Lost… then found in Syracuse

Lost Boy John Bul Dau featured in award-winning documentary

by luke eggleston / sun staff writer

An ocean separates the two continents but both cultures can agree on the less than appealing properties of airline food.

“The food we got on the plane is not as good as the food we got in [the refugee camp] Kakuma,” said Panther Bior, a Lost Boy from Sudan, during an interview as he traveled from Africa to his new home in Pittsburgh.

Syracuse University’s Grant Auditorium in the College of Law building was filled to overflowing Friday night, April 13, and upon Bior’s observation, the audience erupted in laughter.

Those members of the audience who did not arrive early were relegated to the steps in the aisles and some stood in the back of the auditorium. They came to see the film God Grew Tired of Us, a documentary chronicling the Lost Boys, and to hear speaker John Bul Dau, a native Sudanese who is among the Lost Boys who resettled in Syracuse.

The film tracked the lives of several Lost Boys, focusing on Dau, Bior and Daniel Abul Pach. God Grew Tired of Us was narrated by Nicole Kidman and directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn. It won the Grand Jury Prize: Documentary and the Audience Award in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary categories at the Sundance Film Festival. Tommy Walker co-directed the film.

Dau was recognized last year by 40 under 40 of Syracuse and also received the 2007 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unsung Hero Award from SU. Dau recently became a U.S. citizen and he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences as a part-time student through University College.

The proceeds from the film are going to the building and operation of a clinic in Southern Sudan. Brad Pitt, who was the film’s executive producer, and Angelina Jolie recently donated $100,000 to the clinic. Volunteers from Dau’s church, the First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles, have been in Sudan working on the clinic. Following God Grew Tired of Us, there was a brief viewing of a film documenting the volunteers’ efforts in Sudan.

In a brief interview following the event, Dau said the main purpose of the screening was to raise awareness of the Sudan situation among Americans.

“The value is not only to raise money but to spread the word of the Sudan problem, of course today it is the Darfur problem right now,” Dau said. “Spread the word is the key, that’s number one. Spread the word to the American people that would never have a chance to know about it. Second is to now today raise money for the clinic.”

The moniker “Lost Boys” refers to the tens of thousands of youths and men who fled Southern Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The conflict between the country’s Arab, Muslim north and “African,” Christian and animist south erupted in 1984. The U.S. brokered a peace process that, in 2005, helped smooth relations between the embattled regions. Dau settled in Syracuse in 2001.

The film begins with images of the relative tranquility of life in Southern Sudan before the Lost Boys’ flight was forced by civil war. Images of streams and cattle offer an impression of peace.

“But when the war came to Sudan, we lost all of those things,” one of the Lost Boy narrators said.

In 1987, Dau and many of his fellow Lost Boys fled the Southern Sudan, finding refuge in Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian government collapsed, however, the Lost Boys were forced to go back through Sudan to find another refugee camp, this time in Kenya.

One of the refugees told the documentary’s crew that he never intended to remain in Kenya at the Kakuma refugee camp for 10 years, that he assumed the situation in his native Sudan would have been resolved within a few weeks.

The harsh conditions of the camp instilled in some refugees a sense of hopelessness. One admitted that he entertained notions of suicide.

Shortly thereafter during the course of the film, Dau, Bior and Pach begin discussing their impending move to the U.S. During a camp meeting, those who are about to leave implore those remaining behind to remember them.

Dau told the documentary crew that leaving his people is a very painful process.

After showing Bior and Pach adjusting to life in Pittsburgh, the filmed switched to Dau as he explored his own new world in Syracuse. The images of Syracuse drew exclamations from an audience that consisted largely of Central New Yorkers.

Dau stressed that he still loves those Lost Boys he left behind in the camp, noting that he hopes “God keeps them.” In the film, images of Dau in his new home are interspersed with shots of the hardships and horrors he left behind. Shots of local scenes such as Carousel Mall and Dau learning to ice skate at the rink at Clinton Square were among the backdrops familiar to the audience.

Another cross-cultural segment featured Dau wondering aloud at the significance of Western Christmas traditions such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees. He noted that Sudanese Christians use the holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, at which point the footage switched from the snowy scenery of Central New York to that of the camp where men danced and sang in celebration.

The filmmakers followed the Lost Boys through their daily lives in their new homes. Pach noted that life in the U.S. is not without its difficulties. He said that the long work days and unfriendly people he encountered on a routine basis took some getting used to.

A highlight of the film was Dau’s joy when he received a letter revealing that his family was still alive and living in Uganda. He had not seen anyone in his family since the flight from Sudan.

A significant portion of the film shows the Lost Boys as they labor to retain their sense of community and to raise awareness in the U.S. regarding the situation in their homeland. Dau noted that retaining Sudanese culture while living in the U.S. is a challenge.

Another highlight of the film is Dau’s reunion with his mother at the Syracuse Airport. Dau reveals to the documentary crew that he is anxious and nervous to see her after so many years. When they finally meet in the airport, Dau’s mother collapses with joy and then sings and dances as they walk down the corridor away from the security checkpoint. Dau’s mother was also present at the April 13 screening at SU.

Following the film, Dau thanked the crowd that had come to SU’s College of Law, including the roughly 15 Sudanese. He then entertained questions from the audience, deploying the Western axiom: “The only stupid question is the question never asked.”

The first question Dau fielded regarded the “Lost Girls,” who were referenced on a couple of occasions during the film. A second attendee asked what the selection process was for determining which refugees were permitted to come to the U.S. from the camp in Kenya and which were to remain behind. An SU student asked about the Sudanese government and what the U.S. government should be expected to do to help alleviate the situation in Dau’s homeland.

Regarding the last question, Dau said that he has little regard for a government that continues to kill its own people. He referenced the more recent atrocities the Khartoum state has committed in the Darfur region. The U.S. government and others worldwide have designated the situation in Darfur as “genocide.” Dau added, however, that he is loathe to criticize the U.S. government since it played a pivotal role in brokering the peace between the north and south.

“There is nothing the U.S. government can do that it hasn’t already done,” he said. He added that a military solution to the situation is nearly impossible since U.S. forces are already mired in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the final questions regarded the clinic. The attendee asked why the medical clinic was so important to Dau.

Dau said that while people in Sudan need “many things,” including education, “health comes first.”

“You can’t go to school without health,” he said.

Dau said he was elated with the significant turnout.

“I am shocked. I never knew that there would be a lot of people like that…that’s just great. It seems like we are going to do another one soon,” he said.

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