For more information on Sudanese history and culture, seeVol. 1:Sudanese.
Decades of civil war, violent uprisings, famine, and disease in Sudan have killed millions of Sudanese and driven hundreds of thousands more from their homes. Some of these refugees have made their way to the United States over the years. The 2000 U.S. Census counted almost 20,000 Sudanese Americans, and the population increased to an estimated 35,000 by 2005. Of the 20,000 Sudanese Americans identified by the 2000 U.S. Census, three-fourths of them entered the United States after 1990. Men and boys outnumber women and girls by two to one.
By far the best known of the Sudanese American population are those known to Westerners as the "Lost Boys" (a name they themselves dislike as it infantilizes them), children who were separated from their families in the 1980s and walked for months across Africa to reach refugee camps. Most of the children were boys because they were away from home tending the family's cattle when their villages were attacked. Girls are traditionally kept at home, doing domestic work, so the majority of the girls were either killed or kidnapped by the attackers and few escaped. Of the approximately 3,800 refugees who were resettled in the United States in the early 2000s, only 89 were girls.
Sudanese boys are traditionally sent off in peer groups after initiation into manhood, either to tend cattle or go to nearby towns and cities to attend school or find other work. Banding together to survive the trek across the country to find safety in refugee camps was, therefore, a familiar response to unfamiliar circumstances. Sudanese culture also stresses the importance of cooperation and communal sharing, values which contributed greatly to the refugees' ability to survive the dangerous journey.
Upon entering the United States, the boys, or young men as many now were after years in the refugee camp, were randomly assigned locations by the resettlement agencies based largely on what city had the most resources available to handle their needs. The young men, however, found it very difficult to be separated from those they had lived with and depended on like family for so long, so eventually the agencies began to make more of an effort to keep those who were attached to each other together.
Sudanese Americans generally come from southern Sudan, where the majority practice traditional animistic religions. The number of Christians is growing, however, both in response to aid efforts by Christian groups as well as in reaction against the Muslim Arab rulers of northern Sudan. Once in the United States, refugees find themselves in the hands of Christian re-settlement agencies, as well as church volunteers, and turn to Christianity as a way to connect with their new communities.
The most important celebrations in traditional southern Sudanese culture are weddings, births, and funerals. Marriage and having a family is considered the most important part of life, and most young people are married by the age of 18. Divorce is only allowed in cases where the woman is unable to bear children. The question of marriage has become a difficult one for Sudanese Americans due to the scarcity of women in the population. Most young Sudanese American men would prefer to marry a Sudanese woman, partly because they hope to return to Sudan at some point, and fear that a non-Sudanese woman would not want to go with them, and partly because a Sudanese woman will share their cultural values. Some have even begun to request that resettlement agencies focus on bringing women to the United States so that they will have marriage prospects. The potential for marriage, however, is one of the reasons more young women have not been resettled outside of Sudan. Brides bring a large dowry, so Sudanese foster families choose to keep the girls with them in order to marry them off for the "bride price."
Birthdays are not considered significant or even remembered, so the ages of many Sudanese Americans are approximate guesses by resettlement workers and recorded as January 1 of the appropriate year. This had a significant effect on refugees resettled in the United States: those deemed to be under 18 were eligible for immediate placement in high school and to be able then to go to junior college for free, while those over 18 were ineligible and had to take on menial jobs to support themselves. Education is highly valued by Sudanese American refugees as a way to succeed in their new world and then take their learning (and money) back to Sudan to improve life for all in their homeland. Many of those who were "too old" to enroll in school chose to work full-time and attend classes as well to earn their degrees.
Although southern Sudanese are farmers and cattle herders, nearly all Sudanese Americans live in cities where they were resettled and have had to adjust to urban life. Apartments, electricity, supermarkets, and other integral aspects of urban living were completely new to them when they arrived. Fortunately, most had become fairly proficient in English at the refugee camps, so they were able to communicate with other Americans well from the start. Those who were not immediately enrolled in school quickly found employment, mostly in unskilled labor or service jobs. Sudanese Americans place a high value on work and consider themselves the equal of everyone else as long as they are working.
The majority of Sudanese Americans send money back to family and friends in Sudan. Relatives who remain in Sudan, in fact, put a great deal of pressure on Sudanese Americans to share their newfound wealth, which is not as great as those in Sudan imagine. Some Sudanese Americans have even had to change their phone numbers after receiving so many calls for help.
Sudanese Americans have not resided in the United States long enough to have made a significant contribution to the larger society yet. Two well-known Sudanese Americans, however, are retired NBA star Manute Bol who came to the United States at age 18 in 1983, just before the Sudanese civil war started, to play college basketball; and Simon Deng, a former Sudanese slave who escaped to the United States and is now an activist on behalf of emancipation.
One of the difficulties Sudanese Americans face in the United States is how to integrate themselves into what is still a racially divided society. Southern Sudanese have very dark skin, much darker than many African Americans' skin tone, automatically relegating them to second-class status in American society. Recognizing this, most Sudanese Americans choose to emphasize their African identity in an attempt to stay outside the limited boundaries of being black in America. Since many hope to return to the Sudan at some point, they are not interested in assimilating fully into American society anyway, so they retain their sense of being African rather than American. It remains to be seen how this dynamic will play out in the long run for those Sudanese Americans who decide to stay in the United States.
As stated above, a mere 89 of the 3,800 Sudanese refugees who were resettled in the United States in the early 2000s were girls. There are a number of reasons for this, including cultural restrictions on girls' travel and independence, the profit to be made in dowries, and lack of attention to girls by refugee camp and resettlement agencies. Many of the girls who made it to the refugee camps were placed in foster homes where they are exploited as domestic servants and "sold off " as brides. Those who made it to the United States were mostly relatives of boys who protected them and insisted that they be resettled as well.
Even those girls who have been resettled in the United States face the danger of exploitation. American foster parents have reported incidents where their foster daughter has traveled to meet with relatives only to discover that the relatives were merely interested in the dowry she could bring them. Although American foster parents want to encourage the girls to be connected with their families and traditional culture, they are wary of exposing the girls to disappointment at best, exploitation at worst.
Sudanese American women have begun to join together to help Sudanese women and girls both in the United States and in Sudan. Organizations such as the Southern Sudanese Women's Association, founded in 2000, provide counseling, education, and financial assistance to help Sudanese women and girls free themselves from exploitative expectations while still respecting Sudanese culture.
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—by D. K. Daeg de Mott