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Bishop a link to refugees' past

About 20 Sudanese men who relocated to the county in 2001 after fleeing their war-ravaged nation gather to see a bishop from home.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003


NEW PORT RICHEY -- The first time they got lost, soldiers had killed their families. Wild animals ate their friends.

Now after resettling into a stable life away from their war-torn country, the Lost Boys could be lost again -- this time from their faith and their culture.

That's the fear of Nathaniel Garang, the Episcopal bishop of Bor in the southern Sudan, the former home of the Lost Boys. He has been touring American cities the past month, strengthening the spirits of the refugees named by international aid workers after the characters in the novel Peter Pan.

Garang's recent visits are taking him to Lost Boys communities in a half-dozen states, including Florida, where 25 young men were relocated two years ago to New Port Richey.

About 20 of those men turned out Saturday at Calvary Temple Church of God for a daylong prayer session and talk with Garang and his assistant, the Rev. Peter Yuang. They hadn't seen Garang in two years, since they left the refugee camp in Kenya.

While the bishop wants them to be self-sufficient, he fears that they could assimilate too much.

"It's easy to get lost and lose their faith," Yuang said as the young men trickled in dressed in jeans, suits or khakis. He, too, was a Lost Boy before joining the church. "They need to be informed about home."

The young men had arrived in New Port Richey in 2001 from a refugee camp in Kenya, unable to work a light switch or a vacuum cleaner. But symbols of their new life appeared throughout the morning Saturday. Just after a prayer by Yuang, the happy bleating of a cell phone filled the hushed hall.

"Turn it off," Yuang said gently with a smile. "Mobiles can be a problem."

Minutes earlier, they had flashed their cameras in poses with the bishop. One of them circled the group with a camcorder. The gadgets belie the difficulties in making their way in a new country.

The young men are some of 17,000 Sudanese children who fled their farming villages during a civil war in 1987. About 4,000, now between ages 18 and 25, have been resettled in the United States the past few years.

World Relief, with regional headquarters in New Port Richey, helped relocate the young men in west Pasco apartments with the help of the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture. The agency's orientation aid provided through a federal grant -- help with taxes, laundry, dating -- came to an end Saturday.

Garang wants the young men to become independent while holding onto their faith and culture.

"We want to encourage everyone to go on with their lives so they can help themselves," Garang said.

He is asking relief agencies and federal officials to allow "Lost Girls" left in the refugee camps in Kenya to be resettled in the United States, too, so they can marry the Lost Boys. Only the boys were targeted by the federal program, and they left girlfriends in the camps.

Yuang says he and the bishop encouraged the young men to wait to marry a woman from home when they can return permanently or for a visit. Many of the men hope to go back once they get an education so they can help rebuild their countries.

"If they get married to Americans, the chance of coming back will be 1 percent," Yuang said.

The bishop and Yuang also encourage the young men to help each other and remember their culture.

"There are so many things that can harm them, like drugs," Yuang said.

Garang suggests that some strive to become ordained -- like several Lost Boys in other states -- so they can carry on ministries in their native language of Dinka.

"Now all the time we pray in English," said John Deng, 22.

Deng came dressed in a suit to greet the bishop. Since arriving in a cramped apartment in New Port Richey two years ago, John Deng has saved up to buy a used car. He works as a grocery bagger at Wal-Mart on State Road 54. He studies at Pasco-Hernando Community College to earn his high school equivalency degree, like many of the men. He wants to be a doctor.

Deng and other Lost Boys around the country pressed the bishop for news of home.

"We left people over there in bad conditions," Deng said. "We want to know what's going on in our country."

After the boys fled their villages in 1987, never to see their parents again, they endured near-starvation, brushes with armed rebels and wild animal attacks. Most ended up at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. That's were Garang ministered to them.

More than 2-million people from Sudan's largely Christian south have been killed in the civil war triggered by the government's imposition of Islamic Sharia law in 1984.

The bishop has been pressuring federal officials and the international community to end the enslavement and bombing of his people by the government.

While the Lost Boys' life in Pasco might be more comfortable than in the Kenyan camp, it's not always easier for them. They've tackled roofing jobs and strange things such as driving, taxes and laundry. Other changes strike them as curious.

"In our culture people stay outside a long time. In America, you must stay in the house," Deng said. Compared to a childhood filled with months of sleeping in trees to avoid lions, staying outside in New Port Richey is a scarier idea to him.

"Here, it's not safe," Deng said.

Thursday, the men cooked Garang and Yuang a beef stew -- a feat since they didn't cook when they arrived here. Saturday, they greeted the bishop with handshakes and smiles.

"This guy is a link to their past, to their history, to their country," said Mike Salas, a case worker at World Relief.

Though World Relief's orientation program officially ended Saturday, volunteers and mentors have been lined up to continue the help, said Beverly Patton, the agency's Sudanese youth manager.

As the prayer service began, Garang read to them in English and Dinka, reminding them that like God's chosen people in the Bible, they will prevail.

"They are not lost," Garang said. "They know their way."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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