Interviews: In Search of a Durable Solution

Sasha Chanoff, Mapendo International

August 2004 | June 2007

POV: The subjects of "Lost Boys of Sudan" express some high expectations of life in the United States. Is that typical of other Sudanese refugees, or other refugees in general?

Chanoff: It depends on the background they're coming from. The United States brings in about 70,000 refugees from across the world each year. Some have high expectations. The cultural orientation classes are geared to help refugees attain a correct expectation -- that this is a difficult, overwhelming, discombobulating experience. They'll need time to adjust. There is often a honeymoon period, when refugees finally get shelter and safe housing: they're happy to have these things. But it's extremely difficult, especially if there are language issues. For the Sudanese in particular, many of them were orphaned or had been separated from their families, and they saw education as the way of moving forward and growing into adults. In their traditional culture, adulthood means marrying, and to marry you need a dowry. They had no family to provide them with a dowry, and they saw their only means was education, and work, to get money for a dowry. In a way, education was seen like a mother and father, a way to adulthood and a successful life. So they had high expectations for continuing their educations. But whereas we have a wonderful refugee program, the United States indicates that refugees need to become self-sufficient and support themselves. It's difficult to work one or two jobs and continue an education.

Lost Boys of Sudan - Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya POV: What was education in the Kakuma camp like?

Chanoff: They had some caretakers and adults assisting them in camps along the way, and some of them learned to draw letters and numbers with a stick in the dirt. When the Lost Boys arrived in Kenya in '91 and '92, when the Kakuma camp was established for them, the camp had a school system similar to the Kenyan school system. Some of the brightest were high school graduates by the time we resettled them; others were not quite at that level.

POV: One of the film's subjects expresses surprise at the difficulty of succeeding in America, because, as he puts it, they're all alone, whereas they drew on more communal resources in the Sudan and in the Kakuma camp. Is this common for other Lost Boys, or other refugees?

Chanoff: That's one of the most significant aspects of this resettlement. In the orientation classes at the camp, we'd ask them to write down their fears and worries. And over a few years, in every single class one person would write down, "I'm afraid of being alone." There were about 80,000 refugees in Kakuma, so the 3,600 or 3,800 people who were chosen for resettlement were used to living communally, sleeping four or five to a hut, clustered in villages. They grew up together, and being alone is a scary prospect when you're accustomed to a group support process. I spent a lot of time in the camp getting to know how they lived there. On Sundays, they would have huge gatherings, with 500 to 1,000 young men and women, with drummers and people dancing in massive circles. I asked what kind of significance this held, and they said that living in the camp, with so many worries, these were the days when everyone could get together and relieve the worry. There was a real communal element to their lifestyle there that is impossible to duplicate in the United States.

POV: Why is it that we hear so little about Lost Girls? Were girls and young women part of the group at the camp?

Lost Boys of Sudan - Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

Chanoff: Women were certainly part of this group, and many unaccompanied women had the same experiences as the Lost Boys. In Sudanese culture, women cannot live alone: in the camp, there would be four or five boys to a hut, with one adult loosely supervising. Unaccompanied girls were immediately fostered into families. Women serve very specific purposes in Sudanese culture, and they often have less access to education. When they get older, they're often sold off for a dowry. When selections were made for resettlement, girls did not have access to that program. Eighty-nine girls did get resettled, mostly sisters or cousins of the young men who were chosen. The UNHCR has recently been taking steps to identify and assist more young women; a number have been relocated to Australia. But the fact is that there are other young women who are in Kakuma who are at risk, who may have arrived in 1991 and may have already been sold off to marriage by relatives or caretakers, often with no say in whom they marry.

POV: America is founded upon an ideal of immigration that sets up certain expectations-- hard work and sacrifice will be rewarded. Is that a useful expectation for refugees to have, or is it an extra burden?

Chanoff: That's one of the values we talked about in cultural expectation classes. In Sudan, the community is most important, while in America, the individual is emphasized. It's an extremely important value to understand, and these guys have taken this to heart: many of them have one or two fulltime jobs, in addition to pursuing further education. For refugees in America it's an important value to have, and they caught on extremely quickly. Most of the Lost Boys have family and extended family obligations far beyond what most Americans would know. They know how desperate it can get in the camps, going without food for four or five days, being sick without money, and so they send money back to their friends and relatives. That burden somewhat impedes their moving forward, because they're not saving much money: they're sending it all back.

POV: The Lost Boys in the film confront many obstacles in building new lives for themselves -- getting birth certificates, balancing part-time work and high school -- but some of the most confounding are things like dealing with the DMV or paying the rent with a money order. How does an aid agency help prepare people to deal with adjustments that are both major and minor?

Chanoff: There are both small-scale and larger-scale issues in terms of adjusting to life here. We spent a lot of time on budgeting and money management, in addition to American laws, work, transportation, and things like the DMV. The idea was to plant seeds that the resettlement agencies could pick up on when they arrived here. The Lost Boys arrived in Ethiopia as young children, and then lived in Kakuma camp in northern Kenya, a very desolate place. Some of them did not have much exposure to western living. Some had been to Nairobi or western Kenya, but most of them had no idea of the way the U.S. system works. So we focused on paperwork and money, paying your bills, and online banking. These are new things to them, and they've adjusted very well, but it does take time and is daunting.

POV: What is your philosophy about humanitarian assistance? Do you think it's better for the Lost Boys to be in America? Is rescuing refugees the best way to go about helping them?

Chanoff: There are millions of refugees throughout the world, and only about one percent access resettlement. There are 15 countries that do resettlement, and the United States has a larger program than all the others combined. Resettlement is not an answer to the problems that are creating refugees: poverty, war, or famine. But for certain people, resettlement is the durable solution. For this group, this was an extremely positive resettlement. They've been able to get jobs and move forward with their lives. But there are still about 80,000 people in the Kakuma camp, including 60,000 Sudanese, 5000 Somalians, and Ethiopians and Congolese. Integration is not an option, because Kenyan law requires refugees to remain in camps. There are no good solutions for them at this time, and it's devastating.

June 2007 UPDATE: Sasha Chanoff founded Mapendo International, an organization that helps at-risk and forgotten refugee groups in Africa, in 2006.
Hear more about Mapendo and about the special challenges faced by Somali Bantu's in his 2007 update below.

POV: Tell us about Mapendo International and the work that Mapendo is doing in Africa.

Chanoff: Mapendo International is an organization I founded with Dr. John Wagacha Burton in 2006. We seek to help at-risk and forgotten refugee groups in Africa. Oftentimes, ethnic minorities, girls and widows are not safe in the refugee camps. Rape is fairly common, so a lot of women and their families flee the camps out of fear and end up homeless in urban centers with no access to services. Mapendo seeks to find these refugees and help them get the protection and services they need. The organization is named after Rose Mapendo, a Tutsi woman who spent 16 months in a Rwandan death camp with her husband and seven children, and whose experience we wanted to honor. Rose lost her husband in the camps but now lives in Arizona with her children. Mapendo is a Swahili word that means "great love." [Watch a short film about Rose Mapendo narrated by Sasha Chanoff.]

Lost Boys of Sudan - Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
Long shot of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya from Lost Boys of Sudan

POV:What rescue operations has Mapendo International recently been involved in

Chanoff: We just evacuated two Sudanese girls from the Kakuma camp. They were 15-year-old and 13-year-old girls in danger of being sold into slavery by some other refugees in the camp. We removed the girls from the camp and delivered them to a protection center where they would be safe.

We're in the process of assisting a large group of Burundian refugees in Tanzania during the next few weeks. Until our organization was established, no one was really looking comprehensively at groups of refugees that exist and prioritizing resettlement for those groups based on medical needs, discrimination and other factors threatening their welfare. We identify and prioritize refugees that we feel are the most at-risk and then we work with the U.S. government, the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], the International Rescue Committee and other non-governmental organizations to come up with the best ways to help these people.

POV: "Rain in a Dry Land" focuses on a group of Somali Bantu refugees who are resettled in Massachusetts and Georgia. We learn in the film that the Bantu were marginalized in Somalia, because they were brought there as slaves from the coasts of Mozambique and Tanzania -- and continued to be treated as second-class citizens in the refugee camps. When you were a volunteer in the Kakuma Camp, did you witness this discrimination? Have those conditions been duplicated in the U.S. within the Somalian community?

Chanoff: When I was at Kakuma, the decision was made to remove the Bantu population from the Dadaab camp to the Kakuma camp because they were undergoing a lot of discrimination and jealousy due to the fact that they were chosen for resettlement in Dadaab. But that doesn't mean that they didn't experience similar discrimination in Kakuma.

Approximately 13,000 Somali Bantus have arrived in the U.S. since 2002 and I hear stories of Somalis opening up their homes and welcoming new arrivals, helping them to learn how to survive in America. At the same time, I think that we learned from that piece in the New Yorker ("Letter from Maine," December 11, 2006) magazine that some Bantu are continuing to experience discrimination here in the United States, so I think it's fair to say that it varies.

POV: What organizations that are working with refugees would you recommend people volunteer or donate to?

Chanoff: I would recommend that people who want to take action go to the Refugee Council USA website. They are an umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations focused on refugee protection and aid in the United States. People can find information there about local community-based organizations involved with aiding refugee groups in America. If you're interested in learning more about work being done overseas, I would recommend our website, Mapendo International and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Both groups are active in rescuing displaced people -- in Africa, in our case, and from all over the world, in the case of the HIAS.

Sasha Chanoff is the co-founder and director of Mapendo International, an organization that works to fill the critical and unmet needs of people affected by war and conflict who have fallen through the net of humanitarian assistance. He has worked for over a decade in refugee rescue, relief and resettlement operations in Africa and the U.S. Before launching Mapendo he consulted with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kenya and worked with the International Organization for Migration throughout Africa, identifying refugees in danger, undertaking rescue missions and working on refugee protection issues with the US, Canadian, Australian and other governments. He designed the cultural-orientation curriculum at the Kakuma camp in Kenya to prepare refugees for arrival in America.