Lost in Translation

Sudanese refugees struggle to make their way in America

Lost Boys of Sudan


Those of us who have grown up in the United States may be weary of our country's claims of freedom and opportunity. Faced with a wobbly quote from our leader attributing terrorism to envy, we might roll our eyes, aware of a reality far darker and more complex. But there are places in the world where the dream of America still lives. In Kakuma, for instance -- a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, where 20,000 Sudanese boys orphaned by civil war have lived for over ten years -- there is plenty of hope about America. "We have heard it is a good place," a man says to his friend, bidding him a successful trip. "This journey is like you are going to Heaven."

If only. Lost Boys of Sudan, an exceptional documentary about two Sudanese refugees brought to America, takes a heartbreaking look at exactly what this country can and can't do for young, resourceless men from a victimized culture. Codirected by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk (who also filmed), Lost Boys shows a great deal of compassion for its subjects, accompanying them on the voyage from Kakuma to the United States and witnessing their attempts to fashion better lives, both for themselves and for their loved ones back home. With a keen eye for detail and a gracious sense of humor, the film is as emotionally compelling as it is intellectually rigorous, asking key questions about international aid, immigration, assimilation, race and cultural identity.

Both Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, the film's protagonists, are members of the Dinka tribe, targeted for destruction by the Islamic fundamentalist government of Sudan. In the late 1980s, when their villages and families were obliterated, the boys fled into the bush, joining 20,000 others on a grueling march to safety in Kenya. There they lived until 2001, when the United States gave 4,000 of these so-called "Lost Boys" priority refugee status, bringing them to cities across America.

When we first meet them, the boys are still at Kakuma, preparing to leave for America. They receive wisdom of all stripes from their elders, including the immortal "Don't act like those people who wear baggy jeans." At the same time, they try to imagine what the experience will be like. Certain predictions are deeply knowing, as when Santino worries that "The lonely will reduce my size." (He believes that no matter how much food he eats, his loneliness will stunt his growth.) But the boys don't -- and can't -- know what truly lies ahead. And from the initial moments on the plane, when they puzzle over the boxed food, we see just how much they'll have to learn.

Often, it's charming (and even hilarious) to watch Peter and Santino confront the challenge of cultural difference, both because the moments of confusion point to everything we take for granted and because the boys are so graceful, and so human, in their attempt to understand. As their plane descends into the airport, they can't see any cars, so they decide, gamely, that they'll have to walk home. Once they're installed in an apartment in Houston, they spread a sprawling map on the floor and wonder, "Is this our whole village?"

This is the Crocodile Dundee brand of comedy, in which we are amused as people from other cultures attempt to assimilate the various complexities of ours. But here, the humor is laden with sorrow, since the boys are almost entirely without cultural ambassadors to guide them through the thicket. In Peter's case, the isolation is acute: After a few thankless months in Houston, he leaves Santino and the small community of Sudanese and heads to Kansas, where he is utterly alone. Determined to get an education, he enrolls in high school, landing in a community of wealthy, suburban Christians who constantly invoke their debt to God. In this setting, with its three-car garages and co-ed prayer parties, virtually nothing is familiar. Peter is a Christian, but it seems unlikely that his church in Sudan featured an LCD display of a grief-stricken, dying Jesus shifting around on the cross.

Meanwhile, Santino sticks it out in Houston, trying to make it with his $7-an-hour job. He manages to get a used car, which shortens the trip to work, but he has a harder time with the license and insurance. And with no opportunity to make new friends (save for the short lunch break at work), he's as lonely as predicted. Worse, though more than a couple of African Americans welcome Peter and Santino as "brothers," both boys face racism from black people as well as whites. And no American seems to fathom the depth of the suffering the boys have endured. When, at a party in Kansas, Peter informs a schoolmate that he's from Sudan, the response is, "That's awesome!"

On the one hand, Peter's experience in high school, where he makes friends and earns honors, gains him a place in an American community and likely admission to a four-year college; by the end of the film, his prospects in this country are looking up. On the other, he is terribly alone, separated from his culture, "a poor person among the children of rich people." Santino remains connected with the Sudanese community, but he can't seem to get a step on even the lowest rung of the American ladder. Does one preclude the other? Can the boys assimilate and remain connected? When the film contrasts the milquetoast singing of Peter's Christian friends with the vibrant call-and-response at a Sudanese gathering in Houston, we see what Peter's gains have cost.

What can America give these refugees, and at what price? Whatever the answer, this is a beautiful, important film, and you should see it.

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