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State Letter #01-01

Lost Boys: Arrival of Sudanese Youths During FY 2001

Published: January 11, 2001


FROM: Lavinia Limon, Director
Office of Refugee Resettlement

SUBJECT: Lost Boys: Arrival of Sudanese Youths During FY 2001

The purpose of this letter is to inform you of the arrival during FY 2001 of a special population of refugees. More than 3,800 Sudanese youths currently residing in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya are scheduled to begin arriving for resettlement in the near future. Approximately 500 youths have already arrived as unaccompanied refugee minors. The remaining youths over age 18 will begin arriving in January or February. We want you to know a little about this group and their special needs.

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. Beginning in 1987, thousands of these "Lost Boys" of Sudan were driven from their homes and trekked enormous distances over a vast unforgiving wilderness, seeking refuge from forcible conscription.

This extraordinary exodus has its origins in traditional forms of migration. After being initiated 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.

Since the war broke out, this process has 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 feel 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 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 this fall.

About 500 of these youths are currently under the age of 18. Those without adult siblings or other relatives will be placed in the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) program. These youths began arriving in late October and will enter foster care, group homes, or independent living arrangements, as appropriate to their individual needs. Youths under age 18 traveling with an adult sibling or other relative will be subject to a suitability assessment by the voluntary agency responsible for the case. If the assessment concludes that it is more appropriate for the minor to enter foster care under the URM program, the siblings or other relatives will be resettled nearby so that they can maintain regular and ongoing contact with the minor. If the suitability assessment concludes that the minor should remain with his sibling, the voluntary agency will assist the relative to obtain guardianship of the minor.

Sudanese youths not involved in the URM program will begin arriving in late January or early February. This group includes about 150 females. To the extent possible, these youth will be resettled in the same living groups as existed in Kakuma. We expect these youth will arrive in groups of 8-10 and share housing in the US. Most of these youths are from the Dinka and Nuer tribes.

Visitors to the Kakuma camp have remarked that these youths are interested in work and have a genuine desire to better themselves. Most youths speak English, though not fluently. Described as quick learners, they have attended educational classes for several years at the Kakuma camp. Their level of education lags behind the level of education of American youths of the same age. They are said to be highly interested in education, and some may harbor unrealistic expectations of higher education.

Resettlement agencies will enroll those refugees eligible for high school and will encourage all over 18 to seek employment as soon as possible. We expect that these youth will seek out adult education opportunities, but most may need to become financially self-sufficient in the U.S. before pursuing college and university studies.

With the exception of the small number of youths in the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program and an even smaller group eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Lost Boys will be eligible for Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA). States should arrange intensive employment services, targeted towards early self-sufficiency with a view to job upgrades after initial success at entry-level employment.

In media reports, you may have heard or read reports depicting these youths as "child soldiers." This is not an apt description of these boys. Very few, in fact, ever bore arms. They are not familiar with, or comfortable around, weapons. Quite the contrary, they have undertaken enormous risks to avoid becoming soldiers.

In addition, you may hear this group characterized as a traumatized population. Certainly, their long march to safety and the subsequent years of boredom and uncertainty at refugee camps have caused suffering beyond the comprehension of most Americans. Many saw their parents slaughtered by soldiers. Others watched helplessly as their companions on the long journey died of hunger or were attacked by wild animals. Even while at Kakuma, they often spent days without food when their meager rations ran out. After initial arrival, the youths may begin to harbor doubts about themselves and insecurities about the future. They will especially feel the loss of their friends and companions as they are split among cities and households within cities. The memories of their parents, siblings, and companions, now lost to them forever, may cause depression. We should expect that these pastoralists, many of whom have never seen a stairwell or a glass window or paper money will need orientation services far beyond refugees from more Westernized nations. Certainly, most of them will need help dealing with the emotional fallout of their flight, loss of family, and memories of war.

On the other hand, these children have developed a bond among themselves and a keen desire to better themselves and provide for their own future. Visitors to the Kakuma camp have been impressed with their resilience and inner strength. Most will be able to put their problems behind them and adjust to their new life in their adopted country. Others may need more intensive adjustment services. For more information, see the fact sheet on "Refugees from Sudan" on the cultural Orientation web site: www.culturalorientation.net.

As a final note, let me thank you in advance for your efforts on behalf of these boys. Like the approximately 2.3 million refugees who preceded them in to the refugee resettlement program, these young men will endure their share of hopes and anxieties, joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks. Most refugees arrive, knowing that they may never see their homeland again. These young men harbor an additional anxiety. They have lived together for the better part of a decade, forming their own household units and even their own governing councils. From necessity, they bonded securely, bravely facing a bleak future with trusted friends and schoolmates. Now they will be widely dispersed in a vast, strange country. Although resettled with housemates as often as possible, they know that each separation may be long--and perhaps permanent. Our experience with other populations of single young adults leads us to believe that there is a strong possibility of secondary migration for this group.

Many years from now, when friends separated at arrival reunite, they will talk about their initial experiences--their anxieties, their expectations, their feelings of awkwardness and even helplessness. They will share among themselves many memories of their adjustment to life in the U.S.--some very good, perhaps others not so good. But I know that the fondest memories will be reserved for the staff of the U.S. refugee program--the people who took an interest in them and guided them to self-sufficiency and into the mainstream of American life.

Your efforts are recognized and appreciated here at ORR as well.

Last Reviewed: May 15, 2019