The Exile Files | News | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press.
Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters.
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984.
Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.


The Exile Files

The diverse backgrounds -- and futures-- of Utah’s war refugees



Kon Garang Akok towers over the second and fifth graders peppering him with questions. They want to know the tall, thin Sudanese man’s favorite African animal, if anybody in his family died and if there are any white people in Africa. “Did you, like, get attacked by a lion?” says a fifth grader in the crowd.

“No,” Kon answers.

“Do you know how to swim?” asks a second grader.


“Did you have to drink your own urine?” says an older boy.

“No. Other Lost Boys did that but I did not have to do that,” Kon says. “We found some water.”

Kon is lucky, and the kids are starting to realize it—not just because he didn’t have to drink his urine, but because he’s standing here in a Fort Union elementary school, which is about as far away from Sudan as a person can get.

Kon left his country in 1987, when he was the same age as the second graders wondering if he’s ever seen a giraffe. Government forces from the predominantly Arab north invaded Kon’s village, torching homes and burning crops. His parents were killed, and many of the village’s girls were captured and enslaved. Kon escaped, running into the jungle with other black, Christian boys. They eventually walked barefoot to Ethiopia, a deadly march several hundred miles long, hoping to find safety, but hundreds died of thirst and starvation in the desert. Some of them were eaten by the very animals the kids are curious about. Kon doesn’t tell them that the lions and hyenas hunted the parentless and defenseless boys.

Western aid workers dubbed them the Lost Boys, named after the characters in Peter Pan who banded together to survive in a hostile adult environment. Unfortunately, the boys who made it across the desert—Kon included—didn’t find any flying saviors or pixie dust waiting for them in Ethiopia. They lived in Ethiopian refugee camps for four years, until a coup in that country brought in a pro-Sudanese government and an order for the boys to leave. When Kon tells the kids that yes, he can swim, he doesn’t add that it’s the only reason he’s alive. When the Lost Boys tried to cross the Gilo River, near the Ethiopian border, thousands drowned, were eaten by crocodiles or were shot by pro-Sudanese forces. He doesn’t tell the kids that when he finally made it to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya that he still worried about being killed by local tribesmen trying to steal his paltry U.N. rations.

“Did you lose any friends?” a boy asks.


He isn’t asked what he thought of the war in Iraq and how it might affect Sudan, a country the State Department considers a sponsor of terrorism. The kids naturally seem more interested in what kinds of snakes he has in his homeland. But after the class, Kon, now 23, says that the war in Iraq gives him hope that perhaps Sudan will be liberated next.

“What happened in Iraq may happen in Sudan,” he says, adding that before he left Kakuma, one of the few elders in the camp had a premonition about a U.S. intervention in Iraq. “He told me that if we fought Iraq, the war in Sudan will end. When I was here, and the war in Iraq broke out, it occurred to me what this old man told me.”

In fact, the Lost Boys now talk excitedly about the rapid progress of peace talks between the Arab government and the Christian rebels ever since the U.S. launched its preemptive strike on Baghdad.

The fall of Baghdad means different things to different people—whether a beautiful glimpse of the future, a long-awaited event that now oddly causes ambiguous feelings, or a horrible reminder of the past—and how a group reacts to it tells a lot about how a particular refugee community views itself and its future. While the Lost Boys find hope in the invasion, local Bosnians, jaded by too many wars and even more promises, try to ignore it and instead concentrate on their lives in America. The reaction to the war should be obvious for the Iraqi Kurds and Shias, but now that it has finally occurred, they are faced with tough decisions about staying in America and with the difficult task of defining exactly what is and where is “home.”

The war in Iraq has also had an immediate affect on the future of resettlement in this country and this city. Refugees like Kon are allowed to resettle in America only as a last resort. Kelly Gauger of the State Department says resettlement is expensive and less desired than repatriation or even settling people in the country of asylum, such as letting Sudanese refugees stay in Kenya or Egypt. Resettlement costs the government money, not only in transportation but in rent and food assistance for three months. It also costs non-government resettlement agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, money to run language classes, immigration services and counseling programs.

“With resettlement, you get far less bang for your buck,” Gauger says.

The hope is that resettlement will increasingly become unnecessary as the Bush administration and its military bring democracy and safety to the war-ravaged people living in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and maybe Sudan. That’s assuming, of course, that the Bush administration is as committed to humanitarian issues as it is to economic and military ones.

Edie Sidle of the IRC’s local affiliate says that resettlement is already being shaped by U.S. foreign policy. She points to the drastic drop in refugees who were allowed to come to America after Sept. 11. In the years 2000-01, the local IRC resettled 506 people; in 2001-02 just 179. Those numbers are now just starting to rebound. The Bush administration’s plans in Iraq also mean that Salt Lake or any other American city likely won’t see an influx of Iraqi refugees. The hope is that not only will Iraqis want to stick around, but that those who fled in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s will want to come back.

For those who have already walked across deserts and forded crocodile-infested waters to make it to the United States, the idea of going home is a strange one. This is home for many of Utah’s refugees, and no war could change that. But for some refugees, the war in Iraq has given them hope, even if perhaps false, that there is one last move in store for them.