"I want to design some bridges, and some dams and also roads. That's what I'm thinking of doing with my life."
Alfred knew the lesson couldn't last much longer. It was about to rain, and while the tree provided protection from the Kenyan sun, it couldn't repel water. As the first drops exploded against hard dirt, the volunteer teacher dismissed the class.
Little boys scattered through the refugee camp in every direction, but without typical schoolyard glee. They would rather learn mathematics and history than sit idle in their tents. Besides, they couldn't play soccer in the rain either.
Today Alfred Ngong confidently strides across the North Dakota State University campus. This is his school now. He's one of several young men, known around the world as the Lost Boys of the Sudan, enrolled at NDSU. Ever since their arrival, the 40-some Lost Boys relocated in Fargo-Moorhead have sought after schooling like water in a desert.
The university counseling center reception area is routinely crowded with tall, thin, young Sudanese men. As they check in with photo IDs and greet each other in native Dinka, the atmosphere is at once nervous and cordial. All have come to take the English language proficiency test known as "The Michigan." A strong high school transcript, a good Michigan score and a satisfactory writing sample can get them accepted. Daniel Kuol and William Garang — seniors at Moorhead Senior High — are back trying for better scores. The vocabulary section, they say, is difficult; there's not enough time to answer all the questions.
Ngong, who speaks four languages — Dinka, English, Arabic and Kiswahili — scored well on the Michigan. After one semester at NDSU, his GPA is 3.0. He studies six or seven hours a night for his classes in chemistry, trigonometry, psychology and Western civilization. His goal is to become a civil engineer. "I want to design some bridges, and some dams and also roads. That's what I'm thinking of doing with my life," he says, over a cafeteria lunch. That might mean returning to Sudan, but it might not. "Where I see there is a job available," he says, "I can do it anywhere."
Split by the world's longest-running civil war, Sudan offers Ngong little promise as a future homeland. His country has been at war for the past 20 years. Since 1983, nearly 5 million people have been displaced by the warring fundamentalist Muslim government of the north and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement of the south. Church World Service estimates that at least 20,000 of the displaced have been children, most of them boys fleeing conscription.
In the old days, before Ngong was born, spear-bearing men on horseback sometimes attacked his village. But the people of Awiel prevailed and kept their homes, cropland and livestock. Ngong and a brother shared their own little house in the family compound. In the summer he and his cousins took turns staying with their grandmother. At the age of 4 or 5, Ngong's job was to tend her sheep, goats, cows and donkeys. Each day he led them to one of many Nile tributaries that creep through the countryside. He loved to splash and play with other boys assigned a similar chore.
Then one day, government soldiers invaded Awiel — with guns. Fearing he would be taken as a slave, Ngong ran. Everyone ran. When he stopped, Ngong couldn't find his parents or his uncles or his brothers and sisters. They had disappeared.
What happened next is now legend. Hundreds of boys like Ngong — some older, some younger — banded together. Guided by a few elders, they began walking to Ethiopia.
It was a death march. The journey took three months. There was no food. No water. Lions, hyenas and other predators killed many along the way. Finally the survivors reached Ethiopia. It would be their home for three years, until the government was overthrown and they walked back into Sudan. But their native land was inhospitable. Within the year they fled to Kenya, where the United Nations had established Kakuma refugee camp.
More than a decade passed before the story of thousands of Sudanese boys, orphaned by the war, would move the world to action. In 2000, Ngong became one of approximately 4,500 Lost Boys allowed into the United States. They hoped for freedom, for safety, their new "mother and father," but most of all, they hoped for education.
But there was a rub. Many were too old for admission in public high schools. Without birth certificates, ages had been estimated. Some agencies required that boys be accompanied by at least one person who was 21, which automatically kept them out of most schools.
"All over the world it's the same. In every community there are good people, who can accept your presence, and there are people who look at your presence as a mistake."
Ngong and his cousins, Simon Leek and Santino Ajith, were fortunate. Despite the boys' official ages, West Fargo High School not only agreed to enroll them as students, but the teachers and staff took on responsibility for their well being. Moorhead Senior High School and Oak Grove Lutheran High School in Fargo also made special efforts to accommodate Lost Boys.
Word spread across the country: In Fargo-Moorhead, you can go to school. More boys came from Florida, Mississippi, Washington, Oregon and South Dakota, straining resources of sponsors like
St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Moorhead. But somehow they managed. Volunteers emerged to teach living skills, give rides, provide driving lessons, find jobs, furnish computers, help pay utility bills.
Because of the boys' ages and inexperience, this has not been a typical or easy refugee resettlement. All boys who came to Fargo under the guardianship of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota received at least eight months of support. Those attending school and living in foster homes can remain in the program until age 21. But since many Lost Boys were settled into apartments — in groups of three or four — when Lutheran Social Services' financial support ceased, they had to rely on county social services for food stamps and housing assistance. In some cases — like Ngong and his cousins — private citizens stepped in to pay rent so the boys wouldn't have to quit school and go to work.
As diplomas have been earned and GED tests passed, NDSU stepped up to the plate: It was time to put the university's commitment to diversity to a new test. In the fall of 1999, NDSU admitted three or four Lost Boys. The fall of 2002, NDSU enrolled more than a dozen. In March of 2003, at least 10 had already applied for fall admission. "NDSU isn't able to provide support and systems specifically for the Lost Boys. We wouldn't want to identify ourselves exclusively as the 'Lost Boys University,'" says assistant director of admission Rhonda Kitch, "but I think word of mouth is powerful."
NDSU has developed special orientation sessions to benefit students like the Lost Boys. Admission staffers give extra help with financial aid applications and other paperwork. Students who don't score well on the Michigan can enroll in NDSU's Intensive English Language program. When their English is stronger, they can enroll in regular classes. The frosting on the cake is NDSU's five-year Cultural Diversity Tuition Waiver. The university awards 70 of these full-tuition waivers each year to eligible students.
Ngong got one of the waivers, so he's able to live in Stockbridge Hall and eat in the cafeteria. Most of his Sudanese friends live and work off campus. "They think nothing of working at demanding, physical jobs for 30 to 40 hours a week and then being full-time students," says Kitch. "I think some of them are the best experts in time management I've ever met."
Ngong is like that. On any given day, he can tell you his exact strategy for fitting in classes, his work-study job at the library, meals and homework. "I'm never in my room," he says, and it shows. The only clues to his personal life are an empty Planters peanut jar and a few colorful shirts, packaged in plastic, splayed across a built-in dresser. The peanuts came from someone who knows he likes them. The shirts came from an African student in his campus Bible study who "wants me to sell them for him."
As he visits, Ngong fingers a church song sheet. It came from last Sunday's Sudanese service at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo. Anywhere from 30 to 60 Sudanese attend the ecumenical services. Ngong is a regular and, if he can get up early enough, also attends morning services at St. John the Divine in Moorhead. There was a time, in Kenya, when Ngong thought about being a pastor. He'd become a church leader, choir leader and teacher. He'd earned a Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education. But about the time he was being recruited for seminary, the opportunity came to study in the United States and that became his goal.
When Ngong reached North Dakota, he knew there was much to learn, especially if he wanted to go to college. The Rev. Alex Lodu-Kenyi, vicar at St. John's in Moorhead and a native of Sudan, was instrumental in getting many Lost Boys enrolled in Moorhead and West Fargo schools. Lodu-Kenyi is convinced the Lost Boys who graduate from U.S. high schools will do better in college, and in life, than those who do not.
It was Lodu-Kenyi who attended the first parent-teacher conference at West Fargo High School to discuss the progress of Ngong, Ajith and Leek. And it was at that conference that Betty Reyerson, director of the school's English as Second Language program, told an over-extended Lodu-Kenyi, "We'll take on these three... We'll get them settled." And so the teachers at West Fargo High School, especially Reyerson and Spanish teacher Kathy Scott, assumed responsibility for the boys' needs, from academics to lessons in housekeeping. Eventually they enlisted the support of Congressman Earl Pomeroy, who met with Lutheran Social Services to encourage placement of Ajith and Leek in foster care in West Fargo and who also assisted in their age reclassification. They'll graduate in May.
Ngong spent three semesters at West Fargo High. "From the minute I met him I knew he had his ducks in a row, because he came with a transcript," Reyerson says. For Ngong, it's always about learning. He even enrolled in summer school — after graduation — to strengthen his algebra skills. "He has qualities I don't see in a lot of high school kids," Reyerson says.
Ngong's conviction, determination and focus serve him well as a student. But socially, he knows he's on a learning curve. He worries about what people think when he turns down invitations to social events, yet he feels he must maintain school as a priority. He doesn't have much time to visit off-campus friends. There's no time for soccer. The only television he watches is the news. He doesn't smoke or drink, and he's not interested in dating ("girls are a waste of time").
Nothing in Ngong's new life can replace the thrill and camaraderie of the refugee camp choirs he spent four years conducting. "I was very good in singing... Here I don't have anything," he says, sounding sad. "I don't participate (because)
I don't see anything interesting like I used to do."
Still, Ngong is no wallflower. Coming out of chemistry class on a Monday morning he makes plans with a guy from Stockbridge to study for a test. In trigonometry a young man in the next desk leans over and helps him punch the right calculator buttons for an in-class problem (Ngong would rather work problems longhand). And in a campus computer cluster he bumps into Abraham Deng, one of his friends from Kakuma.
Many of Ngong's fledgling NDSU friendships are with international students in his Bible study group. "I've met a lot of people who live in countries I heard of when I was in Africa, but I didn't know what type of people were living there," he says. Getting to know young people from India, Sri Lanka and Nigeria has been good. As for his reception by the greater student body, Ngong gives a philosophical answer: "All over the world it's the same. In every community there are good people, who can accept your presence, and there are people who look at your presence as a mistake. They don't have the sense that we are the same and should be treated equally." People who treat minorities differently, he says, "don't know what they are doing." He avoids them.
Like most college students, Ngong will find a summer job or two. However, unlike most college students, he'll send some of his earnings home. Typical of many Lost Boys, Ngong has a family member in Kenya he's trying to help. He's been told the boy he's spoken to on the phone is his youngest brother, Ngong Ngong. But it's been so long since Alfred Ngong has seen his family, and the distance is so great, he can't be sure they're related. Still, last summer he sent part of his paychecks from Menards and Swanson Health Products to Ngong Ngong "for school, groceries and other needs."
"If I had the power to change one thing, I might give the whole world to speak only one language and do only one thing: to end the suffering of people all over the world, especially in African countries. If I had the power, I would bring the world into a peaceful manner."
As for his other four siblings, Alfred Ngong believes his eldest sister, Abuk, and her family might be living in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. And he thinks his father might be alive in northern Sudan — but it's been 16 years. In reality, his family has vanished.
Ngong has filed paperwork to bring his brother to Fargo, but says, "The chance of that is zero out of 100." He has good reason to be discouraged. Many Sudanese refugees are trying to get family members out of Africa. But events of 9/11 have made immigration almost impossible. "Many young Sudanese — Lost Boys and Lost Girls — have been OK'd to come to the United States, but security restrictions and a backlog of red tape have put a complete halt to the movement of refugees, particularly this group," says Paul Fuglestad, who directs the unaccompanied refugee minor program for Lutheran Social Services at the Center for New Americans in Fargo.
The good news is that the situation is expected to improve when the Immigration and Naturalization Service turns some of its duties over to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. In the meantime, Kakuma is bursting with more than 90,000 refugees from nine African nations. Rations have dipped to worse-than-Auschwitz levels. Disease is rampant. Neighboring Turkana tribesmen continue to attack, sparing only those who have something to steal.
Those attacks were once the stuff of Ngong's nightmares.
Remembering, Ngong turns a hypothetical personal question into a homily on world peace: "All of these happenings in the world are brought on by many different things. They are brought on by racism. They are brought on by different religion. They are brought on by lack of education. If I had the power to change one thing, I might give the whole world to speak only one language and do only one thing: to end the suffering of people all over the world, especially in African countries. If I had the power, I would bring the world into a peaceful manner."
— Catherine Jelsing