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Saturday, July 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tale of the Lost Boy

NEXT guest

A lifetime fleeing war, on foot


• As President Bush wrapped up his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, Emmanuel Jurkuch Majak, a 20-year-old Seattle resident, tells his story of struggle as a Sudanese refugee since age 4. Majak is now one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of about 4,000 orphaned teenagers that the United Nations brought to the U.S.

• An estimated 20,000 young boys and girls fled Sudan in the late 1980s as radical Muslims from the north attacked the predominantly Christian southern region.

• Bush recently promised to send a special envoy to Sudan to help end the 20-year-long war. This, the continent's longest civil war, has killed more than 2 million people.

In 1987, I fled southern Sudan with my little sister when soldiers stormed into our village early one morning. They began shooting people and burning huts. People were running everywhere. I saw babies left behind. I was playing with my sister in the garden and I picked her up and ran fast into the forest.

I was about 4 years old; she was 3. We never saw our parents again.

We came to Seattle three years ago with the Lost Boys of Sudan program. The United Nations brought some of us orphans here.

We are the lucky few. We have food and water now, we are safe and we can go to school.

That day when we had to run from Kongor, our village, we thought our parents would come for us so we waited in the forest. After 14 days, people said it was too dangerous to stay there.

So we walked, for four months. We walked with many people until we reached a safe place, in Ethiopia.

During the day, we hid and slept in the trees and tall grass, and at night, we walked, without shoes. If the soldiers from the north saw smoke or birds, they shot at us or bombed us from planes. When my sister cried, I told her to be quiet so the soldiers would not hear us.

We walked with a big group of children. I had to carry my sister because she was too little to keep up. But that is how it is in my culture. Family is very important.

We were very afraid of animals in the forest. There were many lions, leopards and hyenas. Sometimes I saw these animals attack small children and take them away. It was important to sleep and walk with many people or the animals could attack you.

At night, we walked, sometimes for 12 hours. We were so tired. There was no place to get water often, so often we had to drink mud and urine.

We ate leaves of the trees that were edible. We knew not to eat many grasses because they make you ill. We fed the small children first and when they were satisfied, we ate what was left.

No parents, no medicine

The young children who didn't have parents anymore walked together and slept together and tried to find food together. We tried to follow a very large group of people, sometimes hundreds of people. But the children were on their own because the adults were afraid to take care of any more.

If a child got sick, we would take him with us and try to take care of him. We were very sad when they died. There was no medicine to give the sick.

Once we reached Ethiopia, we stayed in a refugee camp near Gambela. One day, our aunt found us and we stayed with her and many other children.

I started going to school in the camp in 1989 until 1991, the first time I went to school. We sat on the ground outside under the trees. Sometimes there were 40 or 50 children, and the teachers were also refugees. We had one book that we all shared. It was called "Hello, Children." I enjoyed school so much.

But then the government in Ethiopia changed four years later and they made all the refugees leave. We had to walk three months back to southern Sudan. We had to cross a big river from Ethiopia into Sudan. Most people do not know how to swim. There were only two canoes and I saw many people drown in the river.

When we finally arrived in southern Sudan, we stayed there for eight months with my aunt. But there was no food or water for the last three months. People were starving and sick. When war broke out again, we ran. For the second time, we had to travel far to find a safe place.

We walked from Pochalla to Narus, both in southern Sudan, where we stayed for three months. The rebel soldiers had forced the government troops from the north to leave. We were so tired from walking and from not having food that even talking was difficult. Rebel soldiers let us drink clean water from a well and gave us food.

Fleeing, again

About five months later, the United Nations told us it was too dangerous to stay in Narus. So we had to walk again, this time to a camp in northern Kenya called Kakuma Refugee Camp. It had about 33,000 refugees from nine different African countries. We lived in Kakuma for eight years with my aunt and the 23 other children she was caring for. I enjoyed going to school each day.

Life in Kenya was so nice for us, for the first time. The government and aid agencies gave us enough food to eat and we could go to school and learn.

But in 1996, when the economy and corruption got worse in Kenya, the government began to treat us poorly. They gave us only enough food to eat for one meal a day, only a bit of maize for each person to spread out for one month. We had to walk for 30 minutes or more to find water. There was no medicine.

The camp also became very dangerous. The Turkana tribesmen, who live near the camp, killed refugees and looted things. I was very afraid there then.

I learned about the Minor's Group, which in the U.S. is called the Lost Boys Program, when I first came to Kakuma camp in 1993. It took seven years for me and my sister to be accepted.

In November, we were taken to a plane and we cried because we were scared and missed our friends and our cousins already. I told them we were going to the U.S. to change our lives and we would do our best to bring them to the U.S., if that is what God wants us to do for our people.

We landed in New York City and it was so cold. The workers at the airport told us not to talk to anyone until we got to Seattle. We were very scared and were the only black people in the airport. We saw all the tall buildings outside and I couldn't believe it. I had never seen anything like that.

When we arrived in Seattle, it was 7:30 at night and it was very cold. I was wearing my African shirt and pants. I met my foster mom and she brought for us jackets. But when she saw us, she said we were very tall and wouldn't fit into them.

My sister went with her foster mom to her new house. That was the first time we were separated since we were small. We were both scared because we didn't know what to expect.

The next day I went shopping in the store with my foster mom and we bought clothes. I didn't know what size to buy so I tried the pants around my neck to check my waist size. People asked me what I was doing, but I didn't know how else to do it.

The culture in America is very different. In my country, men who are friends hold hands and walk down the street together, but when I did that here with my friend from Nigeria, people asked if we were gay. I was so surprised.

I see my sister one time a week, on Sundays at church. She and her baby live in Redmond. The father of her baby is still in Kenya.

We don't know much about our family in Sudan. We know that our father was killed in the war, and we have heard that our mother is still alive. We don't know where she lives, maybe in Sudan, is what our relatives say.

When we came here in the fall of 2000, I went to a small high school for immigrants. In September 2001, I started school at Ingraham High School. The learning was very hard for me. I didn't have much schooling in Africa, so I was very far behind.

I graduated from John Marshall High School in June and I plan to go to college at Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) this fall. I am enrolled already and I hope to study there for two years and then transfer to a four-year college.

Because I am 20 years old, I will soon move out of my foster mom's house and begin to support myself. I worry that it will be difficult to do this and to pay for college, but I will work hard to be successful in college so that I can help my family.

My goal is to become a journalist so that I can go back to my country and report on the politics, the war and the poverty. I want to be able to tell the world how our people in Sudan are suffering.

Emmanuel Jurkuch Majak participated in the Summer Journalism Workshop at Seattle University. He was assisted in writing this piece by NEXT editor Colleen Pohlig. E-mail: NEXT @seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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