Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"Lost Boys" of Sudan

Tonight the group of thirty-something people at the Pine Valley Library were in for a real treat. Benjamin Ajak, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" shared his story along with one of his co-authors, Judy Bernstein. Along with Benjamin's two cousins, they all authored the memoir They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. After watching a "60 Minutes" segment on the "Lost Boys," Judy Bernstein spoke about the political situation in the Sudan, using a map of the country to illustrate where Benjamin's family had lived and his path of relocation over several years. She also related information about the regime in Khartoum and their greed for oil that, in turn, is purchased by China. The current situation in Darfur was also explained and discussed, along with what WE can do about it (like check out sites such as savedarfur.com). Then Benjamin, a tall young man wearing a pin-striped suit, came to the front of the room to tell his story.

The three boys who eventually wrote the memoir were orphaned when their parents were murdered by the Islamist Northern Sudanese Government whose goal was to seize the southern rural villagers' oil-rich lands. The three boys, ages 9, 7, and 5, walked with thousands of other boys across the Sudan to Ethiopia where they lived somewhat safely in refugee camps for two years. Many boys starved to death on the long walk to Ethiopia as they were without water and were reduced to boiling grass to subsist upon, not to mention the wild animals, including lions, who stalked them. Then the civil war that tore apart Sudan spread to Ethiopia, and the boys were forced at gunpoint to cross a wide river back into the Sudan. Hundreds if not thousands of boys drowned and others were shot as they tried to cross, and still others were killed by the river crocodiles.

The boys were shuttled among several violent camps in southernmost Sudan and were jailed at one time for escaping. Benjamin told us that being jailed in the Sudan, even for children under ten years of age, meant beatings three times a day plus hard manual labor with very little food and water, if any. The boys escaped the jail and barely managed to reach the refugee camps in Kenya which were arranged by the U.N. Here the boys were given an education but still were forced to subsist on only half a cup of flour per boy per day. Children were beaten for no reason by the Kenyans who resented them and were often pushed out of line by the Kenyan soldiers after waiting in the food line for eight hours.

But at least the boys were too small to be drafted into the army in the Sudan, unlike some of their older family members. When asked if there was a certain age that qualified boys for the army, Benjamin told us that any boy who was taller than an AK-47 was "drafted" into the army. That was the only qualification.

Benjamin was finally chosen to be one of the lucky ones sent for relocation to the United States, and he was flying into New York on the morning of September 11, 2001. His plane was sent northward to Canada after the attacks, and Benjamin admits that, at that point, he wasn't too sure he would be safer in America. It took nearly a week after 9-11 before Benjamin arrived in San Diego, one of thirty cities in which the 4000 "Lost Boys" were relocated, where he joined his two cousins. His goal in coming to the United States: to get an education. Education is the most important thing to these now young men of Sudan; in fact, there is a saying among them: "Education is our mother and our father."

But in order to get an education, he had to get a job. He worked at Ralph's grocery store, then cleaned toilets at Barona Casino. He got a small part in the film Master and Commander, filmed in Rosarito Beach, in which he played a sailor. After his foray into moviemaking, he attended trucking school in Bakersfield and has now seen all 48 continental states. Now, at age 25, Benjamin is planning on more education: a Bachelor's degree in social work which he already participates in by speaking to many at-risk inner city youth to encourage them to get a good education. Currently he takes classes in conflict resolution as well.

One of the most outstanding qualities in Benjamin is his faith in God. He greeted us with a blessing as he started to speak, and he bade us goodbye with a blessing as well. He spoke about the power of prayer and how God was with him throughout his years of terrible ordeals. His face lights up when someone mentions faith to him, and he was a delightful and personable young man to talk with.

After the official talk and the question-and-answer period was over, both he and Judy Bernstein signed copies of They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky that Judy had brought along to sell to interested parties. In fact, every single paperback copy she brought was purchased by Pine Valley residents. Benjamin also cheerfully posed for photos for whomever asked. Groups of attendees gathered about, sipping coffee and enjoying homemade cookies while they discussed Benjamin's extraordinary story. Refreshments were provided by Friends of the Pine Valley Library and the Mountain Empire Creative Arts Council.

Many thanks to Christina Moses and Sherry Markham of the Pine Valley Library for arranging for this extraordinary opportunity to read the book and to meet two of the four authors. If you see anyone walking around town with a certain gold-colored book under her arm, ask about the evening with Benjamin Ajak. It was an experience that few of us will forget. Ever.

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