Lost Boys II: Life In America

Adjusting To Modern Life Is Not So Easy

Before their arrival in America, the lives of the Lost Boys had been one long saga of war and suffering caused by the Islamic fundamentalists of northern Sudan who had destroyed their homes and killed their parents. The fact they came to America to escape from terror meant there would be some rude surprises ahead.

60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

Joseph Taban arrived in Kansas City and Abraham Nial got to Atlanta four months before Sept. 11, 2001.

A Kansas City investment banker, Joey McLiney, took Joseph under his wing, even offering up his brand new car for Joseph's first driving lesson. The lesson ended with a minor crash, but with no injuries; the incident was laughed about soon afterwards.

Within a few weeks, Joseph Taban had his first full-time job in a sweltering fabric factory. He didn't mind the heat, it reminded him of home. What was a bit confusing, though, was his first paycheck.

"How can somebody handle just that small paper," he asks, "and say, this is money?"

In Atlanta, Abraham Nial was invited to be guest deacon at All Saints, one of the city's largest Episcopal churches. Before long, he met one of Atlanta's most famous Baptists, former President Jimmy Carter, who invited Atlanta's lost boys for a chat.

"He was moved by our word when we talked to him," Abraham says. "He was really moved by our words."

He believes a lost boy will some day be president of Sudan. But first, they must learn to survive in America.

Sasha Chanoff, who taught the boys in Kenya and visits them often in America, knows it's not easy for them to figure out what is real and what is not.

"They're hearing that people have gone to the moon," he says. "If you're telling me people have gone to the moon, then they're seeing on TV that a horse can talk. Why is a horse talking so different from someone getting to the moon? It's hard to distinguish what is reality and what is not. Some boy saw a street sign that said, 'Dead End.' And they thought, well, if I go down there, am I going to die?"

After three months in America, Abraham felt he'd reached a dead end. He was still preaching at a small community center, but that didn't come with a paycheck. In a few weeks, financial help from the government would be cut off. But then he got the first paying job of his life working for the newly-formed Lost Boys Foundation, a group dedicated to raising money for the boys' education.

Joseph, meanwhile, wasn't satisfied with just one paycheck. He wanted two. So he got a night job, seating guests at one of the most exclusive steak houses in Kansas City. When he got home from his two jobs at 11 p.m., it was time to study for that medical career he's always wanted. A local doctor heard about him and came up with a book on microbiology.

But then came Sept. 11, and the lost boys who thought they had left a life of terror far behind found that it had followed them to America.

Abraham's boss, Mary Williams, was with him that morning. "I think they had a better grip on what happened than I did," she said of the lost boys. "Because this is something totally foreign to me. I don't understand random acts of terrorism on that scale. They did. And they do."

Joseph and his mentor Joey McLiney had talked about Islam before Sept. 11. "I had talked to him about Muslims and he had given me a pretty negative response," says McLiney. "And I wanted to tell him in the United States it's different, you need to think this way and that way. And basically on Sept. 11, I was re-educated because it wasn't a surprise to him."

In Atlanta, they offered to donate blood for the victims in New York, but were turned away because doctors didn't think they had any blood to spare. So they collected money - $400 in donations of $1 and $2.

Sept. 11 is still taking its toll on the lost boys. Relief flights bringing more lost boys from the refugee camp in Kenya have been stopped for now. And the recession cost some of the boys their jobs.

"Their biggest nightmare," says Williams, " is that one day they might be homeless. They're terrified when they see homeless people and they don't understand why there are homeless people in America."

In Kansas City, Joseph Taban has changed jobs again and is working for a company that makes office furniture. Nothing will keep him from his paycheck: not even a long walk at 4 a.m. to catch the first of two buses to start his workday at 6 a.m.

"He's living the American dream," says his mentor, McLiney. "He's already got jobs, he's self-sufficient. You've taken someone literally in the stone age and dropped him into a modern civilization and said after four months you're on your own. And he is, and he's fine. It's the most remarkable thing I've ever seen."

With winter, the cold weather the lost boys dreaded is finally upon them, and they have discovered it does have some fringe benefits - like ice skating.

Watching the group of lost boys struggle on the frozen skating surface, one might think they were young men in the throes of a second childhood. But you can't really call it their second childhood. It's their first – and they are making the most of it.

Jan. 2003 Update:

Joseph still doesn't have his driver's license. Since he hopes to start school in a few months, he might not have time to take his test for some time. Abraham is already in school, taking courses at a Christian college in Atlanta. And those lost boys still stranded at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, there is still no word when they will be allowed to fly to the United States.

Part I: The Lost Boys
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  • David Kohn

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