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Community center to help Lost Boys stay connected

Daniela Caride

ARLINGTON — Created by the Lincoln-based nonprofit Sudanese Education Fund (SEF), the Southern Sudanese Community Center, located here, is intended to be a place where the Lost Boys of Sudan who have come to Greater Boston can keep their culture alive.

The Lost Boys are a group of 3,800 orphaned Southern Sudanese youngsters brought to America in 2001 to escape a civil war that has killed 2 million people since 1983. As black Christians, they were being persecuted by Arab Muslims from the north. Two hundred of them live in the Boston area.

“This is now your home,” says Susan Winship, founder and director of the SEF, surrounded by dozens of refugees and their friends.

According to Winship, the idea to establish a community center came after some Lost Boys raised a concern about not having a place to pray together.

“They want to get together and pray in Dinka,” their native dialect, says Winship. “There’s really no place to do that.”

Daniel Diing, a 28-year-old Lost Boy who now lives in Malden, thinks the center will help preserve Southern Sudanese traditions among refugees in Boston.

“Our community is growing. There’s a different generation coming up [that] has to know their background and their culture,” he says, worried about offspring of Sudanese parents who haven’t yet learned Dinka.

But the community center — a condo with six communal rooms and a large kitchen — is much more than a spiritual place. It is where the Lost Boys will gather, socialize, exchange ideas and organize themselves, says Winship.

“They are all over Boston and … it’s hard to get together and just talk,” she says. “They are so isolated. Even though you might have three or four sharing an apartment, they are all working a million hours, going to school. They’re just so busy.”

Most of the Lost Boys of Sudan also work to support their families in Sudan, sometimes working three jobs to send as much money as they can back home. Some of them are also studying.

Diing says he will shuffle his work schedule at the events department of the downtown Boston Marriott Copley Place hotel to be able to visit the center. He wants to attend computer classes. He has basic knowledge, he says, but needs to learn more.

The center is offering workshops on computer skills such as how to use e-mail, the Internet, digital cameras and Skype, a voice communication program that allows users to make calls from their computer to others’ phones or computers. Soon, the center will provide advanced computer workshops, as well as personal finance, resume writing and job-hunting classes.

The SEF plans to broaden the center’s offerings by partnering with different organizations. Some are already joining — the Arlington Police Department will soon offer a workshop on personal safety for the Sudanese.

It will also be a place to study, says Winship. Volunteers from Brandeis and Tufts universities that tutor Sudanese refugees can now meet with them at the center.

Other volunteers are planning artistic activities here, she says, such as a family art day and classes to make dioramas of a Sudanese village. One of the goals is to add to the center’s art gallery, now featuring 35 Sudanese paintings, with art developed by the Lost Boys in the future.

Winship believes the community center will help the Lost Boys achieve both personal and group goals. The refugees have created several associations nationwide to defend their interests, such as helping fellow Africans in need, and finding a place to discuss their issues had been a problem until now.

“This center is very important. … When we talk, [it] is about home,” says 25-year-old Emmanuel Deng.

Deng works in Framingham for the New England Center for Children as a counselor monitoring autistic kids, and studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He lives with his wife and son two blocks away from the community center, which he plans to visit as much as possible.

“If you come here, you will see me,” says Deng. He is enthusiastic about the new space, surrounded by paintings and photographs of Sudan on the walls as well as by African musical instruments.

Winship thought Arlington would be a good location to get the Sudanese and the American communities together: The SEF needed a place close to the Western suburbs — where most of the SEF donors live — and the towns where Sudanese refugees live and work.

Arlington was also the first home for many of the Lost Boys, she adds. The local Lutheran and Baptist churches helped resettle some of them when they arrived in the United States in 2001, and helped organize several events for the Sudanese community.

“Arlington has been a welcoming community,” says Winship. “And it’s … easily accessible, parking is good and it’s safe.

“Now we can be a real resource center for them … and help them with what they need to become independent.”

Independence has its price, though. The Lost Boys are already raising funds to ensure the center stays open. A donor gave the SEF $300,000 to pay the full costs of the space and a manager for two years, and to cover half of those costs for another two years.

The Sudanese community needs to raise $100,000 to keep the center open during years three and four, says Winship. But she is optimistic, saying there’s a chance that contributions from another donor will reduce the bill to $25,000.

Establishing the community center is just the most recent of many steps the SEF has taken to help the Sudanese living in the Boston area. It has given out about 190 computers and over $460,000 in grants for tuition and books to refugees.

Now, Winship is aiming to gradually give the Lost Boys more responsibilities and opportunities.

“The long-term goal is that we will train enough Sudanese to take over the space and the organization,” she says.