- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Wearing aprons is not usually considered a radical concept for most men. But for a group of 17 gangly young Sudanese gathered in the Arlington home of Trish and Jim Christian on Sunday, it was a challenge to their masculinity.

In the Sudan, only women do the cooking.

Just to show it is manly to cook, Mr. Christian donned an apron, then threw in a sentence about doing the dishes. His guests burst into laughter.

"The women don't even want men in the kitchen in Africa," they told him.

The United States is well into its second year of bringing over 3,800 of these African immigrants, dubbed in documentaries and media accounts as the "lost boys" of Sudan. Much has been made of their 14-year sojourn through East Africa's deserts, savannas, battlefields and refugee camps.

But little has been said of the gargantuan leaps they have made from lives as children of primitive cattle herders to 21st-century residents of the world's most powerful city.

The Christians, together with three other parishioners of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va., gave the immigrants a cooking lesson in beef stew and chicken stir fry in order to expand their culinary knowledge beyond the basic fried eggs and spaghetti.

St. Mary's is sponsoring several of these men, many of whom are Anglicans, a worldwide church body of which the U.S. Episcopal Church is a part. Church members have been advising the new arrivals on everything from schooling to shopping. A wish list of their needs is posted on the church bulletin board.

But life has not always been as gracious and welcoming for these onyx-skinned immigrants. Not long ago, they were among the tens of thousands of orphaned children in the border areas of the Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Starting in December 2000, the United States agreed to bring over orphans from the teeming Kakuma refugee camp in western Kenya. Some 83,000 people remain there. Five hundred were transferred into foster care because they were younger than 18, but the rest of the immigrants were given eight months' worth of Medicare and food stamps. After that, they were on their own.

"They are such terrific workers, it is not too hard to keep them employed once employers get on board and know the quality of their work," a State Department employee said. "But it's a constant effort to ensure they are well cared for."

Most of the 21 living in the Washington area were resettled by the Arlington-based Ethiopian Community Development Council. Many more are scattered about the country. A Web site, www.sudanlostboys.com, charts their locales and the churches that have lined up to help them.

A quartet of Sudanese lives in a massive brick complex near Columbia Pike, doing the grunt work of most unskilled immigrants. Their apartment has the basics: used couches, an old computer, a phone, a compact-disc player and piles of donated clothing. A map of southern Sudan on the wall helps them remember back to the day in 1987 when they lost their parents forever.

"We were in a cattle camp," says John Arou, 21. "I was 6 years old. All I saw was people running."

Much like shepherds in the Middle East, small boys are sent to camps to tend cattle in southern Sudan. Sudan has been wracked by civil war since 1983 between forces in the Muslim north and the largely Christian and animist south.

After Islamic militants attacked the cattle camp, the children scattered, forming a vast human herd that wandered toward the Ethiopian border. Most went for days with nothing to eat and hundreds died along the way.

For the next 14 years, Mr. Arou bounced among refugee camps in Ethiopia, Sudan and western Kenya, where he received some schooling, thanks to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He arrived in Virginia on June 12, adapting easily to Washington's steamy summer weather. As the months progressed, his job installing electric wiring in new construction would put him 15 floors high in unheated, drafty buildings.

"The weather was so cold," he says. Some of his friends, who have construction jobs on the massive Mixing Bowl highway interchange in Northern Virginia, tell him they too are miserable working in the elements, he says. But one of those friends, David Majok, 22, has been able to buy a used car and cell phone with the proceeds from that job, which pays union wages.

But with increased wealth comes more headaches. Mr. Majok's car is unusable because the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles will not give him a license. Although he received insurance and a learner's permit before September 11, the DMV changed its rules after that date to insist he produce a passport or birth certificate. But Mr. Majok has only an I-94, a government document that gives his date of arrival and permission to work. All Sudanese were handed this document upon arrival; however, the DMV no longer will accept it.

Mr. Majok takes buses to get to his job and to classes at Northern Virginia Community College, where he is working toward an associate's degree in electrical engineering.

"Most of us are frustrated because we have no funds to pay for education," he says.

Often they have no jobs either, as minimum-wage work has been the first to be cut during the recent economic downturn. Plus, they have been deluged with phone calls from their compatriots in Africa asking for money. Several Sudanese have had to get unlisted numbers as a result.

Most of the Washington immigrants are from the Dinka tribe, which removes the six lower front teeth of its boys as part of a tribal ritual. Mr. Arou has been able to obtain partial dentures but a third friend, Santino Garang Dut, 21, is trying to find a dentist who will replace his teeth free or at a reduced rate. The lowest price tag given so far for such dental implants is $9,000.

Mr. Dut, who works as a dishwasher at the Marriott Jefferson, a rest home in the Ballston area of Arlington, hopes to become an Episcopal priest. He has yet to earn his high school diploma, so the road ahead is long. He fingers a Book of Common Prayer given to him by the Rev. Andrew Merrow, rector at St. Mary's. Mr. Merrow says 25 to 40 parishioners are involved in some way with the refugees. One woman, Dee Emma, treats the Sudanese to weekly boxes of Dunkin' Donuts. Other parishioners who work for the CIA, State Department and on Capitol Hill have smoothed some bureaucratic edges.

"To us, it's been Christian hospitality," the priest says, "entertaining angels unawares."

Despite the uphill battle for existence, the "lost boys" have enjoyed the newness of escalators, planes, movies, skyscrapers and the sheer abundance of food in the markets.

"In our camp in Nairobi," Mr. Dut says, "you'd go two days without."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide