When the Lost Boys of Sudan arrived in America, they had never seen cars, stoves or packaged food. But with the help of the Interfaith Refugee Ministry, 27 of them have resettled in New Haven since 1999 and are now hoping to have their GEDs by May.
In 1992, a wave of about 10,000 young Sudanese men began arriving at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, having lost their parents in a civil war in their own country. These refugees became known by aid organizations as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
The New Haven branch of the Interfaith Refugee Ministry resettles about 200 refugees annually from 20 different countries. This year, the organization has been especially focused on helping to resettle some of the thousands of Lost Boys who have come to the United States in the last two years.
By the end of this year, the Lost Boys are expected to be the largest resettled group of unaccompanied refugee children in history,
“These boys have seen more than we can imagine,” said Carol Brown, the ministry’s education coordinator in New Haven. Brown has started her own class to help New Haven’s Lost Boys get their GEDs, using the help of other volunteers to teach them on Wednesday nights.
Curiously, there are not really any “Lost Girls.” Executive Director Sharon Mackwell attributed this fact to the Sudanese practice of the “bride price” — a sort of reverse dowry in which the groom’s family pays the bride’s family for the loss of her labor. Women refugees are thus quick to be absorbed by other families, so they generally do not make it to the United States.
The Lost Boys living in New Haven range in age from 18 to 28 and the Interfaith Refugee Ministry tries to keep them in the family-like groups that they have formed in their years as refugees. Providing apartments and instruction, the ministry seeks to help the refugees adapt to American ways of life.
“We have to do a lot of teaching,” Mackwell said. “Many of these boys had been in the refugee camp since they were 10 years old and lived a life of extreme dependence.”
She added that in Sudan, a man is not considered an adult until he is married.
“We consider an adult to be 18 or 21, but in Sudan, these young men are still children,” Mackwell said. “Independent life can be a hard sell.”
The Lost Boys are expected to work part-time or full-time jobs in order to pay the rent of the apartments the ministry has found for them. In addition to these jobs, the young men all want to get their high school diplomas.
“In Kakuma, they felt that if they didn’t have parents, education was the thing that would empower them,” Brown said.
One of the ways that Interfaith helps the refugees is by teaching them the basics of living in an apartment in an American city. Mackwell said the Lost Boys have difficulties with American food — initially, they do not recognize some foods when canned and not in their natural states.
“You have to assume they know nothing about the basics,” Mackwell said. “We show them how the showers, stoves and toilets work. There’s just so much for them to absorb at once.”
Mackwell and Brown said the most difficult part of helping the Lost Boys is refraining from helping them too much.
“When you first meet them, you want to give them the world, but you have to empower them and not cripple them by love,” Brown said.