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Drive to Survive: The Lost Boys of Sudan find freedom behind the wheel 

When Abraham Awolich passed his driver’s test last week, the rite of passage carried a far deeper meaning than it does for his young American counterparts. In his case, the connection between wheels and freedom is unmistakably poignant. At 23, he is one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” who trekked across East Africa on foot in the late 1980s to escape a homeland torn apart by civil war. Just making it out alive was a miracle. On a hot July morning at Burlington’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Awolich scrutinized his new license as if it were sacred.

“It will be nice to go by car,” says the lanky South Burlington resident, who’s been getting around on a bicycle since arriving in Vermont in February 2001. “We were not used to wearing heavy clothes, gloves and hats and it was hard to ride a bike uphill in the winter.”

An estimated 17,000 children, mostly male, faced starvation, thirst, disease and other horrors as they wandered together for about 1000 miles from the Sudan to transient camps in Ethiopia and then Kenya. They were dubbed “Lost Boys” because of their similarity to the orphaned tykes in Peter Pan, but no specific Neverland awaited them. When about 3500 of these displaced people finally began emigrating to the United States in early 2001, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program took responsibility for 40 of the wayfarers.

“They all have extraordinary stories of survival,” says Dr. Peter Galbraith, a retired Vermont state epidemiologist who has been helping the boys get to medical appointments, job interviews and tutoring sessions. “It makes you realize what’s important in life.”

Biking was familiar to the Sudanese men as they became acclimated to a radically different environment and culture — in Africa, it’s not unusual to see whole families traveling on a single bicycle. But Awolich and two friends, Ben Aguer and Deng “Deng K.” Kuot Kuot, are among approximately 20 of the expatriates who have graduated from two wheels to four, thanks to an ambitious volunteer effort led by Galbraith and his wife Debby.

The ability to drive was exceedingly important to these sub-Saharan Africans as they found employment, enrolled in schools and struggled to comprehend First World ways. During the spring and summer last year, Aguer rode his bicycle 40 minutes each way between Burling-ton and Essex Junction for work. He found a more convenient post last August, stocking shelves at Healthy Living in South Burlington. “It only took 20 or 25 minutes on bicycle, but, in the cold, I couldn’t even feel my fingers,” Aguer says.

He kept that up until December, when he passed his road test on the fourth attempt. “I failed one week, then scheduled another exam for the next week,” explains the persistent Aguer, now 21 and a student at Community College of Vermont. “What failed me a lot was parallel parking.”

His compatriots ran into similar obstacles. Deng K.’s first driving-test downfall was “the Vermont turnaround,” a quaint but legal process of making a U-turn by first backing into an intersection. On his second try, the Burlington High School senior was penalized for graciously giving the right-of-way to another car at a stop sign. His third time out, last December, was finally successful.

Awolich failed his only previous road test in June 2001 for going 35 in a 30-mph zone. “I’ve been very busy since that time with work and school,” he says of his recycling job and studies at the University of Vermont, where he plans to major in business. “And I just finished my summer mathematics class last week. I always use my bicycle or ask for rides, but now it will be, ‘Yes, I’m OK.’”

Things were far from OK for Abraham Awolich in 1988, when his secure existence in the Sudanese countryside abruptly ended. “The soldiers loot and set our homes on fire,” he remembers. “They kill my dad and older brother. I was 8. I left with an uncle and we walked with a big group for three months, day and night. People were attacked by wild animals or drown in the river.”

That river, the Gilo, is full of crocodiles, but waves of refugees had to swim across to the relative safety of Ethiopia. An estimated 5000 died along the way, often from cholera or dysentery.

Ben Aguer’s arduous journey began in 1987, when he was 7. “I was looking after our cattle, sheep and goats,” he says. “The militia came to our village and killed my father. I ran away to save my life. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

After two months of walking, and watching his friends starve to death or be killed by lions, Aguer was still bewildered when he reached a camp in Ethiopia. “I used to ask people, ‘Why am I here?’ I went to school a little bit there, but, in 1991, Ethiopia began a war. We were forced to leave. We went back to the border with Sudan and couldn’t get in, so we kept going to Kenya,” he says. “It took us a year and a half, until 1992.”

The Lost Boys built shelters at a United Nations camp in Kenya, where more than 200,000 refugees had gathered from various parts of the continent by 1994. Aguer and many others also went to school there, learning how to speak English. After eight years, he was tapped for resettlement in the U.S.

The same camp was a temporary home for Deng K., whose three-month escape from Sudan began in 1987, followed four years later by a two-month walk to Kenya. Automobiles had never been part of his life in Sudan. “We were farmers,” he says. “We had bicycles, but our family drove cattle, not cars.”

In every respect, Deng K. has gotten separated from the herd. “Most refugees come here with parents or elders, so these guys are unique,” Galbraith observes. Moreover, the Vermont contingent comes from the Dinka tribe, the kind of close-knit society that must make their exile here seem that much lonelier by contrast.

Thanks to the International Red Cross, Aguer and Awolich — whose uncle simply disappeared from the Ethiopian camp one day — have discovered that their respective mothers and several siblings are still alive somewhere in Africa. Deng K. knows that his entire immediate family survived; he even has a cousin who was resettled in Arizona.

In the meantime, the young men rely on each other and hold tenaciously to their goals. “They have a saying,” Galbraith points out. “Education is my mother and my father.”

Trumbil is a Dinka word that means both car and boat, two large conveyances that had little significance in rural Sudan. But here, the freedom to drive is both a lifeline and an affirmation that the newcomers can fully embrace American culture.

The Sudanese men purchased or borrowed automatic cars that appear to reflect their affinity for this promised land. Deng K. bought a 1996 Chevy, but is currently using his cousin’s 1989 Pontiac Bonneville. Ben Aguer got a 1996 Chevy Corsica. Abraham Awolich’s 1991 Chrysler Voyager has been waiting for him to secure a license.

As trustees of the Sudanese Education Fund, the young men decide how to spend their group resources. In some instances, vehicles have come their way at no cost. A month ago, a woman donated a Mercedes. The Sudanese sold it for $6700, which went into the general transportation pool and toward the purchase of new computers.

Other contributions have included free inspection and inexpensive repairs at Hometown Tire and Auto in Williston, and reduced rates for used cars at Shearer Chevrolet in South Burlington.

The Lost Boys are careful about accepting such gifts, however. “Rather than receive and not pay anything at all, the guys decided they would put $1000 of their own hard-earned money into the education fund for each car that’s donated,” explains Galbraith.

Yet the refugees do know how to ask for help when necessary. On a trip to Connecticut in June, Deng K. had a phone number but no address for the friend he was trying to visit. “In downtown West Haven, I went to the police. They called the number to find out the address. I asked them to take me there. I told them, ‘If I get lost and killed here, you’ll be responsible for that.’ They laughed and showed me where I had to go.”

After all he’s been through, there’s something of a wise old man about Deng K. Although only 22, he wryly measures his age in days. As of July 26, it was “8041 days.”

The Vermont support system has paved the way for the Lost Boys’ sense of purpose and independence. When federal funding for driver’s education schools expired, Galbraith and other volunteers pitched in to teach them the intricacies of navigating local roads. “We come from a different world,” he notes. “We grow up observing adults drive or we see it on TV. These guys had absolutely none of that, so it’s a very challenging situation for them to learn from scratch.”

What they do have is plenty of experience walking. When Ben Aguer’s friends invited him to go on a nighttime stroll in the mountains near Underhill last October, he told them: “I’ve been hiking all my life. The stars are not new to me.”

On another outdoor adventure in Richmond the same month, he and his buddies spent two hours trying to find the car that brought them there. Aguer was once again a lost boy during a solo trip to Boston a few weeks ago: After negotiating an immense rotary outside the city, “I had to pull over and look at the map many times. It took me, like, an hour to find where I was going,” he says. “I don’t give up, you know?

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