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Lost Boy Found

A young man whose childhood was shattered by a brutal civil war in Africa celebrates an achievement in America.

By Dan Barry

The Lost Boy arrived in Philadelphia in December 2000 with a name that was not quite his own: Joseph Malual Thuc. He was shivering in a white T-shirt and had never seen snow before. But Joseph's arrival in the United States marked an important milestone on a harrowing journey that began when he was a small boy in Sudan.

Long before the current wave of genocidal attacks by Arab militiamen against black villages ravaged Sudan's Darfur region, the nation suffered through decades of civil wars between a Muslim military regime in the north and Christian and animist rebels in the south. The first war lasted from 1955 to 1972. A second war, from 1983 to 2005, destroyed the southern village of Wangulei, where Joseph spent his early childhood.

In the fighting, his father was killed, his mother was wounded, and Joseph and his siblings were scattered. That is how Joseph became one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan—some 17,000 boys orphaned or displaced by the second civil war—who wandered the African plains in search of refuge. (There were also about 3,000 "Lost Girls." Some were placed with foster parents; many were sold as brides. Others have vanished from official records.)

The Lost Boys were generally between the ages of 8 and 18, although many don't know their exact age. Joseph (whose Dinka tribal name was Malual Manyok Duot) says he was about 8 when he left home.

"I remember a lot of traditional stuff," Joseph says, recalling Wangulei. "In wintertime we would come together and celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the new year. We would slaughter a lot of cows. Everybody get to be happy, dance, and play. Peaceful. No violence."

A Thousand-Mile Journey

Then the war came. Joseph and a group of Lost Boys traveled a circuitous path, moving eastward toward Ethiopia, where they briefly found refuge. They were then forced back to Sudan in an odyssey that included crossing the Gilo River, where some drowned or were dragged under by crocodiles. Two relatives helped carry young Joseph across.

Military attacks took their toll, as did starvation and thirst. Joseph saw boys stop walking and heard them say, "I can't go." He heard the muffled cries of boys set upon by lions and hyenas. He saw boys, including his friends, die.

"Wandering, walking all over, not knowing where to go," he says. "But keep going. Don't give up."

The Lost Boys' journey covered about 1,000 miles. Finally, Joseph's band of boys reached the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. "From here, we didn't walk anymore," he says.

Only about half the Lost Boys survived long enough to reach the camp. Joseph spent nine years at Kakuma, where he learned to read, write, and speak English. An official rechristened him Joseph Malual Thuc. When he argued that Thuc was not his last name, he was told to shut up or he'd never leave Africa. Like all the other refugees, Joseph was given a birth date of January 1.

In 2000, through a special program established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, thousands of Lost Boys came to the United States. After arriving in Philadelphia, Joseph and another Lost Boy lived with Louise Shoemaker, a retired dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, who is associated with Lutheran World Relief. "The first three months," she recalls, "[Joseph] was afraid every day that I would say, 'You can't stay here anymore.'‚ÄČ"

But those words never came. Joseph graduated in 2002 from Lamberton High School in Philadelphia, then chose to attend Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., because of the financial aid it offered, its quiet setting, and its location in New York City. He wanted to study international affairs.

Six-foot-four and usually dressed in a blazer and tie, Joseph stood out on campus. Every semester, several students chose him as the subject of their class project. They had questions: Where is Sudan? What is a Lost Boy? He would answer carefully, out of a sense of duty to bear witness to what had happened to him and other Lost Boys.

Reclaiming His Name

Much of the time, Joseph was like any typical college student. He got involved in campus politics, ran up big phone bills calling siblings and friends around the world, and even wore a basketball jersey on Halloween to tease all those who made assumptions based on his height and skin color.

In other ways, though, Joseph remained a Lost Boy. He did not go out too often, in part because he was sending money to siblings in Africa. He did not gorge on the cafeteria's cornucopia of food because he knew so many without. And when he rode the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan, he thought a ferry would make a wonderful graduation present—for use on the Nile River back home.

During Wagner's graduation ceremony in May, 462 men and women received their bachelor's degrees, including a very tall, thin African man who strode to the podium with aristocratic grace. He would soon be applying to graduate school. And the name on his diploma—a bachelor of arts degree in international affairs—was his own: Malual Manyok Duot.