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June 3, 2008

A journey into reality

BY PETER THIONG

Lost and Found: Peter Thiong, a Sudanese Lost Boy now living in Louisville, graduated from Berea College last month with a degree in agriculture. Photo by John Herzfeld
Lost and Found: Peter Thiong, a Sudanese Lost Boy now living in Louisville, graduated from Berea College last month with a degree in agriculture. Photo by John Herzfeld

The claim of the golden America was mainly preached and fueled by the few Sudanese women who lived in the refugee camp, in the dusty, oven-like place called Kakuma, in northern Kenya. The stories we were told about America were incredible. It was said to be a place where you could be paid a hundred dollars an hour just for tending someone’s flower garden. It was also said that if you spit on the roads, you would be fined. They also told us that the entire population in America was educated, and that almost everything was mechanized in factories and people’s houses; this account included the idea that all things, including alcohol, food and even medicine, could be sent directly to an individual’s house by a pipe system just like water. But the people didn’t need the medicine, because they never got sick. The United States was portrayed as a mystical place where people are happy all the time.

However, those of us who were soon to leave were doubting Thomases, and our skepticism was aided by American social workers orienting us to the culture. Nevertheless, a tug of war was raging between the methodical teachings of the American social workers and the glittering tales of the Sudanese women. I clearly remember a huge woman, Apial, almost six-an-a-half-feet tall and weighing three to four hundred pounds, an ideal woman according to African’s classification. “Those American social workers are not real Americans,” she said. “Real Americans do not want to come to a hot, windy, filthy place like this refugee camp, so they are not telling you the truth. America is a God-chosen country, a land that flows with milk and honey, a place where people do not die at an early age,” she exclaimed confidently and seriously. Those who were emotionally and mentally drawn to her stories about America congregated at her home each evening and listened to her describing and even advising people how to behave when in America. She talked of a remote-controlled spoon: “When you are tired, you just sit down and use a remote control spoon that feeds you while you are watching TV. All you have to do is chew and digest.” 

Most of us took her word as gospel; we even branded her as our wireless BBC. We did not have a clue about America; all of her audience members were war refugees who did not know about American life or cities, who heard about America as a distant and unreachable place. We almost disregarded the social workers who honestly told us about American life. I remember a few boys who quit attending the orientation sessions because they did not want to be told that America is a place where you would still have some difficulties. Their minds were plotting the mystical, heavenly scene described to them by the huge woman, who described everything as if she had actually been to America before. In truth, she did not even know how to write English letters, nor did she know how to write numbers. Exaggeration was typical of the women in our culture, and this woman sold it by the gross.

There was a certain woman whose husband was educated, and he had acquired the funds to buy a radio. This little Panasonic radio was an extremely rare treasure in the desert. Each evening, the women from the surrounding area would gather to sew under the shade of the few trees that could grow in the dust. To impress her friends, she would bring out her husband’s radio and turn it on, telling her friends what was happening in the rest of the world. The only problem was that she did not know any English herself; she could not even accurately relay someone saying “hello.”

When the first arrivals to the States sent money to their relatives in the refugee camp, we heard a rumor of someone receiving $100 from his cousin who had just gone to America the week before; rumors of this variety scurried around in huge quantities, just like the bedbugs in my bed. Such a sum of money was mind-blowing and unbelievable because it could feed an individual for six months. One afternoon, we congregated around the shop to look at the photos my cousin sent from America. He was well fed, healthy and wore nice clothes. He just left two weeks ago, probably weighed 100 pounds, and now he looked like he had gained 20 pounds.

My group mates and I were anxious when many people had already arrived in America, but our turn was still not announced. There were some boards where the names of people leaving for America were publicized. Every Sunday, we went to the boards to see if our names were among the leaving group, but our frustration and impatience grew as weeks turned to months without our names appearing. Finally, one evening while I was cooking, a relative of mine came running with good tidings. 

“Pandak, your name is on board,” he claimed. 

“You are just kidding,” I retorted. 

“I’m not lying, just come with me and see it by yourself,” he said.

I left my pot over the fire and rushed to the board with mixed emotions. The line was long; even those who were not eligible to go to America filled up the line to see if the names of those leaving were people who would send back money to them. 

Upon seeing my name on board, I pretended that I was not happy, but my facial expressions betrayed me. I had already turned down the offer of going to America once, more than one year before. However, this time, I concluded, it would be wise to go, especially since some of the people already there told about the money and numerous opportunities.

 I decided to have a celebration with my friends one Sunday before I left. I had a kale garden and three grown chickens behind my hut. Since I do not like to slaughter chickens, I sent a friend of mine to do the job. He stoned the three birds to death, and I went to my garden and picked the kale, then to the open-air market for some corn flour. The feast was huge, and we all ate to ultimate satisfaction.

The next morning, we walked to the United Nations compound to be taken to the airstrip. About 40 people were leaving that day, and we were all crammed into one tiny bus made for 15 people. I was sitting by the window, watching the people who were running after the bus. It was then that I felt the spirit of being American. Instantly, the surroundings that once used to be home just turned ugly and uncivilized. My mind had already journeyed to a foreign land with which I felt an immediate connection before I left the African soil. While we were in the plane, we started talking of our future opportunities. I overheard one boy who said, “Well, guys, we are now American properties.” His joke was applauded with great laughter that stunned the other passengers who did not belong to our group. We were desperate for America, and some of us even tried to speak like Americans, speaking through our noses, attempting to imitate the social worker’s accent, which was beyond imitation. It was a little disgusting and embarrassing when one guy even changed his walking style, a typical African long stride, to walk in a short, quick gait we saw as the Western walking style. Of course, we were all striving to change to fit into our new society.  

The flight was long. Our schedule took us to Saudi Arabia, Italy, France and then New York City, where we were allocated to different states. While we were in the plane crossing the Atlantic Ocean, beautiful American flight attendants gave us some food and drinks. The countryman beside me whispered my name and said, “Pandak, are these ladies not going to contaminate us? Look what they put into my cup!” I stared into his cup with wonderment before I received my drink with the same cold, cubic glittering objects. All of us in the plane were suspicious of the food, and some of us decided not to eat for the day-and-a-half of flights. There were allegations that these foods and drinks were contaminated with chemicals that would sterilize us. I looked behind my seat and saw the same object in a white man’s cup, easing my suspicion of contamination. However, I fished all those “ice cubes” out and put them on my tray. “Extremely cold,” I mumbled, “definitely poison cubes. I’m no fool, they cannot contaminate me with my eyes open,” I told myself. I felt defensive and waited for any spells those women tried to exercise on us.

New York! The woman who told us that in a moment, we would see America, and we would be surprised, was right. It did not look like a human dwelling place. It was beyond our imagination. Skyscrapers made of glass, congested traffic and people who looked like aliens. In the airport, people passed us swiftly as if they were vehicles, without a single one of them offering a greeting. What a busy nation! There were many ideas in my mind about this new place, and even as I remember them, I laugh and feel a little embarrassed at my own ignorance. 

Arriving at the Louisville International Airport, I found early Sudanese arrivals and our American sponsors waiting for us in the airport. Our sponsors — a medium-height blonde woman full of energy named Holly Holland and a wise-looking man called Dick Reese — greeted us before they gave us some candies. When we were taken into cars, I started to study carefully my surroundings. On the highway, I mumbled to my cousin, “Is she not going to collide with those oncoming cars?” I did not know where she was taking us. She was nice and friendly, though we hardly understood her through her accent. 

Four cousins, Kuai, Anyang, Kuol and I, were given an apartment to share. Later, in our apartment, we started to explore the magnificent shelter. To name a few luxuries, there was a radio, a TV, a kitchen and our beds already made with bedding. There was a refrigerator and a microwave, which were foreign and probably magical. Our sponsors paid our apartment rent for three months. We were taken to a bank to start our account, which did not make me happy. Why should I give my money to someone else to keep? I thought I should keep my money in my bag.

On some mornings, our sponsors would come to take us to the bus station and then to Kentucky Refugee Ministries where we had our ESL classes. After three months, we were given a bonus of $2,000 and started assuming janitorial duties at the University of Louisville Hospital. In eight-hour shifts. So much for Apial’s tall tales. 

One day about five months into our new lives, we congregated under a tree where we usually played dominoes. 

“Why were we told in the camp,” pondered one of my countrymen, “that America is a place you can make a lot of money by doing easy and simple jobs?” 

There were many answers. The fact is that everyone wants to find Utopia, and no one worse than us. We had suffered for many years in the jungle, and thought we were coming to a place where we would spend our lives without suffering. It was not true, and America is not all we expected it to be. Nevertheless, the opportunities are real, though you must work hard to achieve them. With enough hard work, you can get everything you want. And I intend to seize the day.  


Peter Thiong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who settled in Louisville, graduated from Berea College last month with a degree in agriculture. He has just begun a job with Catholic Charities, directing a federally funded program to help refugees develop sustainable agricultural projects throughout Kentucky. Thiong will be one of the students honored at the 3rd Annual Sudanese Scholars ceremony on Saturday, June 7, from 3-5 p.m. at Resurrection Episcopal Church, 4100 Southern Pkwy. The event is sponsored by the Sudanese Refugee Education Fund, a college-scholarship program. See www.sudaneseinkentucky.org for more. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com