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‘They need me’

Daniela Caride

For Lost Boys of Sudan, education is only part of the solution to help family back home

Adier Anyang had never seen an ATM machine, a bank or even a calculator when he came to America in 2001 as a Sudanese refugee. He had learned numbers by sharing with his classmates the few books available in Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya, where he lived for 10 years with 86,000 other African exiles.

At night, Anyang would study under the light of a kerosene lamp until it was time for the only meal of the day: a ration of whatever grain the United Nations distributed that week. His stomach finally calmed down, he would go to sleep in the grass hut he built with his cousin on the dusty land of the Kenyan desert.

Now Anyang is about to get his college degree in accounting and finance. He has been spending his last days at school studying economics and accounting under the neon lights of the Bunker Hill Community College library. There, he tirelessly reads several books at a time, always accompanied by his cell phone, his calculator and a cup of coffee.

“Education is my life. It’s my future life,” says Anyang, who will earn his degree this summer.

Anyang is one of the 3,800 “Lost Boys of Sudan” — the name given to the orphaned Southern Sudanese children brought to America, the living collateral damage of a civil war that has killed 2 million people since 1983. Most of the Lost Boys left Kakuma believing that education would be the only way to escape extreme poverty and rebuild their lives.

A school under a tree

The Lost Boys spent most of their childhood attending unequipped schools in Kakuma, but they were happy to have a school. Most had never seen one before arriving in camp.

“The two-decade war that ended in January 2005 left Southern Sudan’s infrastructure in tatters,” said UNICEF in an April 2007 press release. “Of the 2,922 schools currently operating in the region, only 16 percent are permanent buildings.”

In many Southern Sudanese villages, children barely get formal education. According to the Sudan Household Health Survey for the South, released last year by the local government, 15.8 percent of primary school-aged children go to school, and just 1.9 percent ever finish it.

Twenty years ago, the Lost Boy Isaac Majak was one of those students in Majok-Chediop, where he was born. And the few who could afford to pay for school there wrote on the sand, says Ellen Morgan, a photographer and scientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who twice traveled with Majak to Africa. Sometimes, she says, they use notebooks that they cut in half in order to have more of them.

“They erase them so they can use them again, and there is one pencil to every 20 children,” remembers Morgan. Classes are held under a tree. When it rains, she adds, there is no school.

Morgan says that education in Southern Sudan is “really very primitive.”

“Most kids don’t go to school,” she says, because they have to take care of the cattle, since the area is mainly rural.

Southern Sudanese villages need everything, says Morgan. “You talk to people and you say, ‘Maybe we could do an exchange program and our school can write letters to them; and they say, ‘No. They don’t have any paper; they don’t have any pens; they don’t have any postal service.’”

Anyang’s only memory of formal education in his homeland is of his father walking his brother, dressed in a uniform, to a school Anyang never saw. His brother was later killed in the war. Anyang went to school for the first time in the refugee camp, when he was about 7 years old.

“There was little food. I was hungry. But not going to school would not change it,” remembers Anyang. “So I would go anyway.”

Life was tough for the Lost Boys at Kakuma. When the United Nations started choosing the ones who would to go to America, joy and hope spread. They believed the ones about to travel would one day be able to help those left behind.

“To study or go to work”

The boys would gather after school to chat about America, where they thought they would have two options — “to study or go to work,” Anyang remembers.

Anyang wanted to study. But when he was put into an apartment in Lynn with two other Lost Boys in April 2001, he quickly learned he forgot an important element in this equation — the cost of living.

“I never thought that someone had to pay for education,” he says, grinning at his long-gone naiveté.

Months later, Anyang started working at a Whole Foods supermarket in Cambridge, where he still works today. Since receiving his first paycheck, Anyang has sent money to his family, whom he found out were alive. He supports seven people — the cousin who lived with him at the camp, his parents, one sister, his brother’s widow, and their two children.

Anyang started saving whatever money was left after paying his bills and sending his contributions to Africa. By 2005, he had enough to enroll at Bunker Hill Community College. He started taking media classes, dreaming of getting a degree in communications. But culture and language were big barriers.

“I didn’t understand deadlines and the way teachers taught,” remembers Anyang in now nearly flawless English.

His experience was common. Cultural differences might have been the biggest challenge for the Lost Boys of Sudan when starting to study in America, says Susan Winship, founder and director of the Sudanese Education Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Lincoln. Southern Sudanese refugees weren’t used to written education because they come from an oral culture, she adds.

“They speak Dinka. They don’t write Dinka,” says Winship about the Lost Boys’ native language.

Anyang’s poor performance in communication made him reevaluate his chosen path. And since numbers are numbers anywhere, he felt more comfortable when he started studying accounting.

“Maybe I will double-major,” says Anyang, still thinking of taking media courses at Bunker Hill. He is also considering pursuing a master’s degree.

Anyang enjoys paying for his education. He thinks it’s the best investment he could make on himself. But financial restrictions have forced him to slow down in college and continually postpone his long-awaited return to Africa.

“I wanted to visit my family last summer,” says Anyang, who hasn’t seen his parents and siblings for 20 years. “But I couldn’t save money, because I have to pay for my college.”

Helping Africa first

Overcoming the financial challenges at home can be tricky as well. Some of the Lost Boys who saved enough to visit relatives return distraught. After witnessing starvation and disease among loved ones, the Lost Boys feel compelled to work even harder, putting their studies aside.

Isaac Majak is one of them. After visiting Sudan in 2005, he dropped out of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston, where he was studying electrical engineering, to work three jobs.

“They need me,” said Majak in an interview a year ago.

Morgan says Majak “is an important person” in his village, where he is known as “Monynhiek” — the Man of Tomorrow.

“He supports 17 people, and they call him all the time to make all kinds of decisions,” she says.

In the United States, Majak lives as modestly as possible to save every penny. Before leaving for Sudan in March, Majak was working 112 hours a week. In America, he barely stays at home, usually staying at Morgan’s house in Lincoln. He sleeps less than three hours a day, mainly between one job and another, on his way to work inside the bus or the train.

“He’s always working. He never eats and he never sleeps,” adds Morgan.

It’s not what he wants for himself. He still hopes to go back to Benjamin Franklin. But for now, he is focusing on spreading hope throughout Majok-Chediop, by taking the first steps toward building a school there.

During Majak’s third trip to Africa, from which he will return in May, he and Morgan carried the fabric, scissors and buttons necessary for school uniforms. Last year, Majak also delivered to the village school supplies and clothes from a fundraiser he promoted with the help of Belmont High School, where he studied.

He sent non-electric sewing machines as well, for local women to start their own businesses after taking classes with a tailor that Morgan is paying. The uniforms, she says, are very important to villagers in Southern Sudan, since children cannot attend school naked.

“A lot of them don’t have something to wear. Some use a towel, a piece of sheet, anything that [they] could wear,” says Morgan. “And sometimes they share, like two sisters [I met]: one would go to school one day, and one would go to school the other day.”

The Lost Boys of Sudan “feel a strong sense of urgency,” says Joan Hecht, founder of the nonprofit organization The Alliance for The Lost Boys of Sudan.

“They want their people to survive,” adds Hecht, whose book, “The Journey of the Lost Boys: A Story of Courage, Faith and the Sheer Determination to Survive by a Group of Young Boys Called ‘The Lost Boys of Sudan,’” won first place in education at the Promoting Outstanding Writers International Book Awards.

That sense of urgency grew in Peter Nhiany after a trip to meet his family in 2006, after 19 years apart. Nhiany’s parents and eight other family members — four of them small children — also had to travel to see him, since they lived in Koboko Refugee Camp, located in an area of Uganda that Nhiany could not reach safely.

To meet Nhiany in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, they walked 10 miles to a bus stop and waited 24 hours, since the first bus was full. When they finally arrived, two days had passed without them eating or drinking any water. Some of them were also sick.

“Everybody was crying,” remembers Nhiany, who spent days with them at the hospital having them treated for malnourishment and diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

After coming back from his one-week trip, like Majak, Nhiany also felt more compelled than ever to help his family and fellow Africans. Nhiany, however, decided to use the academic environment to further his cause.

To study and to work

In 2006, along with a group of fellow students, Nhiany organized a new club at Curry College in Milton, where he is a junior. The club focused on increasing awareness and activism regarding extreme world poverty, and established a first goal of raising money to build a well in Nhiany’s village, Bor. He recalls that villagers have to walk for hours to get water, carrying buckets on their heads.

“People need clean water … and there is no foods and no medicines,” says Nhiany. “Our people are suffering … There’s a lot of things that need to be done.”

Nhiany wrote a letter on behalf of the club to high profile people from all over the country asking for money. He hopes the project will get the necessary funds to build the well by the end of the spring.

Nhiany is also taking care of immediate family needs, sending to Africa all the money he earns in temporary jobs.

He worked the overnight shift at the Marriott Hotel in Cambridge in the summer of 2006, and at the Department of Public Works in Lincoln last summer. This winter, he also shoveled the sidewalks at Curry and helped the maintenance staff.

He sends all he earns to his three sisters and one brother, their 12 children and his parents.

“There is virtually no medical care in the area of South Sudan where they are from,” says Jeanette Cohan, medical research administrator at Harvard and Nhiany’s guardian. “His family is very large and they are dependent upon him to provide money for food, housing and medical expenses.”

“Peter’s newfound responsibility is a huge burden on him, but he … accepts it willingly and works very hard to send the money his family needs,” she adds.

A thousand-mile walk

Nhiany learned early in life what is like to be in need. He was separated from his family in 1987, and was about 3 years old when he started a three-month journey on foot through the wilderness of Sudan to escape a massive attack of northern Sudanese groups. Arab Muslims from the north were fighting against black Christians from the south.

Nhiany and Anyang, who was about 7 at the time, trekked more than 1,000 miles to Ethiopia along with other 25,000 people — most of them small children — looking for a safer place. Thousands died from starvation, thirst and militia attacks.

“Seeing people, like, your age die … is extremely bad. Then you have to deal with it,” says Anyang.

“I may be next,” he remembers thinking while walking with his cousin.

“So you do the best that you can to keep alive and keep moving.”

After three years in Ethiopia, their refugee camp was attacked and people had to run again, this time 1,000 miles back to Sudan. “Many, many more died” walking back, says Anyang. They succumbed to natural predators like lions, hyenas and crocodiles, or drowned while crossing rivers during the rainy season.

At the Sudanese border, the United Nations rescued nearly 12,000 survivors, sending them in trucks to the Kakuma camp in Kenya. Nhiany and Anyang lived there with little food or education until 2001.

When transferred to the United States, Anyang was placed in Lynn. Nhiany went to Chelsea, but was soon relocated to Lincoln, into Jeanette Cohan’s family.

“He needed to be in a more protected environment, and he also wanted to go to school so desperately,” recalls Cohan.

Nhiany went to high school and Anyang to college, where both reaffirmed their belief in the rippling effect that education can produce in society.

“Now in Africa, you see a huge number of people sick from HIV and malaria … Because they’re not educated, they don’t know what they’re doing,” says Nhiany. “We need to teach them about, like, how to protect themselves against diseases.”

Anyang agrees. He thinks life would improve if people had access to education, especially in developing countries like Sudan.

“Education can bring a lot of changes not only in [your] personal life, but also in the community. It can make life easier,” he says.

“If you want to make your life better, your community and your country better, you have to go to school,” he adds. “You have to go to school to make a difference.”