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The Lost Boys of Sudan: 12 years later

The Lost Boys, part one
The Lost Boys, part one 12:34

The following script is from "The Lost Boys" which aired on March 31, 2013. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Draggan Mihailovich, producer.

Twelve years ago, 60 Minutes aired a story about Lost Boys from Sudan who fought off unspeakable dangers and then flew off to the United States. It all began in the 1980s, during Sudan's civil war in which more than two million people died. The boys' parents were killed; their sisters often sold into slavery. Many of the boys died too. But the survivors, thousands of them, started walking across East Africa. Alone.

How to help the Lost Boys of the Sudan

Five years later they walked into a refugee camp in Kenya. That's where we first met them, when many were hoping to go to the United States. Well 3,000 did, as part of the largest resettlement of its kind in American history. We followed the boys for more than a decade and couldn't resist revisiting them, to see how they're doing. But first, we'll take you back to northern Kenya, to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Springtime 2001.

Nothing drew a crowd like the list. Once a week, the Lost Boys saw their destiny on a bulletin board. The staples of life. On this day, 90 learned they'd be going to America. .

[Voices: Boston. I'm going to Flororida...Flororida]

Every Sunday, a plane arrived at the camp to take the boys from nowhere to somewhere, from Kakuma to JFK and beyond. Not all of the Lost Boys got to go. Joseph Taban Rufino had walked to the board so many times, he tried not to get excited.

Bob Simon: What's new?

Joseph Taban Rufino: Something new. I've seen my name on the board.

Bob Simon: Your name is on the board. Where are you going?

Joseph Taban Rufino: That's Kansas City.

Bob Simon: Do you know where it is?

Joseph Taban Rufino: I don't know...

Abraham Yel Nhial was taking this walk for the 25th time. He was an ordained minister of Sudan's Episcopal Church at Kakuma. He looked at the board as if it were a holy scroll.

Abraham Yel Nhial: I'm going to Chicago...Is it interesting?

Bob Simon: Oh, it's very interesting.

Abraham Yel Nhial: Thank you for that.

They were known as the Lost Boys because they were between five and 11 when their Christian villages in southern Sudan were attacked by Islamist forces from the north. When they saw their villages burning, they started running. Streams of boys became rivers. Hundreds became thousands until an exodus of biblical proportions was underway. They walked for three months across Sudan, barefoot. Twelve thousand found refuge in Ethiopia. But after four years, they were chased out at gunpoint, chased to the Gilo River where the waters did not part. For Joseph Taban, that day will never go away.

Joseph Taban Rufino: We saw so many people who were just floating on the river.

Bob Simon: Dead bodies.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Dead bodies, yeah, who are floating on the river...

Many were shot. Many drowned. Many were eaten by crocodiles. Zachariah Magok was there.

Zachariah Magok: One thousand to 2,000 who died in that river.

Bob Simon: One or 2,000 died in that river?

Zachariah Magok: Yes.

It wasn't much better on the other side. They walked across deserts, over mountains. They had no food or water. Paul Deng was seven when he started the walk.

Paul Deng: You have to urinate so that you drink your own urine.

Bob Simon: Did you ever do it yourself?

Paul Deng: Yeah. I didn't want to die. Other people didn't want to die.

In the spring of 1992, after walking more than a thousand miles, the boys made it over the border into Kenya, to a desolate place called Kakuma. For the UN, it was an emergency of vast proportions, these emaciated children. For the boys, it was the safest they'd been in five years.

Joseph became a medical assistant at the camp clinic.

Abraham found a job, preaching the gospel in a church built of mud. The Lost Boys couldn't go home to Sudan and Kenya didn't want them. Then, in the year 2000, the State Department decided they deserved a break and invited them to come live in the United States.

Sasha Chanoff: What we want to do is give you a correct understanding of what life will be like in America.

Before they took off for their new lives in the new world, Sasha Chanoff, a teacher from Boston, gave them a crash course: America 101.

To learn about what Sasha Chanoff is doing now to help refugees in Africa, click here

[Sasha Chanoff: Does anybody know who the president in the U.S. is now?

Voice: George Bush W...]

Things they could not imagine, like winter.

[Sasha Chanoff: This is a little what winter in America feels like (begins ice demonstration).

Voice: It's very cold!

Voice: Will you die because of that coolness?

Sasha Chanoff: No, you will not die because of the coolness.]

He had three days to prepare them for a leap of a thousand years.

Sasha Chanoff: Many of them have never been exposed to lights or to a fork and a knife. Or seeing a TV. It's a group that's lost in time.

They had four days to pack their luggage. They took little, left less behind.

Abraham was taking a book he'd been carrying for 10 years.

Bob Simon: You still have the bible that you carried from Ethiopia here?

Abraham Yel Nhial: Yes. It's my life. I have been called a lost boy. But I'm not lost from God. I'm lost from my parents.

As in any farewell, the lost boys were saying, "See you soon," but they knew better. Kakuma was losing its doctor and its priest.

The boys had never been on a plane before. They'd never even been on a bus.

Five planes in two days. First initiation rite: airplane food. And then changing planes in Brussels -- getting their feet on the ground in the Western world.

Next stop for Joseph Taban and his brothers: Kansas City.

Abraham the preacher man was supposed to go to Chicago but at the last minute that was changed to Atlanta. Volunteers introduced them to their new apartments, to American mysteries like a sink or a stove...

[Volunteer: Don't touch because it burns. It's hot].

...a vacuum cleaner or a can, let alone a can opener.

[Voice: Wonderful machine.]

Within a few weeks, Joseph had his first job in a sweltering fabric factory when he got home from work at 11 at night, he stayed up studying for that medical career he'd always dreamed of.

You won't be surprised to learn that Abraham found his salvation in church. All Saints, one of the largest Episcopal churches in Atlanta. A month after his arrival, he was invited to be a guest deacon.

[Abraham Yel Nhial: Hallelujah, Hallelujah...]

[Parishioner: You were terrific Abraham, you were so good.]

A big problem was the sheer size of America and everything in it. Home Depot was a long way from home.

[Abraham Yel Nhial: This store is too big.

Clerk: Oh, I know it is.

Abraham Yel Nhial: This is confusing. ]

Confusing? Try to imagine what a fountain looks like to a man who walked a thousand miles through a desert. Sasha Chanoff, who taught the boys back in Kenya, said it was not easy for them to distinguish between what was real and what was pure fantasy in America.

Sasha Chanoff: They're hearing that people have gone to the moon. 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 going to the moon? It's hard for people 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?

Then came 9/11, just a few months after the boys got here. They thought they had left that kind of thing far behind, forever.

Abraham Yel Nhial: And it seem that war is following us. Wherever we go, war came after us.

[Joseph Taban Rufino:: Let's pray.]

As it did once again. The boys weren't surprised by it, not the way Americans were. For them, Islam and terrorism went together. Always had. Their reaction was immediate. Help the victims. In Atlanta, they offered to donate blood for the survivors in New York. But they were turned away.

Abraham Yel Nhial: So, what we did, we did collect some money, two dollars, five dollars. Because we have nothing. And we give about four hundred...

Bob Simon: Four hundred dollars?

Abraham Yel Nhial: Yes. And that's amazing.

Bob Simon: It really is.

Abraham Yel Nhial: Yes. A community with nothing. People just come from Africa.

But they weren't coming any more. After 9/11 the flights scheduled to bring over more lost boys were stopped. And the boys already here were having a tough time of it. That dreaded American winter was now upon them. They'd been warned, but it still came as a shock.

[Joseph Taban Rufino: Look, look, look!]

Winter gave them fun times, as well, though -- ice capades.

[Joseph laughing hysterically]

What Americans call a learning experience. And, Christmas, their first.

Bob Simon: In America, we call him Santa Claus.

Dominic Leek: Oh, yeah, I've heard of him.

Bob Simon: He lives in the North Pole and rides reindeer.

Joseph Taban Rufino: You mean he lives in the North Pole? Is he from--how do I call these people?

Bob Simon: Eskimos.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Eskimos, yeah.

Bob Simon: Well, he's the guy who brings presents to all the children on Christmas.

Joseph Taban Rufino: OK, OK.

Bob Simon: He makes kids happy, that's the important thing.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Oh that's good.

Within a year, a Kansas City investment banker, Joey McLiney, took Joseph under his wing and put him in the saddle. McLiney offered up his brand new car for Joseph's first driving lesson.

[Joey McLiney: Here we go. Stop Joseph, stop. Brake, brake, brake. Brake! OK don't...Lamp post! Hit the brake, that's the brake, the big one.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Oh boy. I'm so sorry, what a mess.]

That was nearly 12 years ago.

In a moment, we'll give you a picture of the road the Lost Boys have been taking in America.

Before their arrival in America in 2001, the Lost Boys of Sudan knew very little about what would be a totally new world for them. For the U.S. government, it was quite a social experiment. America may be a country of immigrants, but it's not often that the State Department organizes an airlift of people who know virtually nothing about the modern world.

The Lost Boys were sent all over the place from Fargo, N.D., to Phoenix, Ariz. Joseph Taban Rufino landed in Kansas City. Abraham Yel Nhial was sent to Atlanta. We never forgot about them and their fellow Lost Boys and we felt good when it appeared they hadn't forgotten about us.

[Abraham Yel Nhial: Hey, Bob Simon! How're you doing? Long time no see.

Joseph Taban Rufino: How you doing buddy?]

We visited the Lost Boys from time to time over the last 12 years -- wanted to be there for the moments they never could have imagined.

On this day, Abraham was one of 92 people from 37 countries to get a new piece of paper.

[Woman: Congratulations, you are now a United States citizen.]

A Lost Boy who now belongs somewhere.

Bob Simon: Do you think of yourself as an American?

Abraham Yel Nhial: Yes. This, this home for me.

Abraham is so proud of his American passport he carries it with him wherever he goes.

Abraham Yel Nhial: The only papers we have are from America.

Bob Simon: Are you telling me that passport in that jacket pocket of yours is the first identity paper you've ever had?

Abraham Yel Nhial: This it.

Bob Simon: Before that you had no document at all?

Abraham Yel Nhial: No.

Joseph still hasn't gotten a passport. His driver's license was stolen from him in Kansas City. And that was just the beginning.

Bob Simon: You've had your car flooded.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Right.

Bob Simon: You've been stabbed.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Exactly.

Bob Simon: You've been hit by a car.

Joseph Taban Rufino: That's right.

Bob Simon: Your kitchen was set on fire.

Joseph Taban Rufino: Indeed.

Bob Simon: And you like it here.

Joseph Taban Rufino: You know, things, things happen.

There was more bad news at work. Joseph was laid off a few times from his job at a grain company, a victim of the tough economy. He's back at work now, and in his small, dimly lit apartment still studies medical books, even while his dream of going to med school is slipping away.

Bob Simon: Do you feel like you've been successful in America?

Joseph Taban Rufino: Not at all. My main aim was to go to the school in order to be what I've said, to be a doctor. But things fall apart.

Bob Simon: So unless you're a doctor, you will not feel that you are successful?

Joseph Taban Rufino: That's true.

Abraham did graduate from college.

Abraham Yel Nhial: It's been a long journey but God blessed me.

After many 4 a.m. bus rides to school, he got a degree in biblical studies from Atlanta Christian College.

Sasha Chanoff, who led those orientation classes back at Kakuma, now runs an organization called RefugePoint which champions refugees in Africa. He still stays in touch with the Lost Boys.

Sasha Chanoff: I would say this is one of the most successful resettlements in U.S. history.

Bob Simon: Wow.

Sasha Chanoff: Some of them are in law school. Some are in medical school. But of course when you have 4,000 guys or so who arrive, some don't do as well. Some struggle.

Some have had problems with drugs and alcohol. A few are in jail. But some Lost Boys who were orphaned by war, have been wounded fighting for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Daw Dekon made it out unscathed.

Bob Simon: So you were in Iraq?

Daw Dekon: Three times.

Bob Simon: Three times?

Daw Dekon: Yes.

He joined the Army after 9/11.

Daw Dekon: I'm a young man able to hold a gun or to go with other young men in this country who were born here, why not? That's my duty.

Bob Simon: So you joined the Army because you wanted to give something back to America?

Daw Dekon: Yes.

Dominic Leek: (singing) Thank you America, I want to let the whole world know...

Dominic Leek, a friend of Joseph's in Kansas City, wrote a song he says represents the feelings of many Lost Boys.

Dominic Leek: When I came to this country, I was helped by the government of this country and the people of America. So, what I did was, I thank them for the opportunity they gave to me and my fellow lost boy.

[Abraham Yel Nhial: And we were forced into the river.]

Abraham feels he has a mission - to make sure people will not forget. He speaks at universities across the country. Here he was at Yale, explaining to students why he believes God kept the boys alive.

Abraham Yel Nhial: God kept us alive to be witness of what took place in

Sudan. That the only thing. It's not because we were more important than the others, than our mothers, our fathers and brothers who have dies (sic). But simple is so that we will be witness.

It happened a long time ago, so the Lost Boys don't have too much trouble talking about it, but at night time...

Bob Simon: Do you have a lot of nightmares?

Joseph Taban Rufino: Oh, indeed, a lot. During the young age where we were when I was there, we're not supposed to see the dead body, or bury the dead body. And we did that. And that's all come, like sometimes in form of dream.

For the Lost Boys, the most momentous news came in July of 2011. Their long-suffering homeland, South Sudan, was declared the world's newest nation.

Bob Simon: You saw the independent celebrations on your cell phone. How did it make you feel?

Joseph Taban Rufino: Oh, I was overwhelmed, going into tears.

Sasha Chanoff: They were an important factor that led to that independence.

Bob Simon: Hang on. They were an important factor that led to independence?

Sasha Chanoff:: I think so. They created a political environment in the U.S. where people were finally realizing what was happening in this remote genocide in Sudan that nobody had really heard of on a large scale before.

Not long ago, Sudanese flocked by the hundreds to a town called Aweil for a celebration. It wasn't Independence Day or anything like that. They came to a newly built brick cathedral to witness the installation of that preacher named Abraham as the first Episcopal bishop of his region in South Sudan.

A lost boy no more. It's Bishop Abraham now and who knows what's coming next.

Bob Simon: Maybe your next name will be Archbishop?

Abraham Yel Nhial: I don't know about that.

Abraham divides his time now between Africa and America. Not only is he an Anglican bishop, but a husband and a father.

Bob Simon: Oh, my heavens. This is your family?

Abraham Yel Nhial: Yes.

He goes back to Africa whenever he can to visit his new family. He got married in Kenya, has four kids, He wants them to join him in Atlanta but red tape keeps getting in the way.

Abraham Yel Nhial: Well, I would love that to happen, Bob. I've been trying for them to come but they not came. Maybe one day somebody will, will surprise me, that you and your kids come to America.

Joseph hasn't gone back to Africa, has had no reason to. His whole family was dead, as far as he knew. Then, incredible news: his mother Perina was alive, had survived the war, had made it to a refugee camp in Uganda.

And there was another miracle: Skype. So, a few months ago, Joseph ironed his best suit and went over to his mentor's house. His mother had been driven three hours to the offices of IOM, the international resettlement agency in South Sudan. It was the first time mother and son were going to see each other since they were separated by war 25 years ago.

His mother had thought Joseph was dead, had held a funeral service for him. Even now, she had no idea what he'd been through. When Joseph tried to tell her, he just couldn't do it.

But there were light moments too, shared memories of Joseph's happy childhood in a country village before the war ended childhood and everything else. And, of course, his mother wanted to know why, after all these years, Joseph had not married a nice American girl. After almost an hour, their time was almost up. His mother asked Joseph what all mothers ask their sons: When will come see me? And Joseph answered the only possible answer: As soon as I can mom, as soon as I can.

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