But that calm hasn't found all of the young men. Many of them are coping with residual trauma from the lives they left in northern Africa. From Phoenix, Steve Goldstein of member station KJZZ reports.


Twenty-six-year-old Janny Dang(ph) is one of the 450 Sudanese Lost Boys living in the Phoenix area. He was one of the first to arrive 10 years ago after he fled the civil war in Sudan.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. JANNY DANG (Lost Boy): When the war broke out I was six--yeah, six, seven year old. And then when the village struck--or the bomb, and I--we just saw the big flame, you know. So now this is the same for all of us. And instead of go looking for where mom and dad are or sibling, I just start walking ...(unintelligible) here.

GOLDSTEIN: At the end of that walk, Dang faced the challenges of a new language and technology.

Mr. DANG: Most of us don't even know how to open a can when--the first time we was coming in and stuff.

GOLDSTEIN: Because he was under 18, a social service agency placed Dang with foster parents who tried to ease his transition. He attended high school and ran for the cross-country team. But his 23-year-old brother, Simon(ph), ended up in a cramped apartment with two other Lost Boys. Without assistance, Simon wasn't able to adjust to his new life. He couldn't hold a job. He became lonely and depressed. Eight years ago, Simon walked into a Catholic social services building with a rifle and began shooting. He didn't hit anyone, but police returned fire and killed him.

Mr. DANG: Somebody could have been there instead of him, you know, struggling by himself.

GOLDSTEIN: Simon's younger brother, Janny, is still heartbroken.

Mr. DANG: You know, he didn't know what to do then, and nobody was there to say, `Hey, here I can, you know--I can show you. I can help you.'

GOLDSTEIN: Highway Patrol officers shot and killed another Phoenix area Lost Boy after he threw rocks at them. Two Lost Boys in Houston stabbed each other in an alcohol-fueled fight. In Atlanta, one drunk Lost Boy killed another in a disagreement over 10 bucks. Incidents like these happen, say some of the Lost Boys and their advocates because the resettled young men are trying to escape the nightmares of war. Ann Wheat is co-founder of the Lost Boys Center in Phoenix.

Ms. ANN WHEAT (Co-founder, Lost Boys Center): While one would think that maybe things would continue to get easier, the reality that we've all had to come to grips with are those long-term effects of living life as a child survivor of war, all the devastation and trauma of having your family--everything familiar to you: your culture, your way of life, all taken away from you. And living, really, in constant fear and terror.

GOLDSTEIN: Therapists and social workers have diagnosed some of the Lost Boys with post-traumatic stress disorder. It's common among people who face the ravishes of war. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association explored Cambodian refugees who landed in California after enduring the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The situation parallels that of the Lost Boys. Even after 25 years in the US, a majority of those surveyed showed high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. They had left Cambodia, but the trauma stayed with them no matter where they relocated. Grant Marshall is a Rand research analyst who led the study.

Mr. GRANT MARSHALL (Research Analyst, Rand): Time doesn't always heal really all wounds, and we really need to be attentive to that in bringing in refugees or immigrants who've gone through challenging experiences.

(Soundbite of construction sounds)

GOLDSTEIN: Two years ago, a quarter million dollar federal grant helped build the Lost Boys Center in Phoenix. It's the only one of its kind in the nation. There the Lost Boys can learn English, conduct job searches, play foosball and, most importantly, share their experiences in a comfortable environment.

Mr. DANG: That's why they come into the center so they can, you know, talk about it, and that's why I'm here.

GOLDSTEIN: Janny Dang works at the center while he studies for a degree in social work.

Mr. DANG: Sometime I always tell them, `It's OK, you know. Tell people what you are--because they're not going to know until you tell them.'

(Soundbite of crowd)

GOLDSTEIN: Dang believes the Lost Boys Center could have saved his brother. Another Lost Boy, James Malac(ph), says he relies on the center's staff as he would have elders in Sudan.

Mr. JAMES MALAC (Lost Boy): Wherever we were back home if you are mistaken, you do something wrong, you know, you do something bad to the next person, an elder will come and sit down and say, `Hey, look here, boy, I've been through this life. But I wasn't like you. But in a community we don't expect people to behave like this.'

GOLDSTEIN: Even as the Lost Boys have begun opening up about their trauma, their gathering place is on the verge of closing. The original federal grant expires at the end of this month. Supporters of the center are working on raising the money it needs. One of them is former high school long-distance runner, Janny Dang, who's gathering pledges for his next marathon. The money from that 26-mile run will help support his friends at the center who've survived a much longer journey. For NPR News, I'm Steve Goldstein in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Goldstein
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