Whitworth College students Michael Chuol, Anderia Lual and Gabriel Atem share the same birthday, even though they don't know when they were born. So, on the first day of January, they will celebrate their 21st birthday together. It's their best guess, but nobody really knows their real age. During the celebration, these three cousins from the same Dinka tribe in Sudan, Africa, will tell stories to help them remember who they are. These stories remind them of those who have gone before them; stories are all that is left of their past.
Michael, Anderia and Gabriel show what humanity is capable of: Hate took their families from them and turned them into refugees, while goodness ultimately brought them to the United States. Named the Lost Boys of the Sudan by relief workers in refugee camps in East Africa in the 1980s -- after the lost boys of the story of Peter Pan -- they are only three of tens of thousands of others like them.
"I don't like that name," says Gabriel. "I'm not lost anymore, I'm here at Whitworth with people. I've been found."
How Michael, Gabriel and Anderia survived the hellish circumstances of the ongoing civil war in Sudan and ended up on this serene campus north of Spokane at Whitworth College is, it seems, is even more unbelievable than James M. Barrie's children's tale.
Running From War -- The war between the Muslim government of the north and the Christian-Animists of southern Sudan started in the mid-1980s, when the boys were just four or five years old. For context, you need look no further than the Whitworth campus, where psychology professor James Waller has studied genocide. In his 2002 book Becoming Evil, he compares the situation in Sudan to conflicts we are more familiar with.
"Of all the wars that have taken place around the world since 1945," writes Waller, "the civil war in Sudan and the accompanying genocide against the people of the country's south have claimed more lives than any other single conflict. All told, the war has killed more than 2 million from a population of approximately 30 million people. An additional 4.5 million people have been driven from their homes -- more internally displaced persons than anywhere else in the world."
As for women and girls in southern Sudan, reports agree that government-sponsored militia groups continue to abduct them into slavery.
The story of Michael, Anderia and Gabriel, of course, represents only a small portion of the Sudanese Civil War's terrible toll. The boys had gotten together one morning to play in one of their homes in their village. Michael has the best memory of what happened on that fateful morning.
"I remember hearing the screams, 'War has broken out!,'" he says. "I was all alone. Abandoned. I was looking for my mom, but she was not there. There was an army of people. My uncle grabbed me, yelling 'Run!'"
Which is just what the three boys, along with thousands of others, did. "When we ran from our country, we called 'Mommy, Daddy,' but we didn't see them," says Gabriel. "I just ran. Not seeing them, I wondered where they were."
Many villages were sacked this way, with adults murdered and kids left to fend for themselves. The boys traveled together in a large group, later estimated to be around 17,000. Most of them were children between the ages of five and 15. They ate food along the road, and in the midst of a water shortage drank whatever they could find. Reports from relief workers in Sudan suggest some of the children drank their own urine and ate leaves and bark to survive.
"It was kind of like eating a form of salad here," says Anderia. "It was especially hard when daylight came, because I would think of my parents. We started to get together to pray for the situation, because even as children we knew how chaotic it was."
It took the boys about three months to go 1,500 hundred miles from their home village to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The journey into the hostile desert of East Africa was full of danger.
"I remember crossing a river full of crocodiles," says Anderia. "I saw them while I was in the water. We heard stories that some people died in the Gilo River."
Anderia also remembers hyenas and lions roaming for prey across the vast landscape of wilderness. "At night, I'd get scared because of the wild animals. I'd heard how they'd tear apart work crews in the evening. I could always tell danger was near, by the way the animals cried, in this loud roaring sound."
Yet Michael, Anderia, Gabriel and thousands of other boys managed to survive all of the elements in this hot, dry environment, and arrived in Ethiopia scarred, but in once piece.
"As kids, we really didn't know why things happened the way they did," says Anderia. "I had a friend die. I said I want to die, too, because I thought I could see him, and we would come back again. Those were my childlike beliefs. Later, adults would come and explain it doesn't work that way."
A New Beginning -- Four years later, when the boys were about nine years old, war broke out again, this time in Ethiopia, forcing the boys to return to their homeland for a brief time. By 1992, the Ethiopian refugee camps were completely closed.
"I lost my biological family in Sudan," says Anderia. "My mom, my dad. I am one of four brothers and six sisters. We were back for eight months, and I never found them."
As the situation got worse in Sudan, with the government bombing its own people during the day, the children were transferred by truck another 1,500 miles, this time to a border town. In the next couple of months, they were able to walk across the border into Kenya to a refugee camp called Kakama.
"I was kind of sad, because I remember when there was no war in Sudan," says Michael. "You could stay in your house and get food from your mom and dad. I was struggling by myself. I didn't know what to do. It was a terrible life."
Yet the boys continued to survive, living in Kakama for the next eight years. Even though the refugee camp didn't have a lot of teachers or facilities, the boys went to school.
At the end of 1999, as the world prepared to celebrate a new millennium, thousands of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan were asked by the United States to fill out forms if they wanted to come to America. Michael, Anderia and Gabriel jumped at the chance. Through Catholic Church Service, some 3,000 of the boys were allowed to come to the U.S.
"I wanted to come because America is a country of peace," says Gabriel. "America is a happy country with freedom."
"I remember asking the migration agency to tell me about America," says Anderia. "They told me America is a country without war. I immediately said, 'It is an easy choice. I will go.'"
They were allowed to come to America, and they wound up in western Washington with foster parents and enrolled at Yelm High School in 2001. Then 9/11 happened.
"It was a bad time, America lost a couple of thousand citizens that day," says Michael. "It was amazing to see the world's reaction. It made me think about the one million people who died in Sudan, from 1991-1994, and wonder where the world's outrage was then."
"It made me think about the value of life," says Anderia. "In some countries of the world, like Sudan, where there is a lot of war, they don't know what humanity is."
Running by Choice -- At Yelm High School, Gabriel and Anderia played soccer their sophomore season, while Michael ran track.
"I started running when I got to America," says Michael. "You can buy shoes here, and you have time to do what you want to do."
During that first spring, Yelm track and field coach Mike Strong encouraged Gabriel and Anderia to run cross country in the fall with Michael. "It was quite evident Gabriel was really gifted as a runner," recalls Strong. "He had a great heart, competitive fire and desire to succeed. His natural talent was more obvious at the beginning, when he ran a 4:27 1,600 meters in his first year of track and field."
It all began, though, when Gabriel joined Michael on early morning training runs. Then the two convinced Anderia to run to school with them. "I ran nine miles on my first-ever run," laughs Anderia. "Later on, it became this thing where I wanted to take Michael. I've never beaten him, but one day I will."
Anderia was close in his senior season, running in a near-dead heat with Michael in the 800 meters. He had improved his time by 10 seconds from the year before to 2:01.
What Michael, Gabriel and Anderia didn't know is that Mike Strong saw all of their potential, even if it was raw. Strong knew of Whitworth College -- that it was a small campus and that the three running cousins would be cared for if they got into school. He called Whitworth cross-country and track and field coach Toby Schwartz, who immediately was interested.
"I knew they were great runners, with all kinds of upside potential," recalls Schwartz. "And knowing a bit about the Lost Boys of Sudan stories, I felt compassion and wanted to help them."
Since Whitworth doesn't give athletic scholarships, Schwartz brought their story to the attention of the board of directors at Whitworth College.
"I said, 'What's the possibility of getting these guys here?' It would bring diversity to the college, and it would be an outreach to these guys who have nothing to do once they graduate from high school."
"Toby Schwarz took the ball and ran with it," says Strong. "I loved those boys, but the most important thing is that this came down to being God's thing. It was outside of me and Toby. God wanted these kids taken care of somehow."
Whitworth was able to enroll the three into an English language program. Each of them hope to make enough progress to be able to begin working toward a degree next semester.
"God guided us [from] when we were little [until] right now," says Gabriel. "My mind is full of memories that I will never forget, but now I pray for the future, as I work on my education."
It's this kind of attitude that leaves Schwartz humbled at every practice as he works with these three once-lost boys of Sudan. "It's been an awesome experience," he says. "Gabriel and Anderia were in the office the other day. Whenever they leave me, I have this feeling of love come over me for these guys. They are so sensitive, so hard-working, trying to do the best for themselves and please those of us in the college who have taken a risk with them."
Michael has rewarded the coach's faith in him. He's been the team's top runner for most of the season, although he slipped to No. 2 after losing a shoe at the conference championships. Despite that mishap, he put the shoe back on and finished 17th, running the five-mile course in 26:04. Anderia, who has consistently been the Pirates' fifth-best runner this season, pulled a hamstring, rolled an ankle and suffered shin splits. His season ended prematurely, just before the conference championships. The one with the most promise, Gabriel, was hurt the first meet of the season. "He basically has a degenerative kneecap, so we've given him the year off," says Schwartz. "His diet and the malnutrition in those refugee camps may have impacted how it broke down, and may explain why it is taking longer to build it back up."
This weekend, at the NCAA Division III championships in Hanover, Ind., Michael will join teammates Doug Blackburn and Leslie Nelson in competing with the nation's best small-college cross country runners.
Never Forget -- Because Schwartz's focus as a coach is on how the three have adjusted to running at the collegiate level, he spends very little time talking with them about their past. "We talk about the future a lot," says Schwartz. "We all have this sense there is no opportunity to change what happened to them, so we work now, with this present moment."
So these young men who have come to America work hard, not only in school and sports but also around campus, so that others they meet might learn about the continual plight of their homeland.
Listening to them, you realize they are no longer the Lost Boys of Sudan. "I pray for the future," says Anderia. "Today, the new lost boys of Sudan [who are displaced because of the ongoing war] should not be suffering. I'd like my education to prepare me to see home someday, but only if there isn't war."
"I don't remember God when I was running away, but I remember praying for survival" says Michael. "I am from Sudan, but I came here to stay, as a resident of the United States. If someone attacked me here, I would consider myself as an American who got attacked, not Sudanese."
"God cared for us and we survived," says Gabriel. "I know there's a God for everyone. I pray for Sudan. Even for those who didn't survive, that we will see them someday."