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Annual ORR Reports to Congress - 2005: III. The Lost Boys of Sudan

Published: May 7, 2014

III. The Lost Boys of Sudan

In 1983, civil war broke out between the northern Arabic-speaking government of Sudan and southern tribes seeking autonomy. Since then, nearly two million people have died, and five million have been displaced. Among these are at least 20,000 children, mostly boys, between 7 and 17 years of age who were separated from their families. This extraordinary exodus has its origins in traditional forms of migration. After initiation into manhood, young adolescent boys in southern Sudan have generally been quite mobile. Organized into small groups of their peers, they would leave home for a period to look after cattle. Some would head for the towns or cities to go to school or to seek their fortune before eventually returning home. In addition, at times of stress, families all over Africa have sent their children elsewhere to find safety, food, work, and schooling.

After civil war broke out, this process escalated dramatically. Factions began to attack peaceful villages, kidnapping young males to use as cannon fodder in battle zones or to walk through minefields. Fearing they would be targeted as potential combatants, many boys left their villages for refugee camps in Ethiopia. Some traveled with friends or relatives; others slipped away on their own at night. Few had any idea of what lay ahead of them, believing that their journey would last only a few days. Continually under threat, they fled for their lives, losing their way in the wilderness. They lost everything en route to soldiers, swindlers, or bandits. Many fell victim to lethal diseases. Others were so weakened by hunger and lack of sleep that they could go no further and sat down by the roadside, prey for lions and other wild animals.

The survivors who reached refugee camps in Ethiopia began to lead relatively peaceful lives again. But this was not to last. Following the change of government in Ethiopia in May 1991, the Sudanese youths were forced to flee again. This time the journey occurred during heavy rains, and many perished crossing the swollen rivers or were hit by aerial bombardment. Hungry, frightened, and weakened by sleeplessness and disease, they

made their way to camps in Sudan, where they received help from the International Committee of the Red Cross. From there, they then traveled on foot to safety in northern Kenya. Since 1992, UNICEF has been able to reunite nearly 1,200 boys with their families. But thousands more have remained in the dusty, fly-ridden refugee camp at Kakuma, where they have had to scrape for food and struggle for education.

In 1999, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, working in collaboration with the Department of State, referred over 3,300 of these youth, called the Lost Boys of Sudan, to the U.S. for resettlement processing. Once the U.S. agreed to admit this group, UNHCR undertook formal identity and background checks. The U.S. then began formally processing the group for resettlement in the fall of 2001. ORR began to track the progress of this group beginning with the 2001 survey. This report continues a five-year longitudinal assessment of the Lost Boys assimilation into U.S. society.

Geographic Location of Lost Boys

The Lost Boys refugees have settled in eighteen States including: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington. The largest number of Lost Boys initially resettled in Texas (106), followed by Massachusetts (65), California (53), Pennsylvania (49), Washington (45), Utah (37), Arizona (33), New York (20), and Virginia (20).

Economic Adjustment

In 2005, ORR completed its third annual survey of a random sample of Lost Boys selected from a population of at least 20,000 Sudanese children, mostly males between 7 and 17 years of age, who had been separated from their families and subsequently arrived in the U.S. between May 1, 2001 and April 30, 2002. The survey collected basic demographic information such as age, education, English language fluency, job training, labor force participation, work experience, and barriers to employment of each adult member of the household of the selected person. The survey also collected household income, housing, and welfare utilization data.

To evaluate the economic progress of this subset of refugees, ORR used several measures of employment effort frequently used by economists. The first group of measures relates to employment status in the week before the survey and includes the employment‑to‑population ratio (EPR), the labor force participation rate, and the unemployment rate. In addition, data on work experience over the past year and typical number of hours worked per week were analyzed, as well as reasons for not working. Data are also presented on the length of time from arrival in the U.S. to first employment and self-sufficiency.

Employment Status

Table III-1 presents the employment rate (EPR) in October 2005 for refugees 16 and over within the Lost Boys population.16 The survey found that the overall EPR for the Lost Boys in the 2005 sample was 86 percent (89 percent for males and 39 percent for females). Though this rate is lower than the rate in the survey from the previous year (92 percent), this rate is much higher than the rate recorded for the non-Lost Boys refugee population (58 percent) (See Table II-2). The employment rate of the male cohort of the Lost Boys population (89 percent) exceeded the rate of the non-Lost Boy refugee cohort (68 percent), but the female Lost Boy cohort had a 12 percent lower employment rate (36 percent) than the overall female refugee cohort, which had an employment rate of 48 percent. As a point of further reference, the employment rate for the non-refugee U.S. population was 63 percent in 2005, 70 percent for males and 56 percent for females.

Thus, the males in the survey exceeded their counterparts in the U.S. general population by 19 percentage points, while the females in the survey were exceeded by their U.S. female cohorts by 17 percent. This 50 point difference between the male and female Lost Boy cohorts clearly shows that the path to self-sufficiency has been much more difficult for the female members of the Lost Boys population. Subsequently, the lower employment rate of the female cohort appears quite unfavorable, with the females making substantial loses in 2005. This picture is particularly notable for a newly arrived population with few family members awaiting them in their designated communities, no work history other than herding cattle, and little in the way of transferable skills. As for the lower employment rate of the female cohort, only a decade ago this employment rate was even lower for the entire refugee population. The 1993 survey, for example, reported that refugees in the five-year population were employed at about half the rate of non-refugee U.S. population (33 percent versus 64 percent).

Table III-1 also contains data on labor force participation rate for refugees 16 and over in the five-year study.17 This rate is closely related to the employment rate, except it includes individuals looking for work as well as those currently employed. In December 2005, the overall labor force participation for the Lost Boy population was extremely high (91 percent) (93 percent for males and 62 percent for females). This overall rate is 28 points higher than that of the five-year refugee population (65 percent) and 25 points above the non-refugee U.S. population (66 percent). The male cohort of the Lost Boys (93 percent) also far exceeded both the corresponding male refugee rate (75 percent) and the non-refugee male rate (73 percent). The female rate (62 percent) exceeded for the first time both the corresponding rate of non-Lost Boy female refugees (54 percent) and the U.S. female rate (59 percent). As with the EPR, the labor

force participation rate of refugees increases with time in the U.S. However, the labor force participation rate decreased (5 percent) for the 2005 Lost Boys to 91 percent, as compared to 96 percent for the same group in the 2004 survey. As time passes, this population should yield a greater presence in the workforce if the present pattern is maintained.

The unemployment rate continues this pattern. The overall unemployment rate for the Lost Boys was five percent in this year’s survey. This is a great improvement over the 2003 survey (12 percent) and compares favorably with the 2004 general refugee employment rate (7 percent) and the U.S. rate (five percent). Perhaps the most noteworthy finding is the dramatic increase in the female Lost Boy unemployment rate, from 11 percent in the 2004 survey to 23 percent in the 2005 survey. Part of the large swings recorded for this group may be rooted in the extremely small numbers interviewed (only 13 females in 2005).

It is clear that the overall pattern is that males are joining the work force at a far greater rate than other refugee males or the U.S. male population as a whole. In addition, the females in this cohort have regressed due to the their increased unemployment rate by 12 points since 2004.

Table III-2 shows that 96 percent of the Lost Boys population has worked at some point in the previous year. Eighty-one percent in this year’s survey claimed to have worked at least 50 weeks during the past year. The average number of weeks worked was 48 weeks. Last year, 98 percent reported that they had worked at some point since arrival, 77 percent had worked as many as 50 weeks, and the average number of weeks worked was about 48. Noteworthy in Table III-3 is the very high percentage of female Lost Boys that have worked at some point since arrival (69 percent). This seems to suggest that retaining, rather than finding, employment may be their problem in gaining financial independence.

Reasons for Not Looking for Work

The survey also asked Lost Boys age 16 and over who were not employed why they were not look-

ing for employment. Attending school accounted for the largest proportion (almost 60 percent) with an associated median age of 28. Couldn’t find job, Childcare/family responsibility, and poor health each accounted for approximately 20 percent.

Reason not looking for Work for Lost Boys: 2005 Survey

Figure 5. Reason not looking for Work for Lost Boys: 2005 Survey.

(Chart note: Limited to Lost Boys who did not work in previous year and are not looking for work at the time of the survey.)

*(Chart note: “Couldn’t find job” represents survey value, believes no work available/couldn’t find job)

Limited English has almost been eliminated as a reason for not looking for work, compared to the 2002 survey when 90 percent of the Lost Boys not in the work force declared limited English proficiency as the reason for unemployment. The Lost Boys seem to recognize the importance of education and English language training in their acclimation to U.S. society, because the largest proportion of Lost Boys (nearly 60 percent) stated attending school as a reason for not looking for employment. It is noteworthy that 5 percent of the Lost Boys did not give a reason for not looking for employment.

Table III-1 – Employment Status of Lost Boys

  Employment Rate (EPR) Labor Force Participation Rate Unemployment Rate










Lost Boys










U.S. Rate










Note: As of December of each year indicated. Not seasonally adjusted. Data refers to refugees 16 and over in the five-year sample population. U.S. rates are from the U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics.

Table III-2 - Work Experience of Adult Lost Boys

  Number Percent Distribution

Total Lost Boys 16 years and older






50-52 weeks






Average weeks worked

*Among refugees who worked in the previous year.
**As of December, 2005.

TABLE III-3 – Employment Status of Selected Lost Boys by Sex: 2005 Refugee Survey

Employment Measure     Percent

Employment Rate (EPR)






Worked at any point since arrival






Labor Force
Participation Rate





Unemployment Rate




-Females Note: As of December 2005. Not seasonally adjusted. Data refers to Lost Boys 16 and over.
Elapsed Time to First Job for Lost Boys who have ever worked


Figure 6. Elapsed Time to First Job for Lost Boys who have ever worked.

Elapsed Time to First Job

How soon do Lost Boys find work after coming to the U.S.? The 2005 survey indicates that of those who have worked at all since coming to the U.S. (about 96 percent of refugees 16 years old and over in that survey), approximately 20 percent found work within one month of arrival, an additional 41 percent after two to three months, thirteen percent within 4 to 6 months, while another three percent took 7 to 12 months and only seven percent took more than a year (refer to Figure 6). Thus, approximately 74 percent found employment within 6 months of arrival, and 61 percent of refugees reported finding first employment within 3 months of arrival in the current survey.

Factors Affecting Employment

The average number of years of education for all arrivals was approximately ten (refer to Table III-4). It was reported in the 2005 survey that seven percent of the Lost Boys had no formal education before coming to the U.S.; this is an increase from the response given the year before when 6 percent of the Lost Boys population reported having no formal education prior to coming to the U.S. Almost forty-five percent of the respondents indicated that they had a primary school education, which is very similar to what was reported the previous year (40 percent). Respondents with a high school education made up nearly 21 percent of the Lost Boys population.

The migratory nature and age of the Lost Boys group undoubtedly account for the lower levels of education in this population. Beginning in 1997, many of the Lost Boys were driven from their homes seeking refuge from the ongoing war. Since arriving in the U.S., the Lost Boys have attempted to improve their educational standing. The 2005 survey shows that more than 71 percent of the Lost Boys population are attending some type of school or university, 11 percent are attending high school, 34 percent are in an associate degree program, and 25 percent are in a bachelor’s degree program. Some degree of caution is necessary when interpreting education statistics as these data are self-reported.

Four percent of Lost Boys in the 2005 survey reported speaking no English when they arrived in the U.S. (refer to Table III-4). But this was reduced to zero by the time of the survey interview, when all Lost Boys reported speaking English. At the time of arrival, 37 percent of the Lost Boys reported not speaking English well; similarly, 35 percent reported speaking English well or fluently upon arrival in the U.S. The ability of the Lost Boys to quickly gain fluency in English, as evidenced

TABLE III-4 – Education and English Proficiency Characteristics of Lost Boys

Education and Language Proficiency


Average Years of Education before U.S.


Highest Degree before U.S.




Primary School


Training in Refugee Camp


Technical School


Secondary School (or High School)


University Degree (Other than Medical)


Medical Degree




Attended School/University (since U.S.)


Attendance School/University (since U.S.) for degree/certificate


High School


Associates Degree


Bachelor’s Degree




Professional Degree




Degree Received


At Time of Arrival


Percent Speaking no English


Percent Not Speaking English Well


Percent Speaking English Well or Fluently


At Time of Survey


Percent Speaking no English


Percent Not Speaking English Well


Percent Speaking English Well or Fluently


Note: Data refer to Lost Boys 16 and over. These figures refer to self-reported characteristics of Lost Boys. Professional degree refers to a law degree or medical degree.

by the statistics, could account for the high EPR for this population. By the time of the interview, only a little more than five percent of the Lost Boys still reported speaking little English while 96 percent report speaking English well or fluently. The ability to speak English is one of the most important factors influencing the economic self-sufficiency of refugees; the Lost Boys who came here have clearly worked hard at bettering their prospects through intensive language study (refer to Table III-5).

Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the Lost Boys who spoke no English upon arrival continued to lag behind the other groups. Their employment rate was 72 percent, a little below the overall employment rate of 86 percent. There was little difference, however, between those speaking English well or fluently upon arrival (83 percent) and those who claimed that they could not speak English well (89 percent).

Those who spoke English fluently by the time of the interview reported a very high employment rate (88 percent), but their counterparts who still could not speak English well reported an employment rate 31 points lower (57 percent).

Historically, most refugees improve their English language proficiency over time, and those who do not are the least likely to be employed. During the past 12 months, 20 percent of all Lost Boys attended English Language Training (ELT) outside of high school (refer to Table III-6). For the same period, the proportion of refugees who have attended job-training classes (five percent) lags far behind those in ELT. About 15 percent of all survey respondents currently attend language instruction, either through high school curriculum or through 34 percent of the Lost Boys were attending some sort of language class at the time of the survey.

Earnings and Utilization of Public Assistance

The earnings of employed refugees generally rise with length of residence in the U.S. (refer to Table III-7). In 2005 the average hourly wage was $9.60.18 The corresponding hourly wage in the 2004 survey of employed refugees in the Lost Boys population was $9.42. Table III-7 also details the economic self‑sufficiency of the Lost Boys population in 2005. According to the 2005 survey, almost 93 percent of all refugee households in the U.S. had achieved economic self‑sufficiency—up five points since the 2003 survey when 88 percent were financially independent of public assistance. An additional 5 percent had achieved partial independence, with household income a mix of earnings and public assistance.

Table III-5 – English Proficiency and Associated EPR by Year of Arrival

Percent Speaking No English (EPR) Percent Not Speaking English Well (EPR) Percent Speaking English Well or Fluently (EPR)
At the time of arrival    

4.0 (72.7)

36.8 (89.0)

34.9 (83.2)

At the time of survey


0.0 (0.0)

5.1 (57.1)

94.5 (88.3)

In 2005, only 1 percent of Lost Boys households reported that their household income consisted entirely of public assistance. By way of contrast, the 2002 survey found that nearly 33 percent reported both earnings and public assistance and five percent reported only public assistance. This is a remarkable achievement for a refugee group three years after relocating in the U.S.

The absence of public assistance only cases, coupled with an increase in earnings only cases, confirms that the Lost Boys have adjusted well to the U.S. workforce.

Table III-8 details several household characteristics by type of income. Households that have a mix of earnings and assistance income average approximately four members and three wage earners. Households that receive public assistance also average at three members with zero wage earners. However, households with at least one member under age 16 received both public assistance and earnings, whereas only seven percent of households with earnings only had at least one family member under 16.

Medical Coverage

Overall, about 13 percent of adult refugees surveyed lacked medical coverage of any kind throughout the year preceding the survey (refer to Table III-9). Also, 70 percent of the Lost Boys received medical coverage through their employer and only nine percent of the sample received medical coverage from Medicaid or RMA. In 2004, the figure was somewhat similar, with seven percent receiving medical coverage from Medicaid or RMA. By way of contrast, the 2002 survey indicated that 48 percent of the Lost Boys relied on Medicaid or Refugee Medical Assistance during the year while seven percent had no medical coverage in any of the past 12 months.

Note: As of December 2005. Not seasonally adjusted. Data refers to Lost Boys. These figures refer to self-reported characteristics of Lost Boys.

Welfare Utilization

Table III-10 presents cash and non-cash welfare utilization data on the Lost Boys sample.

Dependence on cash assistance in 2005 (6 percent) continued to decline from the 2004 figure of 8 percent, albeit at a much slower rate than between 2003 and 2002, when the cash assistance dependence rate was 37 percent. One percent of Lost Boy households received TANF in the last 12 months. This represents a decrease of three percent over 2004, which contrasts with the 16 percent decline from 2002 to 2003.

TABLE III-6 – Language Service Utilization by Lost Boys

Type of Service Utilization Percent

ELT since arrival Inside High School


ELT since arrival Outside of High School


Job training since arrival


Currently attending ELT Inside High School


Currently attending ELT Outside of High School


Note: Data refer to Lost Boys. In order that English language training (ELT) not be confused with English high school instruction, statistics for both populations are given.

TABLE III-7 – Average Hourly Wages, Home Ownership, and Public Assistance of Lost Boys by Survey Year

    Hourly Wages of Employed- Current Job   Own Home or Apartment   Rent Home or Apartment   Public Assistance Only   Both Public Assistance and Earnings Earnings Only







Note: As of October 2005, October 2004, October 2003, and October 2002. Earnings figures are not adjusted for inflation. Data refer to refugees 16 and over in the two-year sample population of Lost Boys who were interviewed as a part of the 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002 surveys.

Table III-8 – Characteristics of Lost Boys Households by Type of Income
Lost Boys Households with:

Household Characteristics Public Assistance Only Both Public Assistance and Earnings Earnings Only Total Sample

Average Household Size





Average Number of wage earners per household*





Percent of households with at least one member:

Under the age of 6





Under the age of 16





Fluent English Speaker





*Data refer to Lost Boys. Lost Boys households with neither earnings nor assistance are excluded

Table III-9 – Source of Medical Coverage for Lost Boys
Source of Medical Coverage Percent

No Medical Coverage in Any of Past 12 Months


Medical Coverage Though Employer


Medicaid or RMA


Note: As of December 2005. Data refer to refugees 16 and over

TABLE III-10 – Public Assistance Utilization of Lost Boys
Type of Public Assistance Percent

Cash Assistance


Any Type of Cash Assistance

6.2 %







General Assistance


Non-cash Assistance


Medicaid or RMA


Food Stamps




Note: Medicaid and RMA data refer to adult Lost Boys age 16 and over. All other data refer to Lost Boys households and not individuals. Many households receive more that one type of assistance.

Approximately 1 percent of sampled households received RCA in 2 005, down from 4 percent in the previous survey. Four percent of Lost Boys households received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in the past twelve months.

General Assistance (also called General Relief or Home Relief in some States) is a form of cash assistance funded entirely with State or local funds. It generally provides limited assistance to single persons, childless couples, and families with children that are not eligible for TANF. The 2004 survey reported that about zero percent of Lost Boys households received some form of GA during the previous twelve months; in the current survey, GA utilization remained at zero.

Non-cash welfare utilization increased by nearly six percentage points between 2003 and 2004. About 9 percent of Lost Boys households reported receiving food stamps in 2005. This was roughly equivalent to the 2004 figure; however, non-cash assistance for 6 percent, and Medicaid/RMA increased by two percentage points to 9 percent (Refer to Table III-10).

Improvement in self-sufficiency was also recorded for medical coverage in Table III-9. The 2004 survey reported that 60 percent of Lost Boys received their medical coverage through their employer. The 2005 survey shows a marked improvement—with 70 percent of Lost Boys now covered by their employer. Lost Boys showed an overall improvement in medical coverage. They also showed a stark decrease in their housing utilization decreasing from 19 percent in 2004 to 6 percent in 2005.

Employment and Welfare Utilization Rates by State

The 2005 survey also reported welfare utilization and employment rate by State of residence. Table III-11 shows the EPR and utilization rates for various types of welfare for five States, as well as the nation as a whole. Unlike Table III-10, which computes welfare utilization rates for entire households, Table III-11 presents data on utilization by individual refugees (including children).

In the five-year population of non-Lost Boys refugee households, the EPR was generally high where welfare utilization was low and vice versa. In the Lost Boys sample, however, there was not always a distinct correlation between EPR and welfare dependency. The welfare utilization rates in States with the highest refugee employment rates— Massachusetts (100 percent), California (88 percent), Illinois (83 percent), North Carolina and New York (82 percent )—were zero for all but other States which had a utilization rate of 2.2 percent for RCA.

All of the States with lower employment rates reported no welfare utilization. For example, Massachusetts (100 percent) and California (88 percent) had lower employment rates but also had welfare utilization rates of zero.

The findings from ORR’s 2005 survey indicate (as in the previous year) that the Lost Boys faced significant problems upon arrival in the United States, especially the female members of this group.

TABLE III-11 – Lost Boys Employment-to-Population Ratio (EPR) and Welfare Dependency for Top Twelve States

Percent of Individuals (vs. Households) on Welfare

















North Carolina








New York
























Other States








All States








*The State arrival figures are weighted total of individuals in the sample adjusted for non-responses.

**The column totals represent percent of households that received any combination of AFDC, RCA, SSI and/or GA, e.g., if a household received AFDC, RCA, SSI, and GA, he/she is counted four times.

Note: As of December 2005. Not seasonally adjusted. Welfare utilization refers to receipt of public assistance in at least one of the past twelve months. The listed utilization rate for each type of public assistance is the ratio of the number of households (including minor children) receiving such aid to the total number of households in the sample population residing in that State. Because some refugees have difficulty distinguishing between GA and AFDC/TANF, some GA utilization may reflect AFDC/TANF utilization. For data on welfare utilization by household, see Table II-14.

They have, however, made significant strides in achieving independence. Although some spoke at least some English upon arrival, they’re enrollment in ELT’s has diminished a few percentage points compared to 2004, however their gains in English language fluency have been substantial. A great majority (95 percent) report speaking English well or fluently now, with virtually all able to speak at least some English. Their cash assistance utilization, never high in their first year, has continued to drop to where it is approximately six percent now. They have eagerly sought employment, and the few that are currently not working are actively looking for employment.

Technical Note: The Lost Boys of Sudan Survey, with interviews conducted by DB Consulting Group, Inc. in the fall of 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, is a subset of the Annual Survey of Refugees conducted by ORR since 1975. Although respondents from Sudan have traditionally been included into the Annual Survey of Refugees, this is the first time that a single population has been surveyed to track their adjustment to resettlement in the U.S.

In 2002, a random sample was selected from the ORR Refugee Data File of arrivals. ORR's contractor, DB Consulting Group, then contacted the family by a letter in English and a second letter in the refugee's native language. If the person sampled was a child, an adult living in the same household was interviewed. Interviews were conducted by telephone in the refugee's native language. The questionnaire and interview procedures used with this population were the same as the ones employed in the Annual Survey of Refugees.

The original sample of Lost Boys N=350.  We interviewed 68 Lost Boys in the 2005 survey.

[16] The Employment-to-Population Ratio (EPR), also called the employment rate, is the ratio of the number of individuals age 16 or over who are employed (full- or part-time) to the total number of individuals in the population who are age 16 or over, expressed as a percentage.

[17] The labor force consists of adults age 16 or over looking for work as well as those with jobs. The labor force participation rate is the ratio of the total number of persons in the labor force divided by the total number of persons in the population who are age 16 or over, expressed as a percentage.

[18] The median wage for all full-time hourly workers in the U.S. for the fourth quarter of 2002 was $14.57 per hour. The average weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers in the U.S. in 2002 was $14.93 per hour.


Last Reviewed: June 24, 2019