He walked 1,000 miles on bloody feet. now this ‘lost boy of sudan’ helps other refugees print only virginislandsdailynews.com electricity generation by source


He and the others who survived the unforgiving journey came to be called “The Lost Boys of Sudan” for their likeness to the orphaned boys in Peter Pan. In 2001, the United States accepted 4,000 of those refugees who came to begin new lives in a country at peace. Ayuen was one of them.

And fighting in South Sudan is never far from his mind. Ayuen has family still there. South Sudan continues to uproot people. Kakuma, the Kenyan refugee camp that Ayuen left in 2001, is full once again of children and families. The 20-year-old civil war in Sudan ended in 2005, but peace didn’t last long. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, a civil war erupted in 2013. A 2015 peace agreement dissolved in 2016 and fighting, mostly along ethnic lines, has continued.

Young boys in southern Sudan often lived in cattle camps away from their families, and Ayuen was at such a camp in 1987 when war erupted. There was no time, and it was too dangerous, to go home to his mother. He followed older men who led the young herders out of the camp.

After three months and 1,000 miles from the cattle camp he had fled, Ayuen and the other boys crossed the border to Ethiopia. No one greeted them. There were no buildings. No homes. No running water. The boys divided into groups of about a dozen. Ayuen helped build houses, chopping trees and cutting grass with machetes for thatched roofs.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was on a plane to the United States. An hour before the plane was to land in New York, two airline jets crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Passengers were scared, anxious and worried, but he remained calm as the pilot diverted the plane to Newfoundland, Canada. “This was not the worst experience for us.”

In the United States, Ayuen would be settled in Vermont. He lived with a host family for two weeks before moving into an apartment with five other Lost Boys. They cooked together, played soccer and dominoes, attended church. And they got jobs — Ayuen at a soap factory.

While attending community college in Vermont he worked at the factory and got another job at the American Red Cross, screening blood donors. “It’s America. If you work hard, go to college you can get a job and you can improve your life. And I’m a living example of that. I went to college and I work and I have so many jobs.”

Ayuen came to Adventist Health Community Care in Hanford in 2014 as a psychiatric physician assistant after graduating from Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Ayuen had attended college on a National Health Service Corps scholarship that required service after graduation in an underserved area. Hanford met that requirement, and Ayuen says Adventist Health aligned with his values and personal beliefs.

Gary L. Hoffman, the behavioral health services clinical director, says “patients took” to Ayuen. “A lot of the concerns that our patients bring to us have to do with the challenges they face, integrating into a community, being uprooted, displaced.”

Ayuen had an incentive to build a career when he came to the United States. Before leaving Kakuma Refugee Camp, he had proposed to Alakiir Deng, another refugee. He needed money for a bride’s price — a dowry — to marry and to bring Deng to the United States.

After the wedding, Ayuen returned to the United States to continue his education and to save money to bring Deng, who was pregnant with twin boys, to the United States. Ayuen briefly returned to Kenya to visit his wife and sons Biar and Mach in 2007; twin daughters, Nyang and Apajok, would be born in 2008.

Deng is now studying to be a licensed vocational nurse, taking classes in Fresno. She and Ayuen, the two sets of twins and younger daughters, Ayak, 7, and Abeny, 3, live in a two-story home in a gated community in Hanford. They have made friends with neighbors, attending children’s birthday parties.

And Deng and Ayuen worry about family and friends who remain in South Sudan. Among them are Deng’s mother, father and a brother. Ayuen has a brother and sister in Kenya. His father died in 2011, and his mother, four sisters and a brother are in Kenya.

A salary as a nurse also would help with the family’s finances — to save money for college educations for the children, help relatives in South Sudan and Kenya — and maybe for a vacation. Besides working at Adventist Health, Ayuen works weekends at Kaweah Delta Medical Center.

“When she graduates, I can work less,” Ayuen says. “And we can afford a ticket to take (the children) home, just to see it.” Ayuen also wants to keep helping children in South Sudan. He has brought a dozen children to a school in Kenya, who arrived this month. “I’m the primary support for food and school,” he says. It costs $25 a month for tuition for one child.