KAKUMA, Kenya — For the past eight years, 17-year-old Martin Marial has shared a small mud-and-thatch hut with five other boys in a dusty, fly-infested refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.
His parents are long dead. His bed has been a wicker mat; his bath, a tin bowl; his toilet, a hole in the ground; his one meal a day, a mushy mixture of ground corn and water.
But his life has been consumed by one obsession: getting a good education.
On Sunday, he will make what he hopes is the first step toward achieving that goal, embarking on an incredible journey from despair to hope.
Martin is one of about 3,800 Sudanese--mostly teenage boys and young men--who became dubbed the "lost boys of Sudan" for their wanderings through the war zones and refugee camps of East Africa. Over the coming months, they will be resettled across the United States. Martin is in the first group of 29.
"I'm excited because I am expecting some major changes in my life," said the lanky youth, who is headed for Philadelphia. "I will no longer face starvation and disease. I will be able to go to school. My life will be different."
Not only different. Martin and his "brothers" face a crucial test of adaptability and a major break with an existence shaped by uncertainty and hardship. They are about to undertake the quintessential immigrant experience: trying to make it in America.
Those who have worked with the young Sudanese expect that the resilience they've already shown and the support of a network of Sudanese immigrants in the U.S. will help them overcome culture shock.
But for now, 15 hours of intensive cultural orientation have left them with huge questions: How will they fit in? Will they be able to communicate with the stilted and bookish English they've learned? Will girls like them?
Their story is as unusual as the decision that is now shaping their future. It is the first time that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has opted to resettle such a large number of unaccompanied refugee children from the same camp. Those older than 18 make up one of the largest groups of refugees with a similar profile that has ever been allowed to resettle in the United States at the same time.
Displaced Youths Spend Years in Flight
The youths have been together for 12 years. Most of them, now orphaned, survived raids on their villages by Arab militias from northern Sudan when they were just kids. They trekked to neighboring Ethiopia, where they joined masses of southern Sudanese already settled in dreary refugee camps.
But civil war in Ethiopia forced them to flee back to Sudan, where they banded together by the thousands. With some of the boys as young as 6, they wandered the barren plains of southern Sudan for more than three years, finally ending up at the Kenyan border, and eventually in Kakuma, where they have lived as a huge family ever since.
"Their history is what makes them so unique: the circumstances of their flight, the fact that they were so young when they fled," said Preeta Law, a Nairobi-based regional resettlement officer with UNHCR.
The agency prefers to send such refugees home or settle them in the country where the camp is located. But neither is an option for the "lost boys,' who are mostly from the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups.
Civil war in Sudan, territorially Africa's largest country, has dragged on for about 17 years, pitting rebels from the predominantly black African, animist and Christian south against the Muslim and Arab north. Southerners want increased autonomy, exemption from Islamic laws, and a fair share of development money. An estimated 1.9 million people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
Kenya already has been flooded by refugees from nearby countries, including Sudan and Somalia. Prospects are bleak in Kakuma, home to about 68,000 refugees from seven countries. Unwilling to join rebel fighters and estranged from their tribal culture, the youths lack the means to support themselves or establish their own families.
Most have not undergone traditional Sudanese male initiation rites that normally take place at age 13 and typically involves facial scarring and the removal of several lower front teeth. Therefore, even those who have reached their early 20s are considered children by their elders. In addition, none own cows, which are needed for a dowry.
"They can't marry because they don't have a dowry to pay. They don't have a family or community to vouch for their character. They feel education will provide a substitute for these things," said Sasha Chanoff, a trainer for the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, which organizes cultural orientation classes.
A Chance for a Better Future
Aid workers, teachers, Sudanese elders and U.S. officials familiar with the case all consider resettlement the only way to avoid wasting the youths' lives.