Joan Hecht, the founder and president of Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan and author of the award-winning book The Journey of the Lost Boys, and Atem Da’Hajhock told the harrowing story of the struggle of the Lost Boys of the Sudan last Tuesday as part of the Worcester State College Diversity Lecture series.
Through her lecture and the accompanying heartbreaking photos, Hecht and Da’Hajhock told the story of Sudan, a divided country, separated primarily by the Arab Muslims of the North and the black Christian/Animists of the South.
Following its independence in 1956, the northerners gained control of the country seeking to form a united Islamic Sudan. As a result, the North declared a holy jihad against the South, beginning a civil war that would last over two decades.
During the raids, entire villages were destroyed killing the men, women, and children at random. Many of the surviving women and children were captured and taken as slaves in the North. Over two million people have died in the genocide, while millions of others have become displaced.
The Lost Boys of Sudan, so named by aid workers after the fictional characters in Peter Pan, became separated from their families at early ages following attacks on their villages. They walked in large groups for approximately three months before reaching the safety of Ethiopia, with many dying along the way due to starvation and disease or attacks by wild animals. After residing in Ethiopia for approximately four years, civil war broke out in that country as well, causing them to flee once again to their war-torn country of Sudan.
Many died on that journey as well when crossing the deadly Gilo River. Those unable to swim were swept away in the turbulent currents. Others were eaten by crocodiles, attacked by hippos, or killed by enemy gunfire. The survivors remained in the bush of Sudan, hiding for approximately one-and-a-half years before making their way to the safety of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. In all, these young men had walked some 1,000 miles by foot before reaching their destination.
Da’Hajhock is one of the thousands of lost boys who walked through dangerous terrain for over a thousand miles to escape the violence that ravaged their villages. “Sometimes it is tough to recall all that I went through,” he said. He often thought he would die, “the next day, or the next week.” His one wish was to see his mother before he died.
He finally was reunited with his mother, when he was a grown man. Despite the fact that he towered over the small woman, she asked that he sit in her lap. “I was afraid I would break her,” he said, but he sat on her lap and kissed his mother. His mother now lives in Jacksonville and Atem works hard to support her and his brothers and sisters.
In 2001, the United States government awarded refugee status to approximately 3,800 Lost Boys, of which approximately 135 have resettled in the Jacksonville, Florida area. Da’Hajhock is among them.
Through the efforts of Hecht and her organization, Da’Hajhock has graduated college on the President’s list with a degree in political science. He now is saving money to go to law school. He affectionately calls Hecht “mom,” and said, “I love her beyond words.” He also said he is deeply grateful to her country. “Americans have given us so much and to those who much is given, much is required,” he said. “We are committed to paying back by helping others.”
Hecht and local Lost Boys speak actively around the country to various colleges, schools, business groups, churches, and synagogues on behalf of the Lost Boys/Girls and have been invited to briefings and discussions regarding Sudan, at the White House, and the State Department.
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