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New struggle in the U.S.

'Lost Boys' of Sudan escaped civil war and came to America, with challenges less brutal but no less real.

August 19, 2003|David Weddle | Special to The Times

"I cannot say if America is good or America is bad," Peter Nyarol Dut, a 17-year-old refugee from Sudan's horrific civil war, declares about halfway through the heart-wrenching documentary "Lost Boys of Sudan." The documentary shows America through the eyes of two Sudanese refugees who come from a culture so vastly different they might as well be visitors from another planet.

As depicted in the film, which has a one-week Academy Award-qualifying run at the Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas starting Friday, the strange new world the refugees encounter in the U.S. is by turns warm and embracing, perplexing, absurd and chilling.

Peter is one of 17,000 so-called Lost Boys -- the sons of Dinka and Nuer tribesmen who fled their villages when Muslim troops from northern Sudan swept through the south on an ethnic-cleansing campaign in the late 1980s. Peter was 4 years old when Muslims attacked his village. The raiders murdered his father and Peter became separated from his mother and sister when he ran into the nearby forest to escape the death squads. He joined a vast procession of orphaned boys, ranging in age from 4 to 10, who made their way on foot across 1,000 miles of some of the most forbidding terrain in Africa.

More than 7,000 of them died -- shot by Muslims, eaten by lions and crocodiles, or wasted by starvation and disease -- before the survivors found safe haven in a Kenyan refugee camp, where they lived for more than 10 years.

In 2001 the U.S. government and a network of relief agencies flew nearly 3,600 Lost Boys to America with the promise that they would be able to pursue higher education and build new lives for themselves. They arrived in cities as diverse as San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Fargo, N.D., and took in America's technological marvels with wide, astonished eyes. Many had never used a telephone, driven a car, or seen an escalator. They shook their heads in disbelief when confronted with cavernous supermarkets overflowing with more food than they ever dreamed existed.

The first flurry of press coverage painted their arrival in the U.S. in the rosy hues of a happy-ever-after ending: The Lost Boys had suffered inconceivable brutality and deprivation, but they had been delivered at last to the promised land.

Or had they?

Safe but feeling lost

Documentary filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk suspected the real story of the Lost Boys in America would be more complex. "Imagine for a moment if you were in their position," Shenk says. "Imagine yourself landing in America with no financial resources and no support network. Strip away your parents, your family, education, money, housing, friends, neighbors who know you, all worldly possessions, language -- take all that away and what have you got left? How do you go about surviving?"

Mylan and Shenk decided to find out by filming two Lost Boys, Peter Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, from the day they left their refugee camp in Kenya on a flight for Houston through their first 14 months in the U.S.

Shot and edited in a restrained cinema-verite style, "Lost Boys of Sudan" displays a keen eye for detail and a facility for conveying the texture of a particular time and place, whether it be Kakuma refugee camp, a Houston slum, or a lily-white suburban high school outside of Kansas City. The refugees' initial euphoria over the wonders of the new world soon gives way to creeping malaise as they realize that beneath the glitter and gloss America can be a tough and unforgiving place.

They find themselves trapped in the minimum-wage sinkhole, working long night shifts at plastics factories slapping together circuit boards, or pushing serpentine lines of shopping carts across the black-topped wasteland of Wal-Mart parking lots, living three and four to an apartment, barely surviving and unable to afford even the modest tuition of community college classes.

Five months after arriving, Peter Dut vents his frustration to his fellow Sudanese. "I came here to the United States. I thought I was coming to get education. I thought I was coming to try and gain something to help my people. But we don't get. We're just working for nothing."

Slumped deep into a Salvation Army couch in a shabby low-rent apartment, another Lost Boy agrees. "In the media, they're saying that the U.S. is helping Southern Sudan by bringing us here for education. They've got plenty of schools here, but you can't get in."

In the movie, Peter and Santino react to the challenges of American life in dramatically different ways. "Peter is determined to succeed," Mylan explains. "He is driven and aggressive, and nothing is going to hold him back. He wants to be a success for himself and so that he can someday help his people and country, but he has a little bit of a by-whatever-means-necessary attitude. He's totally comfortable bending the rules."

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