Sudanese Lost Boys find secure home in North Dakota
FARGO – Like a moth to a porch light, 2-year-old Nyakuodh-e-kuur gravitates to her parents’ smartphones. On the chance she can get hold of one, she calls up cartoon videos with a few quick flicks of her finger.
“Tom and Jerry!” she yells with delight.
After a moment of cat-and-mouse craziness, her mom takes the device away. And Nyakuodh-e-kuur, who’s name translated means “God is a perfectionist,” busies herself with a toy train.
Her dad, Gat-kier Machar, looks on with the sleepy eyes of a father with not just a toddler, but also a 3-month-old, 6-year-old and 8-year-old.
Machar, who was born in a village along the Nile River in southern Sudan, came to the U.S. in 2000, and he moved his family to Fargo in 2009. He estimates that he’s one of about 60 to 70 Sudanese Lost Boys who live here. It’s a figure that’s hard to pin down because members of the storied refugee group have moved in and out over the years.
The Lost Boys, and a smaller number of Lost Girls, are survivors of the Second Sudanese Civil War, which ran from 1983 to 2005. Fleeing military attacks and fending for themselves in the backcountry of Africa, they made epic journeys to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where many learned English. Thousands later came to the U.S. and had to adapt to a sometimes puzzling world of cars, supermarkets, high schools and technology.
Lost Boys began arriving in Fargo in the early 2000s. With help from volunteers and Lutheran Social Services, they attended school and found work locally. Many have plans to stay here for the foreseeable future.
“Maybe we are now part of the community,” said Peter Lem, a Lost Boy who’s been in Fargo since 2001.
In North Dakota and elsewhere, the group of boys, now grown into educated men with wives, children and a few gray hairs, has kept in close contact much like an extended family.
“Given the nature of our survival as boys, we kind of stuck together. We help each other out,” Machar said. “We raise ourselves pretty much.”
With their lives in the U.S. mostly secure, many in the group have turned their attention to helping those back home, where a fresh conflict between the government and rebels has destabilized the country.
‘This is not new’
Like many Lost Boys, Machar does not know his exact age. Officials assigned him a birthdate, which he believes is incorrect.
Ask him how old he feels, and he’ll laugh, saying he feels like he was born in the late ’70s, which would put him in his mid-30s. He bases this guess on the fact that a few years after he was born the civil war broke out in 1983. “I was old enough to know that something was up,” he said.
Fighting has once again returned to South Sudan, a country that became independent in 2011. The most recent conflict started in December along tribal lines. The country’s president, a member of the Dinka tribe, has attributed the clashes to an attempted coup by the former vice president, a member of the Nuer tribe.
On Feb. 7, the violence spilled into Machar’s village, leaving more than 40 people dead. Since that day, he has not heard from many of his relatives.
“You begin to worry until you don’t no more. Because at the end of the day, they will surface or they will perish,” he said. “This is not new to me and my wife.”
With an Internet connection, Machar is able to keep up on developments in South Sudan better than some people in the country. His phone rings constantly with calls from those seeking the latest news, asking for money for food, trying to get out.
“The human side of me … wants to be there with them, wants to be in the mix, suffering with them,” he said.
Machar is a security officer at Concordia College, and his wife, Elizabeth Nyakuoth, works at the school in the dining services department. The couple first met in a refugee camp in Kenya in the early 1990s. Years later, they were both sent separately to Grand Rapids, Mich., where they reconnected.
Nyakuoth, a Lost Girl, said that when she and a cousin went to Michigan, they did not expect to encounter any other Sudanese people. But when they arrived, she ran into Machar at a gathering for refugees.
“The rest is history,” she said, smiling.
On July 18, 2001, Peter Lem landed at the Fargo airport, and right away, the green surroundings and the summer heat appealed to him. He realized later that this warm introduction to the climate was a tad misleading.
Lem, who previously went by the name Abraham Madhier, found himself living in an apartment with three other Lost Boys. Together, with help from friends and volunteers, they figured out how to shop for groceries, get driver’s licenses and navigate other intricacies of American life.
“Even today, I cannot even tell you that I learn all of it,” he said. “There are a lot of cultural things that cannot be taught in a school.”
He received a key lesson in the months after he arrived. On a winter morning, a friend called the boys’ apartment and told them to look outside.
“The whole ground was covered with whitish stuff, all over,” Lem said.
To him, snow was a foreign concept. He recalls squeezing it in his hand with wonder and watching it melt. “There was nothing like that where we came from,” he said.
Lem graduated with his three roommates from Oak Grove Lutheran High School, and lately, he has been pursuing a nursing degree. But twice he’s had to drop his studies to work, so he could pay for medical treatments for his mother who now lives in Kenya.
He hopes to resume classes in the fall and eventually join the group of other Lost Boys who have received technical or college degrees. Some have even gone on to earn master’s degrees and doctorates.
“They are catching up with the so-called American Dream, I think,” Lem said.
‘Making life better’
Since 1997, Lutheran Social Services has helped settle more than 500 Sudanese refugees, including Lost Boys, in North Dakota. In that time, Fargo has attracted refugees such as Machar from other states. He guesses that 3,000 to 4,000 people of Sudanese descent now live here.
“Some of them that went to the big cities, they didn’t like it,” Lem said. “They were too confused, and they have to come here.”
In Machar’s case, he moved to Fargo to work with Panyijiar Community Development Services, or PACODES, a nonprofit organization that helps South Sudan’s Panyijiar County, where Machar grew up.
Before the fighting began in December, money raised by PACODES went toward building a library in the county. In 2012, Mathor Wan went there to oversee the construction and receive a 40-foot shipping container full of books at the port of Juba, South Sudan’s capital city. Wan, a Lost Boy who originally settled in Florida but now lives in Wahpeton, said the library may be the largest in the country.
During his visit, Wan found his surviving siblings and became reacquainted with his extended family. “That was the best time ever,” he said.
South Sudan was then enjoying relative peace. “I was glad to see the country, you know, coming back to life,” he said. “They were still struggling to put food on the table and all that, but least there was no guns being fired at someone.”
Wan, who has a master’s degree in business administration and works for Bobcat Co., met a woman during his trip and married her. While he prepares to apply for a visa to bring her to the U.S., she waits in Kenya where she has found safety from the violence, he said.
Roy Hammerling, a religion professor at Concordia and a PACODES board member, said the idea for the library came from Machien Luoi, a Lost Boy profiled by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in 2006.
Hammerling’s son became friends with Luoi while they played soccer for Fargo South High School. And it was then the professor realized how dedicated Luoi and other Lost Boys were to their schoolwork.
“They knew education was their ticket to not only a better life for themselves but the possibility of making life better for people in Sudan,” Hammerling said.
Luoi ended up attending Concordia and graduating in three years. Now he’s returned to Africa to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Like other Lost Boys, he’s trying to find a way to help his homeland despite the violence.
“These guys are so incredibly resilient,” Hammerling said. “They don’t let things get them down. They just keep plugging away.”