Over­looked amid Su­dan’s civil war, Lost Girls find­ing a voice

Years later, hand­ful of Dal­las women share how they fled war zone

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE - By SHERRY JA­COB­SON Staff Writer sja­cob­son@dal­las­news.com

Re­becca Alier can barely ex­plain how she, not yet 5 years old, man­aged to es­cape Su­dan’s bloody civil war. How she, a crip­pled lit­tle girl, trav­eled hun­dreds of miles to safety with­out the help of her par­ents or four sib­lings.

“I fell down a lot, but when any­body big found me, they helped me, even car­ried me for a while,” re­called Ms. Alier, now 27, whose up­per body was de­formed in child­hood by tu­ber­cu­lo­sis of the spine.

“Many chil­dren lied down and died along the way. I guess I was blessed.”

If her story sounds familiar, it’s be­cause the “Lost Boys of Su­dan” have been telling vir­tu­ally the same heroic tale for years. Af­ter end­less me­dia cov­er­age, sev­eral books and at least two movies, the boys be­came celebri­ties of the in­ter­na­tional refugee com­mu­nity.

But the girls who ac­com­pa­nied them on the trek through Su­dan re­main lost in a sense. Even as they have been re­set­tled through­out the world — 12 of them in Dal­las — the Lost Girls are known mostly for hav­ing mar­ried Lost Boys.

“Their voices have not been heard,” said Anne Worth, a li­censed pro­fes­sional coun­selor in Dal­las who learned about the Lost Girls when she be­came a vol­un­teer at Fel­low­ship Bi­ble Church in Dal­las.

She was go­ing door to door in the mas­sive refugee set­tle­ment in the Vick­ery Meadow com­mu­nity, try­ing to as­sess in­di­vid­ual fam­ily needs.

“Of course, I knew about the Lost Boys,” Dr. Worth said. “But some­one men­tioned that there were Lost Girls, too. It was the first I’d ever heard of them.”

Dr. Worth sought out the dozen Lost Girls in Dal­las and found young women rais­ing fam­i­lies or work­ing low-level jobs, all of them strug­gling to get a foothold in their new home­land. Most of the girls were not al­lowed to at­tend school in Su­dan, al­though it was of­fered to the boys.

“Th­ese women are ea­ger to fur­ther their ed­u­ca­tion so that they can get bet­ter-pay­ing jobs,” Dr. Worth said. “All of them are try­ing to get fam­ily mem­bers out of refugee camps. It is a dif­fi­cult process.”

To high­light their plight, the church will hold a lun­cheon next Sun­day in honor of the women. Ad­vance tick­ets are $15 for adults, $10 for teens, and pro­ceeds will es­tab­lish an ed­u­ca­tion fund for the women.

An un­told story

The Lost Girls are not ac­cus­tomed to this much at­ten­tion.

Clutch­ing her chest dur­ing an emo­tional in­ter­view in her north­east Dal­las apart­ment, El­iz­a­beth Akuen said she never un­der­stood why no one asked to hear her story.

“They call my hus­band a Lost Boy, but I was lost, too,” she said.

“I was 10 years old when I ran from the bul­lets in my vil­lage,” said the 25-year-old wo­man, who is ex­pect­ing her third child next month. “My brother, three sis­ters and my fa­ther died. It was a long time ago, but my heart beats very hard when I talk about it.”

The boys and girls were all about the same age — 4 to 12 — when their jour­neys be­gan dur­ing the civil war, which erupted in 1983, ac­cel­er­ated four years later and was de­clared over in 2005.

As adults were slaugh­tered by gov­ern­ment troops through­out south­ern Su­dan, the chil­dren ran away from the vil­lages, even­tu­ally mov­ing en masse to­ward the prom­ise of safety be­yond the coun­try’s borders. For months, they scav­enged food and wa­ter, slept out­doors and tried to steer clear of wild an­i­mals that con­sid- ered them prey.

But the girls had an ad­di­tional threat.

They were more likely to be sub­jected to sex­ual as­sault and rape as they tried to es­cape the war­ring fac­tions in their home­land.

With­out pro­tec­tion from an adult rel­a­tive or an older boy, many of the sur­viv­ing girls were en­slaved or “used up” by their cap­tors. And even when a girl made it to a refugee camp, she was as­signed to live with a fam­ily that could stop her from pur­su­ing a new life.

“I wanted to marry my boyfriend in the camp, but it was not al­lowed be­cause he had no dowry,” Ms. Akuen re­called. “The fam­ily wanted to be paid for car­ing for me, but Lost Boys did not have cows.”

So she got preg­nant and was sent back to Su­dan, where she gave birth. Later, she and the baby re­united with her boyfriend, Abra­ham Jok, now her hus­band, and they ar­rived in Dal­las in early 2006.

Over­looked mi­nor­ity

Mr. Jok, who works in en­vi­ron­men­tal ser­vices at Pres­by­te­rian Hospi­tal of Dal­las, said it was un­der­stand­able that me­dia at­ten­tion fo­cused only on the Lost Boys.

“The boys were liv­ing to­gether as a big group,” he re­called of the 11,000 or­phaned boys at a sin­gle refugee camp in Kenya. “The Lost Boys are the ma­jor­ity. The Lost Girls are few.”

It is es­ti­mated that only 100 of the girls be­came U.S. refugees, com­pared to about 4,500 of the boys.

Com­ing to Amer­ica of­fered enor­mous prom­ise for the young refugees, but also pre­sented risks they never knew ex­isted.

In 1994, Ms. Alier be­came the first Lost Girl to ar­rive in Texas, set­tling ini­tially in Hous­ton. But she was 15, preg­nant and try­ing des­per­ately to re­unite with the ba- by’s fa­ther, Ja­cob Deng, a Lost Boy who ended up in Ari­zona.

When he came to visit her, he passed through Dal­las and de­cided it was where they would raise a fam­ily. Set­tled in a mod­est apart­ment in north­east Dal­las with two young chil­dren and jobs on as­sem­bly lines, the cou­ple was liv­ing a well-earned ver­sion of the Amer­i­can Dream.

But in 2000, their 5-year-old son de­scribed to his par­ents an un­set­tling dream that seemed to fore­shadow his death. He saw him­self ly­ing be­neath his bed­room win­dow in a pool of blood. Later that day, he drowned in a swim­ming pool at a friend’s apart­ment com­plex.

“That day, I lost two chil­dren,” re­called Ms. Alier, whose 3-yearold daugh­ter was taken by Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices af­ter the drown­ing. Au­thor­i­ties said they be­lieved Ms. Alier had been neg­li­gent.

It was a ter­ri­ble les­son for a Lost Girl to learn.

In Su­dan, par­ents lost their chil­dren be­cause of a war out­side their con­trol. In Amer­ica, par­ents can lose their chil­dren be­cause of the un­fore­seen risks of mod­ern life.

But just as she trudged across Su­dan as a de­ter­mined 4-year-old, Ms. Alier at­tended par­ent­ing classes and spent months beg­ging a judge to give her daugh­ter back. Af­ter a year, he did.

De­spite the hard­ships, Ms. Alier has a pos­i­tive out­look on life, a trait that prob­a­bly ex­plains, more than any­thing, why she was able to sur­vive in Su­dan and her new home­land.

“I never get sad,” she said. “I just laugh at ev­ery­thing I go through. I’m a very, very happy per­son.”

SONYA HEBERT/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Re­becca Alier, who at­tends ser­vices at the Epis­co­pal Church of the As­cen­sion, says she was blessed to make it out of Su­dan.

Ms. Pediet (left) and El­iz­a­beth Akuen, who are cousins, sang from a Chris­tian song book dur­ing a church ser­vice last Sun­day at the Epis­co­pal Church of the As­cen­sion in Dal­las. The pair are among 12 Lost Girls liv­ing in Dal­las.

Su­danese women clap their hands to a Dinka song about the strug­gles of war in Su­dan.

Pho­tos by SONYA HEBERT/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Mary Pediet, a Su­danese refugee, hands 4-month-old Ajak Atem to his mother as sis­ter Aguer Atem watches. Ms. Pediet es­caped the refugee camps in Kenya, but her daugh­ter re­mains there.

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