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03 January 2005

Refugee students among "Lost Boys of Sudan" graduate from HACC

In 1987, cousins Michael Mach Paul and Abraham Anyieth, ages six and seven, trudged away from their burning village, bombed by Islamic forces from the North in the midst of Sudan's civil war. At the direction of rebels, they began what they describe as the horrible, hopeless journey to Ethiopia with thousands of other young boys, many whose families had been slaughtered, the women often being taken as slaves.

This Saturday, they will make a different kind of journey together - one filled with gratitude and hope - as they cross the graduation stage to receive their associate's degrees at HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College.

HACC's first winter commencement will be held at the Cooper Student Center, Harrisburg Campus, Saturday, Jan. 8, at 2 p.m. This commencement ceremony will enable the college to recognize those who have finished their studies this fall, as well as better manage the growing number of graduates participating in the spring commencement ceremony moving off-campus to a larger venue at the Farm Show Complex.

Paul and Anyieth are among 52 Sudanese refugees who arrived in Harrisburg in 2001. All went to work, some to high school. About 30 came to HACC, needing a General Equivalency Diploma (GED), as they had had some education in refugee camps. Paul and Anyieth are the first of the refugees to graduate, and they credit many of the HACC staff for helping the refugees adjust to a new culture and simultaneously, college life.

"They are a very driven, very proud, amazing group," says Dr. Lori Fair, HACC dean, Adult Basic Education & Developmental Studies. "They came here with nothing. They worked hard. They never gave up. They don't complain about anything."

"Just that they are alive is amazing," echoes Dr. Susan Bangs, an English as a Second Language professor. "I feel lucky that I got to know them."

Paul and Anyieth share a horrific past that was captured in the CBS 60 Minutes segment "The Lost Boys" which aired Jan. 2, 2002. They were part of the largest resettlement of its kind in American history - thousands of young men brought to America by the United Nations and the World Council of Churches after having spent years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Many had never been exposed to electricity, lights, television, a fork and knife - they were called a group "lost in time." Thousands of boys perished during the long walk to from Sudan to Ethiopia, barefoot for weeks with no food or water, some with no clothes. Many died of starvation, disease, and wild animals attacks.

Twelve-thousand boys made it to a refugee camp in Ethiopia where they stayed for years until civil war broke out there. They were chased by gunfire to a nearby river where one- to two-thousand more lost their lives as they were shot, drowned or eaten by crocodiles.

Those who survived started the 1,000-mile trek across desserts, over mountains, through jungles to a desolate place called Cachuma, Kenya, where they lived in refugee camps again for years. They could not go back to Sudan, and Ethiopia did not want them. Eventually, the United Nations' program began, and each week lists of names would be posted at the refugee camp, naming the next group to be flown to America.

Paul remembers starting the process of coming to the United States in 1998, and arriving in 2001. He also remembers receiving his GED that year at HACC. "I felt like crying for those who were not here with me, those who would not have the opportunities we have here," he says.

One of Anyieth's early memories at HACC was of being confronted for the first time by a computer. "The professor said our papers had to be typed or we would fail. I wanted to quit," he says. "I came from a village with no electricity, no telephone. I had never seen a computer before." He credits John Ford, HACC vice president for Special Projects and Educational Outreach, for encouraging him to continue, buying him CDs to help him learn to type. "It took me five hours to type my first page," he says.

"I'm very proud to achieve this dream," he says of his graduation from HACC, "and very proud of HACC" as he recalls his experience there and the numerous people that have helped him. "It was hard coming from a different culture. English is my third language. Everything was different. I was nervous. I couldn't get adjusted to the food - I didn't know what anything was so I just had to order to learn what I like. It's hard to sleep because there's so much light."

Anyieth will transfer to Shippensburg University in the fall where he will study Human Services. "Being in a refugee camp, working with the 'lost boys' [at one time responsible for 300 boys] gives me interest in helping people," he says.

Paul will transfer to Penn State Harrisburg to continue his studies in Criminal Justice. He plans to work with law enforcement for a while, maybe pursue graduate school. "I didn't know the opportunity existed," he says. "I did not have a dream."

"When we have our own kids, it will be hard for them to believe what we went through, the hardship, and that we're going to make it. Nothing could ever be as hard as what we've been through," says Paul, who credits his strong Christian faith for his survival.

Sadly, as they each cross the graduation stage, their families will not be present. Paul has not seen any of this family for 19 years, although 10 years ago he and his mother learned they were each alive, as was his younger brother in Kenya. Anyieth's younger brother escaped to Uganda. He does not know where his parents are or if they are alive.

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