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From Kakuma to Pennsylvania
Five young men visited the Rohrerstown Church of God on a Sunday in June 2001. After sharing a song with the congregation, James Majok Wat took the microphone and began to speak. I am so happy about what Jesus did for me; that He lives in me; that He lives in us. That is why I am here today, because of Him. We were so long gone from our fathers, but we are here today as sisters and brothers in Christ.
James is one of the 3,400 young refugees in the U.S. known as the lost boys of the Sudan. He fled his village when he was eight years old, running away from the bombs dropped on his town by the Sudanese military. James and other boys in his village are just a few of an estimated 10,000 children who fled their homes in southern Sudan in the 1980s.
As the children fled they banded together and began to walk, searching for safety. They had no food or water, no protection from adults, and no idea where they were going. They crossed their countrys eastern border into Ethiopia, where they were received into refugee camps and stayed for almost three years. But a change in the Ethiopian government in 1992 left them unwelcome in the country. Forced to walk once more, the lost boys headed back to Sudan by way of a perilous river crossing. Many boys drowned or were eaten by crocodiles. Those that crossed successfully faced an uncertain future in Sudan, where they were again without food and water.
The boys heard they might find safety in Kenya. They began to walk once more, this time to Kakuma camp in northwest Kenya. Once there, they were met by United Nations officials who have cared for them since 1993. The lost boys grew into young men and travelled to the U.S. to resettle into communities across the country.
When we heard about their story, we just had to do this, said Janet Malles of the Rohrerstown Church of God. But, we were concerned about taking on five young men by ourselves. Members of the Roherstown congregation talked to the pastor of the International Community Church, a mostly African congregation. They had already heard about the five Lost Boys arriving soon in Lancaster. Then they talked to the Lancaster First Church of God. With some extra renovation and cleanup efforts, the Lancaster congregation was able to offer an old parsonage as a place for the refugees to stay. Neighboring Hempsfield United Methodist Church was also looking for a way to become involved with the Lost Boys and joined with the Rohrertown efforts. When James Majok and his family of four other Lost Boys arrived to the Harrisburg airport on May 15, members of the four congregations were there to meet them.
The five young men lived in the First Church parsonage with two members of the International Church. Rohrerstown members assisted the young men in signing up for English classes, looking for a job and learning to navigate their new community. The Hempsfield congregation hosted the young men at two youth group services and has also donated generous funds to cover the refugees needs.
Members of the four churches came together for a Sunday meal later that year. The young men, three named James and two named Peter, played basketball and rode bicycles while the food was prepared. They spoke of their happiness to learn about their new city and their eagerness to begin English classes and school.
Despite their happiness to have new opportunities in the U.S., the young men expressed their deep-felt concern about the 19-year-old civil war that has displaced more than 5 million people and left many of their friends in refugee camps for years on end. We just want to be able to speak our language and practice our religion and be independent in southern Sudan, James Majer Magot said.
The Lancaster area churches have been transformed during their experience with these lost boys. They have worked together as partners, not only among themselves, but also with these courageous young men who traveled hundreds of miles on foot and thousands of miles by plane to join their community.