ARLINGTON — Yar Ayuel is happily married, has three children, a college degree, and a good job. It’s a life she could not have imagined when, about 20 years ago, she and her little brother walked for weeks across deserts and through wilderness, trying to elude northern Sudanese militia and wild animals, with hunger and thirst their constant companions.
“You moved because your body made you,” says Ayuel. “But there was no hope.”
The heart-wrenching exodus of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan is well known. Separated from their families, they trekked hundreds of miles to escape the civil war that took a half-million lives and displaced countless others. Thousands of the children died on the way to refugee camps.
In 2000, the US State Department intervened, and about 3,700 boys and young men were resettled in the United States; minors were placed with foster families. But what of their sisters, who were even more vulnerable in a culture that married them off as young as 12 to older men for a dowry. In the refugee camps, girls often lived with foster families who took them in and then sold them off.
“The girls were simply overlooked,” says Sasha Chanoff, executive director of the nonprofit RefugePoint, which he founded in 2005 to protect refugees in life-threatening situations. “You never hear about them.” Most of those who made it out were only discovered when they accompanied brothers or male cousins to resettlement interviews, says Chanoff, who worked in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya as the Sudanese children were resettled in the United States.
Only 89 “Lost Girls” were sent here to live with foster families, and Ayuel is one of them. Her story of survival against all odds is both brutal and poignant, with hardships that could have felled even the toughest adult survivalist. The journey encompasses the worst of mankind and the best, family lost and found, and at the center is a resilient little girl who refused to let herself or her younger brother die.
Because of her remarkable journey, Ayuel, 30, participated Friday in a panel discussion in Washington about the plight of women refugees. And today, she will meet the president and first lady. She plans to ask the president a question with no easy answer: What can you do to help my people?
South Sudan, which became an independent country in 2011, has been disintegrating since a civil war erupted in December, with massacres that have left tens of thousands dead, most of them civilians, and forced more than a million from their homes.
Ayuel’s story starts way before that, when she was about 7. She is fuzzy on dates and even her age because she was so young when her childhood essentially ended.
“The northern soldiers came to the village and just started shooting everybody in sight,” she says, sitting in her tidy apartment in Arlington. “My mother said, ‘Run!’ ”
In the forest, she met other children on their own. They spent weeks walking into Ethiopia to a refugee camp. Ayuel assumed her entire family had been killed, but while there, she was reunited with her father and brother.
They remained in the camp for two years until civil war broke out in Ethiopia. The three of them fled across the infamous Gilo River, where many were eaten by crocodiles, shot by soldiers, or drowned. “I saw a lot of blood and chaos,” she says.
Ayuel speaks softly, perhaps because her 8-month-old son was up the night before with a cold. Tiny coughs drift from a bedroom. She and her husband also have a 9-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter.
Soon after Ayuel, her brother John, and father reached the other side of the river, her dad died in an army bombardment.
She believes she was about 9, and John 5, when they met up with some Lost Boys, making their way from southern Sudan to Kenya. “We crossed a huge desert where there was no food or water,” she says.
They walked at night and rested during the day. “The night because it was cooler in the desert, and it didn’t expose us to people,” she says. “On the other hand, there were hyenas, lions, and leopards. You could hear bloodcurdling screams and you knew someone got taken by an animal.”
The children walked single file, “and when the first person sat, you sat. If you strayed off the path, you’d get caught by a land mine or a wild animal.” Disease and dehydration took others. Vultures fed on the corpses.
The siblings subsisted largely on leaves. “It’s not because I was strong we survived,” she says. “You just moved on because you knew that tomorrow you might not make it.”
When they reached the Kenya border, a UN convoy took them to Kakuma Refugee Camp. They remained there from 1992 until 2000, living in a mud hut with no electricity or running water. The camp was neither sanitary nor safe.
One day, there was a buzz. “People were talking crazy about going to the US,” Ayuel says.
She put her name on a piece of paper and eventually went for an interview. She wasn’t hopeful: “My luck hadn’t been good.”
But on Dec. 17, 2000, she and John were among the unaccompanied minors chosen. On Dec. 22, they were sent from New York to Boston. “I thought snow was just in fairy tales,” says Ayuel, smiling.
For several months, they lived in a temporary foster home and were told they might be separated. “No way am I leaving my brother,” Ayuel replied.
Again, their luck changed. Susan Peters and Patrick Cavanagh of Winchester, who had two children of their own, took them in. Peters had called Lutheran Social Services, which works with Sudanese refugees. The family opened their home and their hearts.
“We ended up with two amazing children I love and adore,” Peters says. “They’re just the most amazing kids. Honestly, John and Yar are my children and my idols.”
Peters thinks that Yar and John were 16 and 11 when they arrived; often refugees’ ages were simply estimated by officials. “We don’t know completely because they were undocumented,” she says.
The couple’s son Ryan, who is adopted, is 23, and daughter Caeli, 22. “The kids all bonded immediately,” says Peters. When Ryan had to write a school essay about the person he admired the most, he wrote about John and Yar.
But the adjustment wasn’t always easy. At first, the kids would speak their native Dinka at the dinner table, until Peters put her foot down. Ayuel would look at her feet when spoken to. “In my culture, I wasn’t supposed to look people in the eye,” she says.
She could not do math, so Peters got M&M’s, spread them on the table and for “2 times 2,” would put four in a pile, and so on. “When I asked her 5 times 5, her eyes got big,” Peters says.
Because she had little formal schooling, Ayuel had difficulty passing the state MCAS exam. Peters asked her alma mater, Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, to admit her. Ayuel boarded there for two years and blossomed with extra help from teachers.
Four years later, she graduated cum laude from Pine Manor College with a degree in finance. Today, she works in development for the Unitarian Universalist Association, which serves local congregations. She’s taking courses at University of Massachusetts Lowell, hoping to earn an MBA.
John graduated from Winchester High School and is taking a break from courses at UMass Lowell to live in Texas, where he and Ayuel have a cousin. The siblings are in touch and gather frequently with their foster family.
In 2009, Peters and Cavanagh sold the Winchester home and bought a farm in Vermont. She is an executive at a financial services startup and commutes to New York. Her husband, a former Harvard professor, teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris. They commute between Paris and the United States when possible.
Some years ago, Ayuel met a nice young man and has created a family of her own. Her husband is a Lost Boy she met at a party sponsored by Lutheran Social Services. Emmanuel Deng graduated from UMass Boston with a degree in criminal justice. He works for the state Department of Correction and is earning a master’s degree in public administration at Suffolk University.
“Thank God we got a chance to come here and have a normal life where you can go to school, have shelter and clean water,” he says. The couple was married in 2006 and became US citizens in 2007.
Of his wife, Emmanuel says: “When she does something, she goes for it. She works hard for it.”
That’s what she did when she learned in 2005 that her mother and two younger sisters were still alive. They had finally turned up at Kakuma, where staffers told them that Ayuel and John were living in the United States.
Peters, who once did political asylum work, arranged a phone call between Ayuel and her mother, who made plans for a reunion. “It was very emotional,” says Peters, who was also on the line.
But soon after, Ayuel’s mother was bitten by a snake and died. Grieving her mom, Ayuel worried about her sisters, then 12 and 15. Friends at Kakuma said the girls were in danger of being kidnapped and married off.
Ayuel called RefugePoint’s Chanoff, who had taught her in a class when he worked at Kakuma for the International Organization for Migration between 1999-2001.
Through contacts, Chanoff, whose nonprofit is based in Cambridge and
Kenya, arranged to have the girls evacuated from Kakuma and sent to a “safe center” in Nairobi. In 2007, he helped get them settled in Greater Boston.
“Sasha worked tirelessly,” says Ayuel. The younger sister is 19, a junior in high school in Needham, where she lives with Peters’s sister Helen. The other sister is 22, living in a foster home in Lynn and studying at North Shore Community College. Yar and Emmanuel see them often and are their sponsors here.
“I’m very pleased with how they’re doing,” Ayuel says.
But now she’s worried about her two older sisters who remain in South Sudan and fled their homes because of the recent fighting. “They’re very frightened,” she says. Many Lost Boys and Girls have lost relatives since the fighting broke out. In fact, some of the Lost Boys who returned to help their country have been killed.
Ayuel spoke yesterday on a panel at the United Nations Foundation on “Women’s Voices From Fragile States and Why They Matter.” She’ll also attend the White House Correspondents Dinner tonight, which is traditionally attended by the president and first lady.
Chanoff, who arranged for both appearances, asked George Lehner, a RefugePoint supporter and legal counsel for the White House Correspondents’ Association, if Ayuel could meet the Obamas before the dinner.
She is thrilled. She wants to thank the president and ask what he can do to help the desperate situation in South Sudan. And, of course, she’ll tell him she has two sisters still there.