By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
In 1989, members of a militia fueled by a raging civil war burst into the villages of three boys between the ages of 7 and 10 in what is now South Sudan.
Frightened, they ran in search of safety — something that would dangle just outside their grasp until 2001, when they were resettled here by Catholic Charities of Louisville.
Sixteen years later — over coffee and breakfast pastries on an ordinary Saturday morning, May 27 — Anyuon Agoth Manyuon, Ngong Lang Deng and Ngor Deng recalled the journey that brought them more than 7,000 miles to Louisville, where they are working, raising children and living quiet lives.
When their villages were attacked, the frantic boys ran alone into the woods where they met up with thousands of others fleeing the same fate — the children became the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
They used the cover of night to hide from the “enemy,” as they walked to Ethiopia, they said. Manyuon recalled wanting to escape the “sound of guns.” “If I ran as fast as I can I’d be safe,” he thought. Many died when leaves and mud, which became a source of food, could no longer sustain their weakened bodies. Many more were picked off their perilous path by lions, they said. Ngong Lang Deng said he survived because of an older cousin, who would carry him for miles when his small body gave up.
Those who were fortunate, including Manyuon, Ngong Lang Deng and Ngor Deng, arrived in Ethiopia where they lived for about a year before a civil war started there and new guns were turned on them.
They ran, this time to Kakuma, Kenya. Manyuon recalled throwing his emaciated body into the scoop of a bulldozer filled with dozens of frantic boys trying to cross the crocodile infested Gilo River to escape Ethiopia.
In the camp in Kakuma, where the Lost Boys lived for about nine years, they forged a make-shift life, attending school and learning about the Catholic faith in their native Dinka dialect from others in the camp. They were baptized there and learned about the U.S. and the possibility of living there one day.
In the spring of 2001 a group of 16 of the Lost Boys, including Manyuon, Ngong Lang Deng and Ngor Deng, arrived in Louisville. “I was confused, but it was wonderful,” is how Manyuon summed it up.
Catholic Charities’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services set the group up in a donated house in Old Louisville. They were guided and cared for by volunteer mentors, including Terri Sparks and Terri Greenwell, members of St. Patrick Church.
The men call them their “American mothers.”
Sparks and Greenwell recalled during the morning meeting, May 27, how the boys were like young children trying to figure out how the world worked. Things that most people do not give a second thought, such as flushing a toilet, turning on a stove, turning on a shower and using a refrigerator, challenged them, said the women.
The men shared a laugh, reminiscing how one of the boys ran out of the shower to escape scalding water — the concept of mixing hot and cold water escaping him.
“It was hard to imagine that they didn’t know anything, so it didn’t register with us to start at the beginning,” said Greenwell.
There were times when they visited the house and found Clorox bleach stored in the freezer and chicken in the cupboards, the women said.
But the boys learned quickly. Sparks said that within a year, they were driving cars, working and thriving in the city.
The men, now in their 30s, have lived quiet lives in their new home. Manyuon known to friends as “Tall Peter,” makes his living as a welder and is a family man. He married a Sudanese woman he met in Louisville and has five small children.
Ngong Lang Deng and Ngor Deng are single, but hopeful that they too will marry and raise families.
Ngor Deng, who works at Farbest Foods Inc., has visited South Sudan three times since arriving in Louisville. South Sudan was created in 2011 from part of southern Sudan and has been wracked by war and famine in recent years.
Despite the horrors he endured, he thinks it’s “a good country.”
“Home is home,” he said. “I was very happy to go back.” The three men kept up a lively conversation the morning of May 27 about their country and what changes have come about since they were forced to flee.
Neither Ngong Lang Deng or Manyuon have returned. Ngong Lang Deng found out from a relative in 2005 that his family — his parents and his brothers — were killed in the war.
In 2004, Mayuon found out that his mother and siblings survived the war. Upon discovering Mayuon had survived the war and lived in the U.S., his mother traveled to Uganda, where she could make a phone call to him, he said. She didn’t recognize the voice, which time had changed, and had a hard time believing she was speaking to her son, Manyuon recalled.
He yearns to return to South Sudan and wishes his children could meet his mother, said Manyuon. But the financial responsibilities that come with caring for a family of seven makes that trip unlikely, he said.
Sparks said that the men have changed, but in some ways are still the same.
“It’s such a joy to witness that the sweet, happy spirit these guys embody is still the same as the day they arrived in Louisville,” said Sparks. “It’s so sad that they didn’t have much parenting, but what little they did receive was obviously good.”