"I will learn to act how my new friends act, but I will not forget our Dinka culture. When I come back, I'll remember our ways."
Those are the words of Peter Nyarol Dut, one of 20,000 Sudanese children orphaned by 20 years of civil war, as he speaks in an upcoming PBS documentary to his brothers before leaving for America.
In September 2001, the United States sponsored nearly 4,000 Dinkan children (now young adults), dubbed "Lost Boys," and placed them in refugee assistance programs across the nation. The Lost Boys' families were killed by northern Islamic extremists who've been waging a slow battle of forced Islamization against southern Sudanese Christian and animist peoples.
The Lost Boys and their surviving elders crossed roughly 10,000 miles of harsh desert to be received into Kenyan refugee camps, where they would spend a decade mourning their losses and awaiting foreign asylum.
Lost Boys of Sudan, produced by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk, follows the struggles of Santino Majok Chuor and Dut as they adapt to new ways of living in America. We join the two protagonists at mealtime on their first airplane flight as they sift through cellophane, asking, "What is this stuff?" A walk through a Houston, Texas, grocery store reveals further wonder, whereas a demonstration of common household appliances welcomes intrigued laughter.
After a few months of adjustment and absorption, Peter and Santino offer innocent observations about their new home and new neighbors. Such occurrences as being robbed by fellow black Americans lead to sobering confirmations of their elders' advice: "Don't act like those people who wear the baggy jeans." Old Sudanese habits such as boys holding hands while walking now become faux pas, and pieces of their old culture fall away.
We begin to understand the awkward situation in which friends left behind in Sudan expect impossible sums of money to be sent while Santino and Peter fight to keep up with school, work and maintaining a community. A nagging sense of needing to achieve and give back to their Sudanese people haunts the boys as they forge separate paths within their new freedom. Two million slain countrymen and a tired Sudan People's Liberation Army rely on this generation of Lost Boys to preserve a culture.
Disillusionment adorns the face of Santino as he fails to pass a driving test and drudges through mindless labor to make his rent. Having survived famine, military assaults and lion attacks on his journey to live, he now laments the difficulty of simple tasks to keep his head above water in America.
Lost Boys of Sudan forces its audience to confront the reality of displaced persons in the world and society's responsibility to their plight. The filmmakers inform us that there are more than 15 million refugees in need worldwide, as vast communities of peoples in exodus await assistance. Terrorist groups and intolerant religious factions push campaigns of systematic genocide, while much of the world lacks the awareness or ability to simply locate the ailing regions on map.
Shenk and Mylan maintain a refreshingly objective approach to the Lost Boys' story. Rather than getting political and reproaching the radical Islamic factions in heavy-handed fashion, they focus instead on the Lost Boys' transition into the new world. The poignancy comes through without force and at film's end one doesn't feel as if his or her arm has been twisted -- the characters speak for themselves.
-- Matthew Schniper
Lost Boys of Sudan
Tuesday, Sept. 28, 10 p.m.
Local affiliate KTSC Channel 8
To read a lengthy story about the Sudanese community in Colorado Springs that was published in the Jan. 23, 2001, Independent, visit the story online at http://www.csindy.com/ csindy/2003-01-23/.