Sudanese ‘Lost Boys’ in Salt Lake City seeking a better life

by REED NELSON

The store is hectic, so much movement that the one focal point is the bustle itself, each individual indistinguishable to the glancing eye. But to those who know the store, it is organized, but not in the casual sorted order consistent with the ordained rules of a normal grocery store.

“We have our own way of doing things in here,” said Simon Kuay, 33, owner of the K&K African Market, and a Sudanese “Lost Boy.” This is the unique way in which the Lost Boys go about, and generally succeed, in living life. They have managed to channel their life experiences into productivity, responsibility and in some cases, an education.

The Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983, when northern Sudan, which had become economically and religiously divided from the south, imposed its religous will of then-president Gaafar Nimiery upon the south. Nimiery wanted to transform the southern part of Sudan into a Muslim Arab state.

That same year, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army began secession plans and the government retaliated. It would then escalate into a full-scale civil war and eventually, raids on villages and towns.
In 1987, that civil war displaced 27,000 kids, mostly boys, from Sudan. They traveled for two months to Ethiopia, only to be turned away. For two years they tried to return to southern Sudan until they found refuge in Kenya.

Nineteen years later, Salt Lake has become not only a safe haven, but also a permanent home for some of these refugees. Now there are 90 of these “Lost Boys” enrolled at Salt Lake Community College, and a growing list of alumni.

Augustino Kuol, a student at SLCC and the current president of the Lost Boys and Girls Association, finds his experiences here slightly different than growing up on the road, or as a temporary high school student in Kenya.

“Being here allows me the opportunity to try to rise up,” Kuol said. “But I still wish my circumstances were a little more fortunate.”

Even while Kuol excels, he often finds himself in situations where family would normally come into play. He has not seen his family since he began his journey from Sudan. However, these are the times that the Lost Boys’ friendships, friendships forged in the midst of unspeakable turmoil, come in handy.

“These boys tend to stick together because, growing up, they had to,” said Cindy Clark, who runs the Sudanese Student Association at SLCC.

These kids have had experiences varying from being targeted as children in a civil war to watching close friends die. “Kids have shared stories with me in which they went from being at makeshift [refugee] camp talking,” she said, “to seeing a lion grab a boy and take him away.”

Clark said they have not let these experiences affect them. “You would think that they would have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or something,” she said. “But they just take it in stride, move on, they know no other life than the one they lived. No traditions can hold them.”

Clark knows the students are not exactly given every advantage as they begin their schooling. But a majority of their time, she said, is spent working twice as hard as those students attending school for the sake of attending school.

“The ones that make it here tend to be the cream of the crop,” she said. “They were also lucky enough to escape the refugee camps.” Clark said they are lucky indeed, because the U.S. government might allow only 20 people from a camp entry into the U.S via a lottery.

A fine line runs between the margins of society and the fabric of society. They have climbed from the lowest of lows, from permanent exile, from the seemingly never ending persecution, Kuol said, across an ocean, to a life that they have improved. 

“You think these kids would have been discouraged long ago?” Clark asked. “They weren’t. They always smile, the happiest kids I know. They have stayed alive being optimistic.”