Sudan loses talented generation as 'Lost Boys' are resettled in US

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The Independent Online

In the refugee camps in the desert of northern Kenya, everyone wants to be a "Lost Boy". Named after the magical orphans in J M Barrie's book Peter Pan, the Lost Boys were flung together by Sudan's long-running civil war in the early 1990s. They have lived together in a quasi-independent boys' community in Kakuma ever since.

Tong Kur sat with his friend Ezekiel and took shade from the blazing heat under a thatch shelter and told the story of their epic trek. "The Arabs attacked my village when I was a child and we ran to Ethiopia," he said. "But then we were attacked there too. On the way back to Sudan crocodiles attacked me. The government planes bombed us. Then we arrived here."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the US government have selected 3,400 of the Lost Boys, mostly Christians, to be resettled in America. It is the largest resettlement of its kind ever. Tong, to his great regret, has not been chosen.

A stream of camera crews and journalists has visited Kakuma since the first plane took off last November. The UNHCR has been delighted at the rush of positive publicity the project has received. But as the last Lost Boys prepare to leave, some aid workers and church leaders fear that southern Sudan has been robbed of a generation of its best educated young men.

"The whole project is very questionable," said Graham Davison, camp manager with Lutheran World Federation, which runs schools and distributes food in Kakuma. "It undermines our work." The exodus has raised unrealistic expectations, he said. Now almost every teenage boy in the camp can reel off stories of crocodiles, bullets and desert marches like a movie script.

The project has also drawn fire from one Catholic bishop in Sudan, while others criticise it for being publicity-driven. "If there's enough money to fly them to the States then why can't they go to schools in the region where they can remain in touch with their families?" said John Ashworth, a British analyst with Sudan Focal Point.

The UNHCR counters that the critics have the wrong end of the stick. "The reality is that for the foreseeable future these people would have been stuck in Kakuma," said spokesman Paul Stromberg in Nairobi. "We are taking them out of the incredibly frustrating environment of a refugee camp and giving them the chance of an income and developing new expertise."

Many of the Lost Boys are thriving in their new western environment. Some are performing strongly in school and many have found employment, mainly in minimum wage jobs. A flood of media reports has followed the Lost Boys' every move in the US as they grapple with flush toilets or ask awkward questions about the number of cows needed to pay for a wife.

But for others America has been a lonely and even dangerous place. In June James Machar died after being knocked down by a van. Three weeks ago Daniel Majok, 19, was charged with raping a woman outside his Boston apartment and burning her with a cigarette

Normally the UNHCR does not resettle unaccompanied minors, preferring to reunite them with the parents. But it says the parents of the Lost Boys are either dead or untraceable. And a return to Sudan, where they could be forced into the ranks of the SPLA rebels, is unthinkable. "We wouldn't help them to go back even if they wanted to," said Mr Stromberg.