Culture Undiscovered: The Lost Boys, All Grown Up

A couple of weeks ago I went to Changing Hands bookstore and sang happy birthday to a room full of people I had never met before. Why, you ask? Because Arizona has the largest number of Sudanese war refugees in the country, none of which know the dates of their actual birthdays.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know this, because I didn’t either — until I heard about the Arizona Lost Boys Center. The Center has been one of the primary support systems for these refugees for the last 9 years, offering resettlement assistance, job training, ESL, literacy and citizenship classes, and yes, the occasional birthday party. The Center began as a way to help the United States’ first group of unaccompanied, underage refugees through transition and assimilation, and has now become the site of a leadership development program that allows them to give back to the country that remains, in part, their home.

One of the leaders of that night, and the new program, is the Center’s spokeswoman Kadi Tierney. When I ask Tierney whether any of the Lost Boys’ stories are particularly memorable for her, she immediately tells me about Jany Deng. Jany, like all of the lost boys, works hard. He works full time as the program manager for the Lost Boys Center, helps other refugees find employment and counseling, and also manages the AZ Lost Boys soccer and basketball teams. Jany was forced to leave his home at 10, and was moved from refugee camp to refugee camp until the age of 16. He was then relocated to the U.S., where he was immediately enrolled in high school.

Ajak Dau Akech, one of the Lost Boys, at a refugee camp. Photo courtesy of the AZ Lost Boys Center.

“American high school is crazy enough without having to go through his experience,” Tierney says. As a way of finding a community for himself, Jany began to compete as a long-distance runner. He later graduated from ASU with a degree in social work, began working for the Lost Boys Center, and even ran the Boston Marathon.

While nothing can replace what Jany and his fellow refugees have lost, the Center has clearly become a very important cultural community for the Lost Boys. At the Changing Hands event, all of them expressed a desire to go back and rebuild South Sudan. They see themselves as privileged for having had the opportunity to live in America, and are eager to use their educations to help lead South Sudan down the right path. As always, the Center is ready to help the Lost Boys achieve their goals. The Center’s new name, The Lost Boys Center for Leadership Development, reflects the its new focus.

“Our focus is to get these amazing young men that have worked so hard to make lives for themselves in the United States,” Tierney says, “and put them into fellowship programs where they are giving back to the country they left behind.”

Interested in volunteering? Give the Arizona Lost Boys Center a call at (606) 262-2300.

Email me at jlpruett@asu.edu.