LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Sudanese refugee Kuol Deng sits in his Louisville apartment next to a stack of old black and white Western films that his daughter and son will watch from South Sudan using FaceTime.
It has been more than three years since Kuol has seen his kids in person. They often ask him when they will get to come to America — a difficult question to which he doesn’t know the answer.
On the other side of town, fellow Sudanese refugee Rizik Lado sits outside his apartment tightening his shoes in preparation for a run. This time, the run is for leisure, but he can still remember running while bullets whizzed past his body as he fled his village in South Sudan.
As a five-year-old, Rizik spent nights hiding from militias in bushes and caves wondering how he would survive until morning. Now he spends his nights filling packages at an Amazon fulfillment center, jokingly wondering the same thing.
Another Sudanese refugee, Abram Deng, pulls his car into a half-empty parking lot, walks past the worn-down soccer field he grew up playing on and enters a graffiti-covered building. He strolls past the classrooms where he once learned English.
Just outside is the public greens space, where he and his family once gardened. Finding his desk, Abram starts his work day at Americana, a non-profit serving immigrants in Louisville that is the organization from which his family once sought help.
These three Sudanese refugees left their homes decades ago, fled from militias, crossed borders on foot and hid their religious identities for years while searching for a safer spot to rest their heads at night. Ultimately, that safer place ended up being Louisville, Kentucky. All three refugees escaped their war-torn country and started their lives over in the United States.
The transition has presented its own obstacles. They learned a new language and new laws, and adjusted to foreign customs, all the while dealing with the haunting memories of their past.
Now U.S. citizens, they find that being American means working tirelessly to provide for their families in South Sudan, to help those in need and to make ends meet.
“Leaving South Sudan, none of us knew what Kentucky was and barely knew America,” Kuol said. “But now we do, for better or worse.”
Being a refugee is not a choice but a circumstance. The plight refugees face continues even when they put distance between themselves and conflict or disaster. Many find it difficult to live thousands of miles from their families, while others struggle to figure out what it means to be a successful American.
The civil war in Sudan displaced nearly four million people between 1983 and 2011. In 2011, the country that is now South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan.
During those decades, many left with their families; others without. Many of those who fled alone were young boys fearful of being targeted to become future combatants or, worse, killed. This group — of which there are more than 20,000 — became known as the Lost Boys. Approximately 75 of them ended up in Louisville.
Kuol Deng is one of the Lost Boys. Kuol left his village of Pagak in 1987, when he was around 11 years old, after his school was burned down by a northern militia.
He and his uncle, who he calls “big man,” left at night on what would become a three-month journey to the border of Ethiopia. Kuol and a group of roughly 4,000 other Lost Boys walked thousands of miles barefoot, drinking rainwater collected in jars and sometimes not eating for days.
Kuol’s calloused and discolored feet are proof of the challenging trek across plains, marshes and woods. “People who lost hope died on the way,” he said.
Kuol remembers using leaves to cover the dead body of one of his best friends who had died of an illness along the way. “I still dream of him at night,” he said.
After living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for a decade, he was told that the United States was accepting Lost Boys. In April 2001, Kuol landed in Louisville and was given 90 days to find a job before the government’s financial aid ran out.
Quick to find work, Kuol saved enough money to buy a phone able to make international calls. Eventually, he got a hold of his sister, two brothers and mother.