Friday, November 16, 2001

The highly publicized “Lost Boys” of Sudan have yet to find security in their new home base, but they have found something of greater value a friend and advocate in 15-year-old Lisa Orenstein.

“When I read about their story, I pretty much started crying,” said the altruistic D.C. teen-ager. “It didn’t feel right to just send a check. I had to do something.”

That “something” not only included spending all her summer afternoons tutoring the five Sudanese boys who arrived in the District in April from a U.N. refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. It also includes sponsoring a fund-raiser this weekend to help them meet their living expenses.

You see, their government grants have expired and those who were able to find jobs in the service industry in the Crystal City section of Arlington were laid off after the September 11 attacks on America.

Visiting these intelligent and gracious young men in their tiny, basement apartment in Adams Morgan, it was immediately clear that their needs are many, though they are much too modest to seek assistance. While their most pressing need is generating income to pay the $2,000 monthly rent on what passes for an English basement, they are also in need of educational and social services to help them adapt to their new cultural surroundings.

Lively Lisa is among the few who have taken up the cause of John, Simon, Mac, Phillip and Zachariah. St. Stephen’s Incarnation Church, where several attend, has also helped them with the rent last month.

Let’s back up a second. The “Lost Boys” were so dubbed by the media because these children spent the better portion of their young lives fleeing war and famine as they sought a safe haven. Lisa and her mother, Denise, discovered their lifelong plight in an article in the New York Times.

As a result of civil war in Sudan in the late 1980s, more than 17,000 children escaped their homeland by walking thousands of miles over treacherous terrain to Ethiopia. Their parents were killed and their sisters either killed or sold into slavery. They remained in refugee camps until war broke out in Ethiopia at the height of the rainy season. They trekked back toward Sudan, where there was renewed unrest which forced them to find their way to Kenya, where they lived in U.N. camps for eight years.

Most know only the month they were born, not the year, so they range in age from approximately 16 to 21. Most went without shoes, clothing or water and were attacked by wild animals during their ordeal.

The U.S. State Department agreed to resettle more than 3,000 of the “Lost Boys” early last year. The inquisitive Lisa started researching their whereabouts to find out if any of them were brought to the Washington area. Indeed, five were living in Adams Morgan under the auspices of Abdulaziz Kamus, program manager of the Ethiopian Community Development Council. Some also reside in Arlington.

Just when these refugees thought they had come to a country where “the law rules,” as Simon said, and they were beginning to maneuver in this new land, their lives were disrupted once again.

Denise Orenstein said, “The government brought them over here and subcontracted with an agency, essentially one person, and I thought there would be a line to help them.” More than anything, these young men want an education. Several want to be doctors or lawyers, but affable Phillip, who has a penchant for computers, is destined to be a politician, judging from our discussion about global wars.

Beside helping them with reading and writing English, Lisa taught them how to ride a bicycle, use computers, shop and cook. They had never seen cereal in a box, she said, and going to the grocery store was a real adventure, since they once had to make do for seven persons with a cob of corn, yeast and some wheat.

“I really like people, helping people, and these boys really needed my help. It was a matter of life and death,” Lisa said.

Currently, Lisa is collecting warm clothing and old bicycles for the young men. With the help of her proud mother, Lisa sent out 500 invitations to the event “to honor” them because “they are not immigrants, they are heroes.”

In planning the event, she argued against showing video clips of the atrocities they suffered because she did not want to focus on their past, but on their future.

“I think we should honor them, not for who they are, not for just what they’ve been through,” said this wise youngster. “We shouldn’t pity them. We should admire them. I know I would have died” under the same circumstances.

As Lisa rattles off the talents and interests of her new friends, she says they are “all smart and motivated.” No joke. How else could they have survived?

Though Lisa must complete 60 hours of community service work before graduating from Georgetown Day School, where she has been a student since she was 3, she refuses to count her interaction with her new friends toward that requirement.

Only a freshman, she’s already completed 300 hours of volunteer service, primarily at D.C. Central Kitchen and the Brighton Manor Retirement Home, and as a reading tutor in D.C. public schools. Lisa’s dream is to travel, especially to Africa and the Kakuma camps, because she loves to learn about different people and cultures. “I don’t think I could live my life being around the same people who are like me all the time,” she said.

Mrs. Orenstein is understandably proud of her perky offspring. “It’s really unusual to find someone her age who gets so much joy herself out of reaching out to others,” she said.

Surely, Simon, Phillip, John, Mac and Zachariah would agree that as their journey takes them across new ground in their new home, it’s a good thing they were found by a friend in lively Lisa Orenstein.

For information about the fund-raiser to be held at the Ethiopian Community Development Council offices at 2437 15 St. NW from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, call 202/483-0780.

mAdrienne T. Washington’s e-mail address is

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