The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience, by Mark Bixler. The University of Georgia Press, 2005. Pp. 261.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:34)
Imagine a cluster of tall, thin Sudanese young men waiting in an airport in Washington D.C. They are all wearing the same sweatshirt. They have spent the past four or five years of their life in refugee camps in Ethiopia. This is their first time traveling by air, seeing the U.S., eating chocolate. They are separated from their parents by war or death. They seem, as Mark Bixler remarks, "to have been plucked from another era and dropped into the hustle and bustle of contemporary America" (96). They anticipate another flight to Atlanta, Georgia, where they will begin a life they have been anticipating for some time- hard work in the hopes of saving up money, passing the GRE, attending college, and making a new life.
And it just so happens that other boys like them, also from the Sudan, have been featured on the CBS program 60 Minutes II and in The New York Times Magazine. On CBS you learn that these young men are committed to hard work so they can receive an education. Bob Simon in the 60 Minutes interview asks one young man how many hours he wants to work. The answer: Sixteen hours a day. Why? The answer: I need to have money so that I can go to school. In the New York Times, we see these opening words: This is snow. This is a can opener. This is a life free from terror." These are untypical, sympathetic men entering what is for them a strange new world. As a result, there are more than your typical number of volunteers calling up refugee resettlement agencies across the country asking, "Are y'all resettling these guys?"
Not all refugee groups coming to the U.S. receive the kind of media attention the Lost Boys of Sudan have received. In fact, most refugees arrive in the U.S. without any attention at all from the press. This is not surprising. Refugees have over the course of history been a marginalized people, and their "refugee" status has not always been recognized as such. In fact, the idea of a refugee as someone who needs protection from the state did not become prevalent until early in the last century. It was not until the formation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that a thorough definition of who a refugee is and how they should be treated was established.
A working definition of a refugee, one embraced by the U.N. as well as U.S. refugee policy, is summarized by Mark Bixler: "[A] person who has left his or her country and cannot or does not want to return because of a credible fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social or ethnic group" (77). "Credible fear" is a general term that in the particular can mean a host of different things. The credible fear for these young men was often a mix of ethnic and religious persecution.
Their "credible fear" is often accompanied by an incredible story. These boys, many of them Dinka cattle herders, heard or witnessed men with rifles shooting their neighbors or family. So they fled east towards Ethiopia, often walking hundreds of miles, starving and thirsty, fending off lions when they crossed deserts and alligators when they swam rivers. Finally, they arrived dazed and half-dead at refugee camps set up by the UNHCR. They lived in these camps for years, receiving some education and a bit of food, waiting to be offered shelter by the U.S. or another nation.
In addition, most of them would come to the U.S. as "unaccompanied minors"- that is, minors who are admitted as refugees without accompanying parents or adult family members. Their status as unaccompanied minors makes them doubly important in the current conversation going on about refugee rights and resettlement.
So to the book. Bixler narrates the experience of a group of four Lost Boys (p. 16-35, 111-210), examines the historical realities that make modern Sudan what it is (p. 56-74), explores the phenomenon of "selective compassion" as it influences our refugee admissions policies (p. 75-80), tells the refugee tale as seen from the perspective of those in charge of admissions (p. 81-94), and tells the refugee tale again as seen from the perspective of those who volunteer with them (p. 95-110). It concludes with a summary chapter, the status at the time of writing of the refugees and the country from which they fled.
Bixler's brief history of the development of international policies for the treatment of refugees (pages 75-80) is just one shining example of why this book should be read not only by those interested in the Lost Boys of Sudan, but by anyone interested in the American story of the refugee experience. Two recent and relatively popular books have presented the refugee experience from, respectively, a literary and sociological perspective: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Ann Fadiman; The Middle of Everywhere, by Mary Pipher. Bixler's unique contribution as a journalist is his telling of a compelling story of these brave young men that also captures the entire breadth of the refugee experience. Bixler's approach is multi-faceted, narrating not only the personal experience of some of the Lost Boys, but also examining U.S. refugee policy and the political situation in Sudan past and present.
Any adequate account of the method, means, and reasons for refugee resettlement by organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (for which I am an Ambassador and volunteer) is an adequate understanding of the situation itself. Most of us simply have an inadequate understanding of who refugees are (because they come from another place and diverse cultures), how they get here (because the governmental and social agencies involved in their settlement are themselves complex, not to mention busy processing refugees), and what needs to be done for and with them once they arrive (because it is the ever-recurring sin of second and third and sixth generation immigrants to fail to understand the immigrants and refugees who come later than themselves).
Bixler's book goes a long way towards remedying these deficiencies in our understanding. Since his book follows some of the Lost Boys through their first two years of life in the U.S., we learn not only about their initial culture shock, but also about their first jobs, their enrollment in places of learning, their search for lost family, and their common life together. Bixler also observes, often with the candor only a reporter can muster, the relationship between volunteers, relief agencies, and the Lost Boys.
As a Lutheran pastor and Ambassador for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), I was especially pleased to see that LIRS received positive mention by Bixler as an agency that provides exemplary care, especially for unaccompanied minors.
A story well told cannot be summarized, and this is true of Bixler's book. I cannot commend it highly enough. When I speak to church groups about the refugee experience and the ministry of LIRS, I am often at a loss how to share in a short amount of time all that is entailed in refugee resettlement. Book recommendations are my solution to that dilemma. Bixler's book is now at the top of my list.