An interview with Mark Bixler

Read more about Lost Boys of Sudan

Q: Besides Atlanta, where are some of the biggest communities of Sudanese immigrants in the United States? Have any other countries let in large groups of Sudanese?

A: The U.S. State Department resettled the refugees known as the Lost Boys of Sudan in communities around the United States. Those cities include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Diego and Seattle as well as Jacksonville, Fla.; Louisville, Kent.; Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.; Rochester and Utica, N.Y.; Charlotte, N.C.; Fargo, N.D.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Richmond, Va., Burlington, Vt. and Tacoma, Wash. The United States resettled roughly 3,800 Lost Boys. A smaller number were resettled in Australia.

Q: Many of the lost boys had very high expectations for what America would be like. What were some of their common disappointments and surprises?

A: Most of the Lost Boys came to the United States eager to receive an education. The goal was to go to school, learn a skill and one day return to help rebuild war-torn southern Sudan. Though many Lost Boys wanted to go to school, U.S. law considered most of them adults who had to go to work to support themselves. The biggest disappointment for many several months after arriving was that they were working so much and could not figure out how they would receive an education.

Q: They seemed to covet an education more than anything else. Were many of them eventually able to get an education? What were their ultimate goals in education—a means to a job or something further?

A: The Lost Boys arrived in this country under tremendous pressure to get an education so that they could one day return to southern Sudan to rebuild their country. Most faced big hurdles getting into school, but many eventually found a way. A grueling schedule is often the cost of an education. One of the Lost Boys in Atlanta works from 3 p.m. to midnight, does homework until 2 a.m. and catches a few hours sleep before rising at 7 a.m. to go to class at a community college. To finally get into school, most Lost Boys relied on American volunteers to sort through red tape, file financial-aid applications and persuade school officials to let the refugees enroll in high school even though some were older than 18. In Atlanta, where about 150 Lost Boys live, roughly two in three Lost Boys had received or were on track to receiving a high-school equivalency degree three years after arriving.

Q: After witnessing and suffering through so much violence, what are the lost boys attitudes toward it? How do they feel about Americans’ portrayal of violence in popular culture?

A: Most of the Lost Boys I know are able to distinguish between real and make-believe. They have endured and/or witnessed traumatic violence but do not seem bothered by Hollywood depictions of violence.

Q: The conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Sudan mirror conflicts that seem to be getting worse elsewhere in the world. Did you sense that the lost boys viewed the conflict through a religious perspective, or did they see it in terms of history and politics?

A: The war in Sudan is very complex even though many people describe it in relatively simplistic terms—as a clash of Islam and Christianity, for example. There’s no question but that Muslims and Christians have killed each other in Sudan, but it’s important to note that Muslims have killed Muslims and Christians have killed Christians in Sudan. Many combatants and victims were animists who followed traditional African religions. Some Lost Boys talk about the war as a conflict between Muslims and Christians, perhaps because those are terms with which Americans already are familiar, but by and large they know it’s a complex conflict that may have been best characterized by the Sudanese author, diplomat and historian, Francis Deng, as a clash of identities in competition over power and resources.

Q: Is the recent international exposure of the situation in Sudan having any effect? Is there hope for a resolution to the crisis any time soon?

A: The international media spotlight has been shining brightly on Sudan since the middle of 2004. More people are aware of what is happening in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, where Arab militias backed by the Sudanese government have gone from village to village on a campaign of killing and rape. The militias have killed at least 70,000 black Africans and forced more than 1.5 million others from their homes. They began their campaign to suppress a rebellion that began in February 2003. Their victims are not fighting the government, but the victims come from tribes from which the rebels draw strength. This is a case of Muslims killing Muslims, an example of the imprecision that comes with labeling the war as a clash of Islam and Christianity. The violence in Darfur, which President Bush and the U.S. Congress calls genocide, complicates the prospects for peace in the north-south Sudanese civil war that has killed 2 million people since 1983. Under intense pressure from the United States and the international community, both sides in that civil war are remarkably close to a peace agreement. After a rare meeting of the United Nations Security Council in Africa in late 2004, negotiators from the north and south said they hoped to sign a peace accord soon. Then efforts would be made to resolve the crisis in the western region of Darfur.

Q: Overall, do you the think the experiment of bringing the lost boys to the US was success? Do you think any of them will eventually return to Sudan to help rebuild their country?

A: Some Americans may look at the Lost Boys in 2005, four years after they arrived, and wonder whether the resettlement experiment worked. After all, many of the Lost Boys work long hours in low-wage jobs. They struggle to balance work and school, and many had big trouble getting into a classroom. Ask the Lost Boys if they think the experiment worked, though, and they’ll tend to answer with a resounding yes. They do face hardships in the United States, but the challenges are nothing like what they faced in Africa. They have enough to eat in the United States. They may not earn much by American standards, but it’s enough for many of them to send something back to hungry or sick relatives in Africa. They certainly miss their friends, relatives and native culture, but the experience of the Lost Boys of Sudan in the United States demonstrate that the American Dream lives, even in a country with disparities and imperfections. Their life in the United States is a difficult one, but the rewards that await are real.

When the Lost Boys arrived, most said their plan was to stay here for a few years, get an education and return to southern Sudan when the war ends. Yet America has a way of seducing people. Some Lost Boys may indeed return to southern Sudan, to become the architects of an ambitious reconstruction, but others will probably stay in the United States. They can help their countrymen in Sudan by studying and working here, sending money to their friends and relatives or to nonprofit organizations working in southern Sudan.