Overcrowded, exhausted and drained

Sara Peck

Luol Deng, a Sudanese forward for the Chicago Bulls, had an immediate fan in Onam Liduba when he came to the United States as a refugee in 2001. He also assumed the mascot was representative of the city, and fervently searched for the famous horned animals for weeks. “I asked one of the people who was showing us around ‘Chicago is the place of bulls, right? I want to see the bulls’ and he just laughed and said ‘no, man.'”

He did, however, get to see the forward play, by Deng’s own personal invitation, perched in a coveted courtside seat as a steady flow of free eats passed through his hands, which Liduba says he never took. “Everything always costs money in America,” he says. “I wanted to be careful so I just said, ‘No thanks.'”Liduba is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, one of thousands of Sudanese children who fled their homeland on foot to Kenya or Ethiopia in search of safety. More than 150 Lost Boys currently reside in Chicago, most in the Rogers Park/Ravenswood area. More than 4,000 Lost Boys came to the United States, settling mostly in Illinois and Michigan, according to Lost Boys Chicago, an advocacy group created to support the refugees after their relocation.

When he was nine years old, Liduba and a group of ragtag children walked more than 1,500 miles to Ethiopia, where they found more war where they expected shelter. The only option was to walk onward to Kenya, where they had heard refugee camps were accepting runaways.

Though Liduba had relative comforts in Chicago – a paycheck, clean sheets and a case worker – his life was still fragmented from his childhood trauma. For six years, Liduba knew his daughter, Acheng, only by infrequent phone calls home to Kakuma, Sudan, during which the now 8-year-old kept asking, ‘Daddy, why did you leave me?’ Acheng was born on the same day her father was relocated to the United States as a refugee after four years in a Kenyan camp. Liduba first met his daughter when she was 6 years old, when he finally became a U.S. citizen and was able to travel back to his home country. Now that Acheng lives in Canada with her mother, Liduba joking beboans the long drives to visit her, punctuated only by snow and bad country music.

In 2001, just a few months after Liduba’s arrival in Chicago, the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois, based in Naperville, was formed to support these new arrivals. However, the conflict in his homeland is far from waning, yet fewer refugees are coming to the United States. The United Nations estimates more than 1.2 million Sudanese were displaced in 2008, though the United States accepted slightly more than 2,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from the country.

The Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005, was a formal end to the war between northern and southern Sudan, and has decreased the quota of Sudanese refugees entering the United States, according to Refugees International. There is also little infrastructure for displaced persons in Sudan – according to Amnesty International, the Sudanese government has expelled more than 10 aid agencies including Save the Children and Oxfam in March alone.

“Since the (Sudan) Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, refugees have stopped coming because of the so-called peace,” he says. “It’s so difficult for the kids there; it’s not the 100 percent peace they say it is, and with the tension in Darfur, people tend to forget about the rest of Sudan.”

Even during the height of Sudanese immigration, Liduba says only 4,000 of the 16,000 Lost Boys who survived were relocated to the United States; the rest were left in camps or were scattered throughout Africa. Liduba has finally found stability in Chicago: a studio apartment that he shares with another Lost Boy, a plasma television and a steady job at a nursing home. Still, he is the exception to the harsh refugee process, not the rule.

“Chicago as a city is really overloaded,” says Christine Deyerler, a Communication senior who interns at World Relief-Chicago, an immigration and refugee aid association that helped Liduba. “Right now they’re taking a lot of Burmese and Iraqi refugees, but not a lot of African ones.”

For those who reach the United States, the first person a new arrival might see is someone such as Deyerler, who often meets refugees up at the airport by prearrangement. The U.S. State Department disseminates highly specific set of services refugees must receive within their first 90 days in the United States, down to the smallest details, such as the number of dishes and mattresses per occupant. The case worker will ferry them to their apartment, the Social Security card office and the grocery store. Within the first week, their children are administered vaccines so they can enroll in school. However, these ready-made accommodations cannot negate the emotional shock of the move.

Though each refugee is filtered through the same homecoming process, they have enjoyed very different lifestyles in their home countries. Some Sudanese, for example, have lived in multiple refugee camps for up to 20 years. Others were upperclass Iraqis who then find themselves in two-room apartments and working minimum wage jobs.

“The first thing my boss said to me was that Chicago is really exhausted,” Deyerler says. “(World Relief) is running out of donations and jobs slowly. Right now they have no furniture and are trying really hard to get more donations. A lot (of refugees) have to keep going off and on public aid to get by.”

The Auyal Community Development offers such assistance. John Maluk Yak, a Lost Boy who joined the organization as vice president in 2001, had his first harsh lesson in American culture soon after enrolling in a public high school. “I didn’t know who was a man and who was a woman since I had never seen (Caucasian) people like that,” he says. “But everyone around me was in pairs, so I went up to someone and said ‘Hey, you’re beautiful!’ He wasn’t a woman, I found out later.” Yak doesn’t reveal exactly what happened next, only that he learned quickly that, “In America, we don’t call boys beautiful.”

Though he says he has acclimated to the United States and is finishing his graduate degree at Lehigh University, Yak says the United States should do more for his homeland. Many other Lost Boys, he says, have had difficulty obtaining loans for college or finding jobs, although they are now U.S. citizens. The association, he says, tries to raise money for refugees to attend college and find jobs. Right now, the organization’s primary goal is to send Lost Boys back to Sudan as relief workers and to revisit their torn pasts.

“They may be dead, I don’t know,” says Yak of his family still in Sudan. “Right now (ACDA) isn’t qualified for the grants to send us back to Sudan, but I will keep trying. If nothing else, I want to see the land where I was born – maybe then, all of this will make sense.”

As of early February, all of their grant applications had been denied.