Overlooked amid Sudan’s civil war, Lost Girls finding a voice
Years later, handful of Dallas women share how they fled war zone
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.
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.”
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.
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.