Jacob Puka: "Even at the age of six, you had to learn the name of each cow. You never count your cows, but our family probably had 500. Maybe 300."
The Ethiopian Army caught up with the boys at the Gilo River.
"Most of us couldn't swim," says Isaac. "It was really very deep and swollen because of rains. The currents were very, very fast. All the rivers were overflowing. We didn't have boats. There was no bridge. The army started firing guns at us. Artillery, big machine guns. And that's why many of us threw ourselves into the river, because we had no option. Out of the river you just get shot. I did not know how to swim, and I was scared to throw myself into the river and get drowned or be taken down by a crocodile.
Jerry and Kathy Moser: "And when they sang these hymns, we just felt like crying."
"So I followed another group who were running along the riverbank. When I was not able to cross the river, I got a bad feeling. And I sat down and I asked myself, 'Is this it? Am I going to be able to make it?' I thought at that moment that God must have a purpose for each one of us to be in the world, and I knew very well that some of us might die in that attack, and some of us would survive that attack."
"And at that moment my teacher — he had taught me English and math and science in Panyido, and he had walked all the way from Ethiopia with us — came back and held my arm and said, 'You can do it. Let's go.' I remember his name. It's Ariath. He knew how to swim, and he had a rope. The Ethiopians had no means to get across. They just kept firing from their side. So Mr. Ariath crossed the river and tied the rope in the branch of a tree on the other side and helped us to hold the rope and follow it to the other side of the river. Shells exploding, the river racing, crocodiles gathering, people crying, bodies floating. We were terrified. Where we were crossing, more than five crocodiles came to the surface, looking for boys to take down. I was so very scared. A big black crocodile that you cannot even imagine came up. We were barefoot, stepping through the rushing water stone to stone, trying not to slip. Anybody who slipped was lost. Our feet were so sore from the thorns we'd walked on. But we made it. Mr. Ariath saved the lives of more than 1000 of us.
"And when I finally got myself out on the other side of the river, I really gave thanks to God for doing that to me. More than 1000 of us also died there that day. And I prayed to God that the other boys who didn't have a chance to make it out, who were shot and drowned or pulled under by crocodiles in the river, to save them in His kingdom and let them know that God is available to them."
Isaac leans back in the couch.
"And now, here we are here," he says, "in Coronado."
"It was basically, originally, Kathy's idea," says Jerry.
"Well, we're both very involved in this," Kathy says.
We're sitting in the comfy little living room of the guest quarters at the rear of the Mosers' Coronado property. This is where they live these days, in the cottage behind their house. You look out across the lawn to a grand main residence.
"The Lost Boys live there now," says Jerry.
"It was the best thing we ever did," says Kathy. "We had been going to move in here anyway, to remodel the main house. Then something happened."
It happened in November 2003, when Kathy read a profile in the Union-Tribune. "It was about a young boy who was a refugee from Sudan. Well, not a young boy. He was at USD on full scholarship. And they did a very nice two pages about how he had come out of the war in Sudan and how he was [studying for] three Ph.D.s, something spectacular like that. And at the end of it they mentioned that there was a documentary film being screened at some of the libraries around town. Except there was only one showing left, and it was over in City Heights."
"And so I said to Jerry, 'I really want to go see this. Do you want to go with me?' Because I wasn't sure how [safe City Heights] was, and it was at night. He said, 'Sure,' and we went over to see this film. A young woman made this documentary following two of the Sudanese boys from the refugee camp in Kenya, and coming on the airplane, and adjusting to life in America. It was very well done, quite humorous and very touching. There were 40 or 50 people there, and eight or ten Lost Boys too. And I had never heard of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I didn't know who they were, and I didn't know anything much about Sudan. So afterwards, we went up to one of the boys and just asked if there was anything we could do. He gave us a woman's name to call. And I called her. I said, 'Is there any way we can be of help?' and she said, 'Well, we're having a Christmas dinner in a couple of weeks.' And I said, 'I'm there.' And Jerry said, 'I'll come too.' "
That gathering, says Kathy, is where it all began.
"We went to Price Club and got a bunch of mangos and some socks, which the lady suggested, and brought a little food, and we ended up in the kitchen all night. They had this Christmas program. People sang carols and they had a meal. Then one of the boys got up, and he said, 'Your Christmas carols are too sad, in English. We would like to sing some Christmas hymns in Dinka.'
"And when they sang these hymns, we just felt like crying. We were so very touched. They seemed so joyful, and they had so much faith, and we'd heard how much they'd been through, and on the way home I said to Jerry, 'Why don't we...it would just be huge to them, if we gave them our house to live in. Rent-free, no utilities, they could just focus on going to school for a year. What does it matter to us when we remodel? We don't care.'
"Jerry was a little...he wasn't so sure at first. I mean, you know, you're moving four strangers in, of a different culture. We didn't know them. We didn't know who would move in, so it was kind of a leap of faith. But we really prayed about it, talked about it for a couple of weeks, and decided to go ahead.
"I called this woman who also helps with them, and I said we'd like to donate our house to the Lost Boys for a year. So three of them came down to meet us. We liked them at once, and they took a leap of faith too, because they didn't know us, or if later we'd say, 'I'm sorry, this isn't working out.' They were in a house in Linda Vista that had been cold in winter, and the rent was being hiked up. And they really could not pay the rent the way it was. They were getting some donations and help just to do that, because they're on school scholarships, and because of their scholarships they're only allowed to work ten hours a week, at school, on campus. It's minimum wage, and so they don't really have that much earnings to cover gas and books and food, let alone rent."
"We moved out [to the alley cottage]," says Kathy. "We shuffled our furniture around, left the house pretty much furnished with dishes and bedding for them. We didn't know if we were doing the right thing."
It's a few days later. This time I walk straight to the main house, across rich grass, electric green in the penumbra of mature firs whose size makes the two-story, Cape Cod-style structure look more modest than it is. Black shutters hide the brick frontage on either side of white-framed bay windows. Upstairs, dormers punch out through the wood-shake roof. The place must be 50, 60 years old.
I knock on the front door. A tall young African opens up. Jacob Puka. He invites me in. A moment later, we're lounging in the couches of the dark, planky, well-used living room. Other Lost Boys wander in and out, or down the stairs, talking to each other or into cell phones, in English, and, I'm guessing, Dinka. "Yin ca leec, wok ben yok," says one. He winks. "That's 'Thank you' and 'goodbye.' "
They all seem to be tall, shanky, like basketball players, with broad faces, deep, wide-set eyes, and blue-black satin skin that makes for blindingly white teeth flashes when they laugh, which is often.
Everything is so casual-easy, I have to remind myself what these guys have been through. As Kathy Moser found out, they're participants in one of the most stirring modern stories out of Africa. Twenty years ago, they were all kids, five, six, seven years old, mostly boys, maybe 20,000 of them who escaped murder at the hands of northern Sudanese horsemen by fleeing into the bush. They knew their sisters, older brothers, and parents were being murdered or enslaved. Somehow, they organized themselves and over three months walked 1000 miles by night to Ethiopia. Then, when civil war broke out in that country, the boys, incredibly, wandered for months in the Sudanese desert before they reached Kakuma, a UN-run refugee camp in Kenya.
In achieving this, these children turned Lord of the Flies on its head. They survived by becoming their own family, helping each other along the way. Well, they didn't all survive, not by any means. By some estimates, half of them, perhaps as many as 10,000 boys, died along the way.
So to pop out of that nightmare bubble and wake up one morning in a luxury house in Coronado has to be as surreal as it gets. First, you'd think survivor guilt would set in. Then the explosive energy of rebirth, in a land where ethnic identity doesn't mark you for early death. And above all, the feeling that this is a miracle, wrought by the Lost Boys themselves, the UN, the IRC (International Rescue Committee), the U.S. -- and Jerry and Kathy Moser.
Jacob introduces the other Lost Boys.
"This is Nicodemus Lim, and Isaac Amol," he says. "Mamer, Mamer Ajak, is up working in San Francisco right now." Nicodemus Lim and Isaac Amol stand up from the sofa to shake hands. I do too. My God. I feel like Alice after she took the "shrink" pill. And, of course, they're not boys anymore. They had to grow up quick 15 years ago. Now their bodies have more than caught up. They are young men, mid-twenties -- though none is sure exactly how old, because Dinka culture didn't require IDs and passports and DOB registration.
The first thing you notice is how pleasant, polite, and blithe of spirit they are. No suspicion, no closed faces, no Götterdämmerung anger simmering in the eyes. These guys seem genuinely happy and optimistic. Plus, they're assured, cell-phone-savvy, computer-literate, and, just four or five years after landing in America, advanced, educationally, heading now for bachelor's and other degrees and professional qualifications. Nicodemus studies information systems at Point Loma Nazarene University. Jacob is into medicine, taking a summer school physics class, preparing for premed. Isaac is studying criminal law and justice. Mamer is completing his B.A. with a double major in business and international development.
We kid around a bit about living in Coronado. Nicodemus says, "Somebody asked me the other day at school. 'Where do you live?' I said, 'Coronado.' The guy said, 'Where?' And I said, 'Coronado.' 'Did you win the Lotto?' And other Sudanese people say to us, 'Now you have arrived in America.' "
"What Jerry and Kathy have done is beautiful," says Jacob. "People are so kind here. Everybody wants us to succeed."
"Yes, we are very lucky," says Isaac. "God has been good to us."
Jacob says he thinks 4-5000 Lost Boys have made it to the States. "In San Diego there are 87, maybe 90 of us," he says. The window of opportunity closed after 9/11, when security shut down all immigration from that part of the world.
He says education is important for most of them. "There are a lot of us at the community college right now. But at the university level, I think in San Diego there are five of us. Two of us are mostly finishing this year. Me and Daniel [Daniel Akech James, not living in the house], who's at USD. He is majoring in math and philosophy. And I have just physical chemistry left. But all of us, me, Mamer, Nicodemus, and Isaac will be graduating this summer. They'll have B.A.s. I will have my B.S."
You have to wonder how strange this consumer, Western, citified life must be for them. But they seem to have got it down with hardly a hiccup. They've mastered everything from driving the freeways, to handling shopping palaces like Wal-Mart, to credit cards, to cell phones, to the "Hey, dude!" culture and California's brasher, faster way of living.
And if their distinctive height, accent, and regal bearing make it hard to meld completely with the crowd, that's a coin with two sides. Jacob says they are seen as different from African Americans. "I don't know what is behind it. But perhaps it's knowing that I don't have 200 years of bad history with [white America] burning within me. I think because I'm from somewhere [strange], they put on their best face. It'll be 'Oh what is Sudan like? What is going on there? What do you people enjoy doing?' And 'What is the culture like?' "
I thought we'd launch straight into the terrible times during their famous "forced march" across Sudan to Ethiopia, and then down to Kenya. Instead, we're all seduced by thoughts of life before, when it was just family, animals, clan, river, seasons.
If you envisage Isaac and Jacob and Nicodemus and Mamer, in their pre-Coronado life, as belonging to a tall, pastoral people who live in conical huts on savannas filled with gazelles and lions and hyenas, you wouldn't be far off the mark. They lived in the valley that competes with the Great Rift as the place where man first evolved, where the legendary White Nile oozes into the world's mightiest papyrus swamp, the Sudd, where, till recently, life hadn't changed in millennia.
"My duty as a young boy was to take care of the calves, the young ones," says Nicodemus. "My dad and my older brother would take care of the cattle. Because there were, like, wild animals, especially lions, and it's very hard for a kid to watch out for those. The older people are the ones responsible for protecting the cows from being eaten. If they see a lion, they chase it out. And if the lion got lucky to kill one of the cattle, the whole village will go after it, hunt it down, and kill it if they can. Because they know it will come back.
"My village was on the other side of a big canal diverting the Nile," Nicodemus continues. "And there were a lot of trees, wild animals, and at night you could hear all kinds of animals. The lions go, like, 'Whoo-whoo. Hu -- hu hu hu hu hu hu hu.' "
He does a perfect imitation of a lion, going from a long G down to C like a foghorn, then trailing off in a series of grunts. Everybody cracks up.
"And the hyenas will go, 'Wooo-whoop! Woo woo-oo!'" Nico says.
"That's a good sound, Nicodemus!" Jacob says. "We'd scare them away by going, 'Woo -- whoop!' back."
Everybody laughs again, that infectious clicky laugh.
"Even at the age of six, you had to learn the name of each cow," says Jacob. "You never count your cows, but our family probably had 500. Maybe 300. Like, one might be named 'Adoldit,' after the name of our village. If it was red we'd call it 'Alual.' If it's named after a cattle camp, like the camp that we have along the Nile, we'd call it 'Amayak.' This is what the men train you to know. The name of each cow, the color of each cow. You had to even know the different strings [ropes] they had to tie them down. Each rope for each cow. If you want to milk a cow, then you just go and call her by name, and she will get up. Then you will go and pass milk [milk her]."
"In summertime we -- us boys and the men -- would walk along the Nile away from the villages, out to, like, total isolation. Only cows, and people who depend only on cows, wild animals and wild food. But we mostly only survive on milk. And the boys and men would cross the Nile so that we could go to pasture. With all the animals. Line by line. Isaac's herd, my herd, Nicodemus's herd. They would tell me, 'It is your turn.' Then I would jump in the Nile and call one of my cows, the most experienced cow in the herd. You first will go into the water. Then the leader cow will jump in. Then your herds of cattle will follow. But you'd have to watch for crocodiles. They sometimes attack. So in the beginning of January, we'd cross the Nile to the other side, to the west side, and spend the whole summer there: January, February, March. At the end of March, the beginning of April, the rain starts. So we cross the Nile again, coming back home, because when it starts raining, the Nile gets flooded. We get plenty of water at the village. So we recross and come back to the village, and you start farming. You start growing crops in April, May. Then June, July, August, September, October you start harvesting. We grow sorghum, we grow corn, we grow beans, we grow ground nuts [peanuts]."
The kids didn't have to help in the gardens. "Dad and Mum [he says "mum," in the English way] would wake up at 5:00 in the morning, go and start planting until...10:00. At 10:00, then, my mum would come back home and cook, and my dad would remain in the garden cultivating. And around 12 or 12:30, we would come and have lunch and take a break for a while. Then around 2:00, he would go back to the garden. They would both go back to the garden and stay cultivating till around 5:00. Then my mum would come back to cook, and my dad would remain gone till about 6:30."
And, Jacob says, parents never had to worry about their children or feel they had to entertain them.
"Oh no. We lived in a community of relatives. So the next-door neighbors' children are mostly your cousins and nephews, like, 30-40 cousins together. Children entertain themselves. We used to have games. I don't remember the names of them in English. In one game we used a ball, and if you got hit by a ball, then you're out. And if you don't get hit, you're in. And in another game they would have, like, one person in one station, and a bunch of people at another station, and what you have to do is to tag somebody to join you, so that you build up an army.
"The only time we interact with elders is during the evening. And that's when they tell their stories. They will tell you how your clan came about, what you need to know about your tribe, and about your clan, and who are your relatives, and who are not your relatives, where can you marry and where can you not get married. Like, which clan is a good clan to get married into. Or 'That clan is related to us, so don't even think of [marrying one of their girls].' All the women and men know.
"And they'd tell stories. I remember a bunch of short animal stories. The cattle and the lion, the fox and the lion, and the monkey and the lion. The monkey and the lion story is about the lion getting his paws stuck in the mud. The lion asks the monkey to come and help him, to drag him out of the mud. And the monkey says, 'I know I can help you, but you guys: If I try to help you now, you will turn and eat me after that.' And the lion says, 'No. Who could eat somebody who helps him?' And the monkey says, 'OK, grab my tail.' Then the lion grabs the monkey's tail and pulls himself out of the mud. So when he has dragged him out of the mud, the monkey tells the lion, 'Now I can go.' But the lion says, 'How can I let you go when I'm this tired? Where can I find something to eat?' So the lion eats the monkey."
Jacob says that now those days feel like a golden time, just out of reach. Yet one that was full of responsibilities. Even here, transported to the world's richest state, living in this exclusive enclave, Jacob is nostalgic for that other life. "We felt like we had everything."
Does that mean kids growing up in San Diego miss something?
"You miss a lot. Because I know the children [here] are born in towns, and the only thing they do is go to school. I have friends who, like now, are finishing in college with me, and they always tell me, like, 'Man! We have been going to school all our lives, and nothing else!' So I told them, 'Better to know life than school.' "
"Yes," Nicodemus agrees. "I think I'd take that opportunity if I could go back and live my life as a child in the way it was before the war."
The war. The war. The agony of a country -- Sudan -- splitting in two, the Arab north and the African south. These boys were caught in one of its convulsions.
"It was something that I'd never seen or heard," says Nicodemus. "A lot of sound, a lot of guns, killing, village houses burning, screams, smoke, flames.... As a child, I did not know whether there would be another tomorrow. I thought that was it. That was so frightening and terrible."
"When the war actually began in 1983, I didn't really know what was going on," Jacob says. "But in 1987, that was when I really knew something was wrong. When our village was attacked, I was in the cattle camp, on the east side of the Nile, close to home, but I was not at home. But they moved from the village to the cattle camp, and they attacked people in the cattle camp in the evening. So that's when we ran to different directions. We were told that an attack would come, but we didn't know that it would be at that time.
"Me and my cousins ran together, but my older brother was out with the cattle. So he ran in a different direction. He ended up joining the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army]. He joined because he wanted to, not because he was forced to. He was killed. Even me myself, if I was old enough, I would have joined. But I was too young."
"It was horrible," says Isaac. "When we were first attacked, we started walking, looking for a haven, first, towards Ethiopia. That took three and a half months. We were children. On the way, we were attacked by gunmen during the day, and during the night, we were attacked by wild animals. The lions would creep up as we slept. Have you ever heard a boy being taken by a lion? You hear him cry just once. Because the lion grabs him by the throat.
"But we decided to hide ourselves during the day and walk during the night and risk lions attacking us. We were learning about tough choices. We chose to face the lions, because they take only one person, whereas government gunmen could kill hundreds of us at one time."
In Ethiopia they found refuge, schools even, where they stayed for four years in Panyido camp, run by the UN. "We started primary education in Ethiopia," Isaac says. "You had to share one exercise book, and one pencil. When we left Ethiopia at gunpoint in 1991, I thought that if God gives me time to stay alive, and go somewhere, I will be able to go to school again. And I don't want to lose the book that I shared with the other people. So I [carried] my half-books and half-pencil all the way to Kenya. I had mine until 1999, when I got the chance to go to study at a Kenyan school. And I left my book and half-pencil at home in a box, and after I came back, I found the white ants had eaten them up, pencil, book, all. I was so mad."
It was when the Ethiopian government changed in 1991 that its policy toward Sudanese refugees also changed drastically.
"We were playing soccer," says Isaac. "Soccer was one of the big games a lot of us enjoyed. All African countries love soccer. Really, it was a bean ball stuffed with clothes inside. We didn't have proper balls. We were attacked by the Ethiopian government around 3:30 p.m. First thing we heard was automatic fire. We had to run to the jungles. But this was during the rainy season, so the Ethiopians could see our footprints in the mud. They followed. But the mud also made the tanks slow, so we could keep running.
"For the next two weeks we were running, heading for the Gilo River [on the border with Sudan]. It was terrible. During the day we could get attacked by the Ethiopian army, and during the night we used to get attacked by wild animals. So many of my friends, some of my relatives, colleagues, and clan members were taken by lions. And always behind us, we heard gunfire. They captured so many of us. And those who were captured were taken to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. None of them are alive today. Tortured. All of them died. These were children."
And this was when the Ethiopian army caught up with the churning tide of Sudanese boys and about 200 of the refugee-camp teachers who had fled with them to the Gilo River.
"More than 1000 of us died there," says Isaac. "I can never get it out of my mind."
It was far from over, Isaac says. Months of suffering ensued, all through their time in the state of Equatoria, being chased down by the hired guns of the Ethiopian government or bombed by Antonov planes of the government in Khartoum. On the other hand, Red Cross officials started following the boys and dropping food and water. And mosquito nets.
"Four of us had to share one mosquito net," says Isaac. "You can imagine: four for one net: the outside two would still get bitten by mosquitoes. The two in the middle could sleep. So we changed places during the middle of the night." It wasn't till a full year later, on August 31, 1992, after walking more than 1000 miles, that the survivors finally were allowed to enter the UN-sponsored refugee camp of Kakuma, in northern Kenya.
But why did the Sudanese government chase them down -- just boys -- so ruthlessly? "They were worried, knowing that there were so many children from southern Sudan," Isaac says, "and that the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] was giving them an education, knowing that that education would help them understand that war better and help them grasp a clear picture of the Sudan government."
Isaac had been baptized a Catholic in the Ethiopian camp. "But I never thought about God protecting me until I came to Kenya and lived in Kenya for nine years and then got the chance to come to the United States. That's when I one time said to myself, 'Why did God keep me alive? When other boys could not make it out alive?'
"And I came back with my answer: God has a purpose, to keep me alive. And that purpose was that God will give me a chance to get an education and send me back to help those who cannot help themselves back home. And that dream came true, and I did get a chance to get back to Sudan in 2005, over the summer, and I founded an orphanage for the children who are my age when I had to run from my home. So that was exactly why God kept me alive and what He wanted me to do, to guide me to those who cannot help themselves."
Isaac says the emotional toll on everybody in Sudan has been tremendous, not just the Lost Boys. "The war in Sudan affects every part of the Sudanese. They are attacked by anxiety. Memories of bad things, memories of looking for loved ones, memories of the government attacking them. It's something that they cannot forget. And I even talked to peers of mine back here. I tried to encourage them, if they can, to plan a trip together with me, back to Sudan to see if we can do some trauma workshops, try to counsel, and have people clear and cheer up their mind. But it's not just there. So many of us in different states of this country have the same problem."
Do the four of them ever talk about the emotional aftershocks, right here in the house in Coronado?
"When we don't have a lot of homework to do, we sit together and watch TV and talk together about the problems we have gone through. Even some of the songs we sang when we were trying to keep going [despite] so much depression and so many problems. We sometimes get it together and sing a song and dance and play. We sometimes ask ourselves what gives us that depression, and we'll come up with songs and sing them together and relieve ourselves from painful moments and thinking about the problems."
"And we sometimes make some analysis about what we are going through and what we have at the moment. Like, when we had nothing to eat, we sat together and told stories of all us people, the stories that we have from long time ago, from our elders. Doing that was a way to waste the time and forget about the hunger and having an empty stomach."
Does that depression still afflict him? "I might have a little bit of depression too, but it's not something that dominates my life," he says.
Sometimes, with that childhood experience always there, Isaac acknowledges, keeping the faith can be tough. "A few months ago some people attacked my cousin Santino on El Cajon Boulevard. He was going to get a phone card. They wanted money. They stabbed him with a knife. He was badly hurt. They left him on the ground, conscious, and ran away.
"After all he's been through! And by African Americans. I try to tell him, 'God is so powerful. He saved you and He kept you alive. This wound will heal.' But he can't work for three months. He was working as a waiter at Rancho Bernardo Inn. He didn't have Medicaid. Santino keeps saying, 'There's no safe place in this world.' "
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to an evening with the Lost Boys of Sudan!"
How well are the Lost Boys doing? In some circles, they have become bona fide celebrities.
It's happening this night in La Jolla. Neighborhood House is sponsoring an evening to hear the three Lost Boy authors of a bestselling memoir (PublicAffairs Books) called They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys of Sudan.
Polite applause rattles through the crowd. It's about seven. We're in a lantern-lit courtyard of the expensive Estancia La Jolla Hotel on North Torrey Pines Road. Guests mingle, cocktails and canapés in their hands, in a sunken garden surrounded by low bungalows, eucalyptus trees, and bougainvillea. A live band plays "Domino." Publishers and benefactors and people from the International Rescue Committee and Neighborhood House talk earnestly with, yes, three actual Lost Boys of Sudan. Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, also living in San Diego. They're here to spread the word and plug their book.
Somebody gets up with a microphone. She directs us toward an outdoor screen. We all gather round it as the face of CBS News' Bob Simon appears. He's standing in an African refugee camp. We're watching a replay of a report first broadcast on 60 Minutes in 2003.
"Tonight we are going to tell you a story about Lost Boys.... Peter Pan was a Lost Boy who fought off pirates and crocodiles before flying off to Never-Neverland. In Sudan, thousands of Lost Boys fought off dangers we can barely imagine and are happily flying off to a new life in the United States..."
The part that gets me is where Sasha Chanoff, an American working to prepare selected boys for emigration to the United States, tells Simon, "They [the orphaned boys] have a saying: 'Education is my mother and my father.' "
It takes a moment to sink in. That with no parents or village to give them a cultural identity and teach them survival skills, education would have to do the job of preparing them for the world.
At the end of the showing, people stand up, wide-eyed. Some wipe away tears.
Judy Bernstein, who edited the writings of tonight's guest speakers to create the book, gives the introduction. "People ask me, 'How come, when the [Lost Boys] arrived here, they spoke such great English, and they were as educated as our high school students and had such confidence?' Well, you saw on the video how they began their education in Ethiopia, writing in the sand with sticks...but if you were born in a Dinka village as were my co-authors, at age two or three you would probably be learning how to get an ostrich egg, or how to make a fire, or how to find water, or how to pick fruit, or what plants were dangerous, or what weren't. By the time you were four, you'd be tending the herd of goats, taking care of your little brother and sister, milking a cow, learning how to catch a gazelle or a rabbit. So, actually, their education began very, very early. And I think the answer to that question of how could they survive had a lot to do with early education."
Bernstein introduces Benson Deng. "He's the oldest. He's now 25. I think he was 7 years old in 1987, when his village was attacked in the middle of the night and he had to flee with two 5-year-old cousins in tow.
"Since he's been here in America, he worked at Ralphs for quite a while, until there was a strike. He goes to City College still, Grossmont now, and now he works at Waste Management Corporation. He runs their computer and digital-photography systems."
Benson Deng is the first of the Lost Boys I've encountered who gives explicit voice to the emotional damage this experience caused.
"When I walked through the desert in 1987, at age seven, I've been wearing the underwear and barefoot. I still now feel the pain. It comes back all the time. It comes back, like the cruelest rage. They come back like a very bad dream. But I'm standing before you today. You have the question, 'How could they survive and tell the message to these same people?' Well, not everybody there survived. A lot died. That's why we have to tell the story, because we are the ones who are still alive."
Judy Bernstein reappears.
"Before I introduce the next speaker, I wanted to let you know there are 100 Lost Boys in San Diego, and we have an education program fund through the IRC, and 70 of those 100 are still furthering their education. Which just shows you what a desire was planted in them early to be educated. All of them are working, and none of them are in jail, and I think that's a really great record."
Her introduction of Benjamin Ajak, Benson's little cousin, tells how some of the guys not on university scholarships are making out. "Benjamin," Bernstein tells the audience, "was the cousin who walked with Benson. Since he's been here, he also worked at Ralphs for a while. And he also spent six months on the movie Master and Commander down in Mexico, learning how to sail a ship and fire a cannon. And he came back and went to driving school and got a Class A license, and all last year he was driving an 18-wheeler all over the country, 48 states [applause]. But now, I'm glad he's not. He's going to be driving here in San Diego. So I'm thankful for that. And he's going to City College."
The three speakers all tell of their struggle to deal with their childhoods while also struggling to make it in America.
Then it's time to mingle. I tape these notes.
BARBARA: "I just got back from Africa myself on Monday night. I marvel at what they've endured to get here, and to do what they've done. It must be like living on another planet. I would like to know, how does one go about sponsoring a person? Because [coming here must be] like going to Mars without your parents."
JIM: "I'm a retired teacher. I'm interested in the personal dynamics of how they're selected, how they adapt here, how they're able to handle the requirements of working, supporting themselves, getting an education, their assimilation to the culture, and their ambitions. I mean, there's the hurdle of psychological garbage they have to carry. It's fascinating to me that these people have been stomped down, they lost all their contacts, and they come over here, they're just on their own, and [yet] they're able to assimilate, work hard, in the best tradition of immigrants."
JOE: "I don't want to be trite with my comments, but it's not often in life that you have an opportunity to experience something of real substance and courage. And it also shows how much we take things for granted in this country. That these kids think education is so dear. It wasn't given to them. They had to fight for it. And it's given to us here, but we don't appreciate it. That's what [affects me]. It makes you think about things."
PAYSON STEVENS, a writer who lives in India: "In August 2001, I was sitting in JFK airport, and I noticed these boys come in. I went up and welcomed them to America. I became friends with Alephonsion. It's unfortunate that since 9/11 they stopped taking in refugees from the Sudan. But these young men, it's amazing to me, their world that they've come from, and here they are sitting here in La Jolla. It's about as extreme as one can imagine.
"This evening is surreal," he goes on. "When [the Lost Boys] were extras in Master and Commander, I went down to Rosarito when they were down there. They introduced me to all these Hollywood types. And I'm thinking: these kids. Just two years ago were fighting to survive, and now they're in this high-rise hotel and acting in a movie. My wife and I have had Alepho over to many meals in our home, and we're always encouraging him to eat, because we knew the way they starved. And he always stops with just a very small plateful of food. And I say, 'Alepho, have some more food.' And he'll say, 'No, I've had enough. I know what enough is.' "
KAMLA KATUR, writer, Payson Stevens's wife: "I think that the problems that they faced is something they are going to have to deal with for the rest of their lives. I mean, just coming to America and having all this wonderful stuff happen to them, it's superficial, in a way. I'm sure being in a safe environment is very good for them and also gives them that calm space in which to deal with the deeper issues. [But] you can't change your eyes. It's like, now you've got a double perspective on things. And looking at all those experiences from this environment probably makes them even more horrible in some ways. Because as human beings we function through contrast. Here, they're always going to be expatriates. And I know what that's like. I'm an expatriate. You never quite reconcile yourself."
Somebody's onstage again. "What we'd like to do in regards to the book-signing tonight, we're going to run two lines...If you have not purchased the book, as of yet..."
And then Alexis Dixon, who does PR for Neighborhood House, takes the mike. "Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy. There's more music, there's more food, there's more wine, and a ton of books that make great Christmas presents...Enjoy."
"I'm going to miss him, very much."
Jerry Moser coughs with emotion. Jacob is taking off for the East Coast, the first of the Mosers' Lost Boys to fly the nest. He's off to study with Dr. Bob Slaney in Annapolis to train as a physician's assistant specializing in tropical diseases common in Sudan. Slaney's setting up a clinic there. "Jacob always said that most of the Lost Boys who died weren't shot or eaten, they died of preventable diseases," says Jerry. "It's a great opportunity, but this is going to be hard. Actually, we feel all four of them are like our children. Jacob usually comes back from school on Friday nights and sees us. So we've had a lot of good times at the end of the week. He's just a delightful guy. All of them are."
"It's way too fast," says Kathy. "We're not ready to see him go."
"But aren't you itching to get back into your main house?" I ask them.
"Not really," Kathy says. "We're just fine here [in the cottage]."
And the other three? All will be receiving their degrees come June. Probably this year will be their last in the big house. "They're all going to put their learning to good use," says Kathy. "Isaac is planning to leave and go to Sudan for six months, to work there to develop the orphanage with this Sudanese priest who's helping all those orphan children. Isaac has already raised $24,000, from the time he went back to Sudan last summer. They took it back in December, and they're drilling a well...for clean water for these kids, and they've bought school uniforms and blankets for them all, food. So they're giving back already, our guys. This Episcopal priest, Father Matthew, has no money, no finances, he's got 60 kids, and he's trying to take care of them by himself. When Isaac came back after visiting these kids, he told us, 'I saw myself all over again.' And his comment was 'I can no longer work for myself. I have to go back and help.' So he went on a trip to Atlanta. And Atlanta's people asked him to speak, and they said, 'We'd like to help. We want to give money.' He went to Houston, and one of the baseball players on the Houston Astros gave him a check for $10,000 and said, 'I want to help you, and there are other people on the baseball team who want to help you. Money's not a problem. You let us know.'
"So Isaac came back [to San Diego] with $24,000 in pledges and set up a banking account for this Father Matthew in Nairobi and wired the money.
"And this was cute," says Kathy. "He saw a boy in the camp who he thought was very bright and who already was teaching all the younger kids. He looked to me to be 13 or 14 in the photo I saw. But maybe he was a little younger, because they're tall. And Isaac said, 'I've adopted him. He's going to be my brother.' "
Mamer has been having a spectacular year too. He has worked two summer vacations for the Omidyar Network, eBay founders Pierre and Pam Omidyar's charity arm. He so impressed them with the $24,000 he raised among fellow Lost Boys for famine relief in southern Sudan that Omidyar matched the funds. Mamer, too, took the money over to Sudan himself. By the time he got there, they had enough food, so with villagers around the town of Bor, he decided to build permanent classrooms for schools instead.
Then over the summer of 2004, he interned in Washington, D.C., with Senator Sam Brownback, briefing him about Sudan, actually sharing Brownback's apartment, and even went to the White House. And all between studies at Point Loma University.
"People are saying Mamer could become a real leader in Sudan," Kathy almost whispers.
"So he gets back home from all this," says Jerry. "And he starts school again. And they come into his classroom and they tell him that 'the dean wants to see you.' So he goes to the dean. And it's Randy Newcomb from Omidyar who's in the office there at the college. He said to Mamer, 'We want to offer you a job. Here's the plan: We have decided to commit,' what was it, $45 million?"
"A huge amount. Millions, to Sudan, and that area of Africa," says Kathy.
"Now Nicodemus doesn't know this," Jerry says. "Mamer hasn't asked him yet, but -- we call him Nico -- Nico is a computer major. Mamer is going to take him with him to Sudan, and Nico's going to set up all the computer system programs if this thing happens. It's amazing. This thing with Jacob and the hospital and his training, he's going to be right back in-country.... Each one of them is already doing great things for their country."
Jerry sits back, to collect his emotions, and thoughts.
"We have learned a lot from them. They're very simple in the way they live their life, and as they share their culture with us, it makes me always, well, envious, because the culture is...there's something...you listen to them, and you go, 'That's right, that's how it should be.' And I think with [others], you don't have that feeling that you have with them. And so, in that sense, I think they have a longing for their own culture. Just to be back. I mean, the thing that excites us is that [this house] is a place that gives them a little time to come and rest, in the sense that they haven't had to pay rent or utilities. And it's been a lot of help to them that way. And we've got to have this relationship with them with no agendas. There are no expectations other than just really loving them..."
"And we've got the best end of the bargain," says Kathy. "Why, hello, Mamer!"
Mamer appears in the doorway. He looks even taller in the modest proportions of the Mosers' cottage living room. He's popped over from the main house.
"I talked to my fiancée," he says.
That sets the room atwitter. His fiancée's in Nairobi.
"Now where did she go to call you?" says Jerry. "Did she have a cell phone?"
"We have cell phones," says Mamer. "Her name's Aliet. It's a Dinka name. It means 'something planted ourselves.' Fullness, plenty, prosperity."
Mamer's mom over in Sudan (she survived the troubles) has plainly had a role in this.
"Well, they didn't really select," says Mamer. "It was not...I knew the girl already. And I...hoped she would be interested, and thank God she said she was interested. I went back with a cow, and she was interested in me."
It turns out his name, "Mamer," means "Brown Bull" in Dinka. Mamer didn't adopt a Christian name when he was converted, like the others. "My name is significant, because my dad gave a brown bull in marriage when he was marrying my mum. I'm his firstborn. It's a Dinka custom that you are named after a bull, or you are named after a grandfather. But I don't think that my grandfather was dead when I was born. They have to be dead to be named after them," he says.
Jacob appears. "I've just had exams: development of animals and immunology." He sits down.
Jacob's mom is alive, too, and he knows she's probably searching for a suitable bride for him. Finding her was a small miracle, after 18 years' separation. "I have a cousin in Uganda, and I asked him where my mum is. I told him to go to look for my mum, and his mum too. So he went back to the village in Sudan and found [them]. And he came back and said, 'I have found our parents who are left.' Because both our fathers are not alive. I sent him about $150 to go and help them come to Uganda. So I received a call in the morning, Saturday morning. 'Your mum is here in Uganda.' I went to the store and bought a phone card, and I called. And my cousin picked up the phone, and he told me, 'Your mum is here, and you can talk to her.' So I said, 'OK.' Then he got the phone to my mum, and my mum asked me, 'Are you my son?' And I said, 'Yeah, it's me, mum.' And she told me, 'OK, if this is really you, then let's put the phone down, and let me pray first before we talk.' So I said, 'OK.' I told her, 'You can just pray and I will listen.' And she said, 'OK,' and then she prayed, and she was crying. And after she prayed she said, 'OK. I'm back.' And I said, 'OK.' And she told me, 'This is what I have been praying for, to speak to you before the war ends in Sudan, to let me know that you are alive.' Because on that Sunday was the day that the peace was to be signed. So we spoke on the same day that the peace was signed. So I told her now, 'We don't always know how God works, but what you have been praying for is now come true today.' And she started with a verse from the Bible. ' "You have been lost, and now you are found," and we thought you were dead, and now you are alive.' "