A place to call home

Abbie Vansickle

Two months ago, 23-year-old Cornelius Ngore had his first taste of ice cream. He got his first glimpse of a McDonald’s and his first chance to use a telephone. He watched his first sitcom and fell in love with the taste of pizza. He discovered with surprise that Americans don’t have colonies on the moon.

Two months ago, this Sudanese refugee also got his first look at the Statue of Liberty, a signal of hope to him that he’d finally reached a land free from the war, starvation and hatred that defined his world.

As the bone-thin man navigated his way through this foreign land where doors seemed to open by themselves and screens flashed messages in a language he had just learned, Ngore trusted the United Nations and the Ethiopian Community Association to help him find a home, a job and a new life.

These agencies, along with the United States Refugee Program, helped bring Ngore from a Kenyan refugee camp of mud huts and missionaries to Chicago, a place he’d only heard of in history book depictions of the Industrial Revolution.

After 10 years in the Kenyan camp, Ngore arrived in Evanston on Aug. 10 with three other Sudanese refugees – all of them relieved to leave their crowded and war-torn homeland, all scared for their futures.

Ngore and his three friends are part of a unique group of refugees referred to by aid organizations, the government and the media as the Lost Boys of Sudan. This group of 17,000 boys trekked hundreds of miles from their villages in southern Sudan to Ethiopia in 1987 to escape fighting between the Islamic fundamentalist government in the Arab north and Christian groups and the guerrilla Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the south. The boys were separated from their families when their villages were attacked by Islamic forces.

But the camps in Ethiopia were headed not by the Ethiopian government, but by the SPLA, which forced the boys to train for its military.

In 1991, conflict broke out in Ethiopia, forcing the Ethiopian government to shut down the camps and leaving the boys stranded in the foreign nation. Left with few options, some tried to return to Sudan, while others fled to Kenya.

By 1992, 10,500 of the boys had reached Kenya, where they were rounded up and settled into the Kakuma camp near the Sudan-Kenyan border. Homeless and parentless, the boys had walked more than 1,000 miles in their search for peace.

Nine years later, the majority of the boys now are in their mid-20s, and the education they’ve received in the camp has made them foreigners to traditional African society, according to a statement from Refugees International.

Instead of learning to herd cattle and hunt, the boys attended schools run by U.S. missionaries and the United Nations, getting an education in history, English language and Western culture. The U.S. government and several international organizations are trying to find permanent settlement for the boys who now are men. This year, 3,000 of them will come to the United States, hoping to find a home.

Ngore said he was 9 years old when soldiers raided his village in 1987. In the confusion that followed, he was separated from his parents and siblings and wandered blindly into the dense African bush.

“There were several days with no food and no water,” he said. “We walked naked. No one knew where we were going. … Many of us were eaten by lions. To survive, I ate grass and plants.”

After several days the boys were discovered by Ethiopian soldiers, who asked Ngore where he was going.

“I’m going to an unknown place,” he said, after which the soldiers led the boys to a camp in Ethiopia where they were given clothing, water and a little food.

Ngore stayed in the camp for four years, until war forced him to flee again, this time back toward war-torn Sudan, which he called “a country divided in two.” The journey lasted for three months, as the boys followed a river in southern Sudan, hoping to find a settlement.

As time wore on, Ngore said he began to despair.

“I became hopeless. I thought, this is the end of life,” he said. “Sometimes I wished I’d die that day.”

Finally, traveling only in the darkness of night with the aid of the American Red Cross, the boys crossed into Kenya, where they were placed into a refugee camp with people from across all of Africa. They were given food and an education. Ngore received his high school education there.

Ngore stayed in the camp for 10 years, learning English and making friends with the three men with whom he would travel to freedom: Marco Well, 24; Manud Akol, 23; and Stephen Makombo Deng, 22. He also was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church.

After his baptism he began to spend most of his time at church, teaching Sunday school and writing scripts for church dramas. It was there that two American nuns convinced him to apply to come to the United States through the United States Refugee Program.

But even after learning of his acceptance, Ngore still had doubts about traveling to the United States.

“I didn’t want to come to the United States,” he said. “I feared life there would be much the same as life in Africa.

“If it was all war and fighting everywhere, I said to myself, ‘What is the point in traveling all that way?’ I had to believe.”

Ngore fought his fears and in early August, he and his three friends stepped onto a plane, beginning a journey that took them into a different world.

After switching planes in Belgium, they arrived in New York, where they received government documents describing their situation and assigning their Social Security numbers.

It was in New York that they got a glimpse into the challenges of their new lives. Navigating their way through the airport, they saw their first escalator.

“We saw this metal piece. I thought it would cut my leg off,” said Ngore, a grin spreading across his face.

After flying into Chicago, they saw their first set of automatic doors and ate their first McDonald’s hamburgers.

Then they arrived in Evanston, where they had their first tastes of spaghetti, pizza and doughnuts. They celebrated their first Mass in the United States at St. Nicholas Church in Evanston. They got their first jobs, performing entry-level tasks such as washing dishes and busing tables. They got their first apartment just off Howard Street. They spent an entire day learning to use a telephone.

But not all of their first experiences were pleasant. They also spent their first night in a land where stars are shut out by the glow of city lights.

“There seems to be no difference between night and day here,” Deng said. Sitting on a sagging couch in their apartment, he pointed at the overhead light, puzzled that the light still worked when the sun went down.

They also had their first meeting with the Evanston police, who made it their mission to introduce the men to U.S. culture.

“We’ve adopted them,” said Sgt. Sam Pettineo. “We wanted to make sure they are going to feel welcomed by the police.”

He said several officers are planning events for the men, such as taking them to a movie. He also said he notified the Chicago police about the men, so the police can try to watch out for them.

Parishioners from St. Nicholas also said they’re looking out for the men.

“They walked into Mass the Sunday after the Sept. 11 tragedies,” said Margaret Feit Clarke, a volunteer staff member at the church.

“Amidst the turbulence, these guys just dropped into our lives,” she said, smiling.

Feit Clarke offered to help the men look for a better apartment this week. She spent the day with them Thursday, calling several apartment buildings, praying they will be able to find a low-rent apartment in Evanston.

But she said anything is better than their current home, a tiny four-room apartment where the gas stove leaks and the only security measure is the duct tape wrapped around the wrought-iron entrance gate.

Feit Clarke said she feels privileged to be able to help the men.

“Being with these guys – they’re just wonderful people,” she said. “It’s been an education for me on how people come to this country with so little.

“When you actuall
y realize what kind of privilege you enjoy because you have money and your skin is a certain color – well, I always knew it, but now I feel it … in my gut.”