‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ share art, stories

by Kathryn Nelson

Atem Aleu stood quietly to the side as a crowd milled around the art gallery, taking in the paintings that had traveled thousands of miles from Kenya to Minneapolis.

Aleu’s quiet demeanor shows experience far beyond his 26-year-old body. He saw the majority of his family perish in Sudan’s ongoing civil war and is revered as a leader in the country he left behind.

Aleu attended the Children’s Theatre Company production of “The Lost Boys of Sudan” on Saturday evening. The performance is based on a true story of three Dinka boys who walked more than 1,000 miles to a relocation camp in Kenya. There, they were presented with the opportunity to move to Fargo, N.D. and begin a new life that is vastly different than anything they ever knew.

For Aleu, this story is all too familiar. After growing up in that same camp, he said he moved to Utah and now dedicates his life to telling the story of his Dinka people.

In combination with the play, Aleu presented dozens of paintings created by refugees in the Kakuma camp. Stephen Feinstein, director of the University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies co-curated the exhibit.

Photographer Daniel Yang first traveled to Kakuma when he was 15. Since then, he has returned to Kenya several times and said the Lost Boys acted as his mentors as he grew older.

“I have never felt so at home,” he said.

Life as a “Lost Boy”

Aleu’s journey of survival began at the age of eight years when conflict forced him to leave his native country of Sudan. Traveling by foot, he and two of his seven brothers went to Ethiopia seeking safety from the civil war.

As for the rest of his family, his father was dead and his mother was forced to drown in a river with her young son after she refused to give him up to the rebels.

Aleu lived in Ethiopia for three years until violence broke out there, and he fled to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. He reached the compound in 1991 when he was 12 years old. Only one of his brothers survived the journey.

Living in Kakuma was better than living in Sudan, he said. Still, many people died in the camp due to lack of food and proper medical treatment.

Refugees in the camp received a small amount of corn, beans and oil that was meant to last the next 14 days, Aleu said. The food usually lasted seven to nine days. Refugees called the time without food “black days.” During this period people drank water and slept to conserve energy.

There are more than 90,000 refugees still living in the Kakuma camp, according to the United Nations. The camp has no electricity and only a few water pumps. Aleu said when he lived in the camp, refugees had to wait in line for 12 hours to collect fresh water.

Despite the conditions in the camp, Aleu said he attended a makeshift school and taught himself to paint as a way of expressing his past struggles.

He said he first heard about America after seeing “Made in U.S.A.” on a bag of food from the United Nations. After learning about the country, it became his dream to go there, he said.

As his art began to gain attention by the aid workers in the camp, Aleu received asylum in the United States, with the hope that he would share his story through art.

In 2001, Aleu settled in Utah and is finishing his art degree at Brigham Young University. He plans to start his master’s degree next year.

There are thousands of other people just like him in the United States. They are called “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”

“So they cannot forget our story”

At one time, Aleu said, others laughed at his idea to use art as a way to tell his story, but now he travels the country speaking about the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Aleu founded the African Refugees Artists Club to educate and fund refugee artists living in Kakuma.

“What you can do is give them knowledge,” he said, “that (no one) can take away.”

The Katherine E. Nash Gallery plans to feature some of their work this summer, Feinstein said.

Aside from creating art, Aleu was the first “lost boy” to have a car in Utah and now drives the other boys around. They even call the car “Mother of the Lost Boys,” he said, because it cares for them all.

Aleu is also known as a strong advocate for the Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which passed in the United Nations in 2005, he said.

Despite the violence Aleu saw, he said he refuses to forget those left behind in Kakuma camp.

“I’ve been in that situation,” he said. “And I don’t want them to be in that situation anymore.”