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Photograph by Dan Wayne

Job Opportunity: Peter Dut, a long way from the Sudan, toils at Wal-Mart.

Out of Africa

'Lost Boys of Sudan' pities the poor immigrant

By Richard von Busack

I WONDER if many people ask themselves whether they would have had a chance in America if they hadn't been born here. If you hadn't been born in the USA, could you make it as an immigrant in 2004? Would you be able to work that perishingly hard? Could you work those jobs no one else wants and prop your eyes open over the schoolbooks when you got home at night? Could you cut your underearning countrymen loose if they started to become a burden on you? Would you be able to think in a different language and avoid the snares—the myriad scams, the crime, the booze, the drugs, the despair?

Lost Boys of Sudan is Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk's documentary about a year in the life of Santino Major Chuor and his friend Peter Nyarol Dut. Both are Dinkas from south Sudan. They are two of Earth's 15 million refugees, with a common kind of refugee story. The Sudanese civil war displaced the Dinkas, herders of sheep and cattle. Men with guns came in and drove them off, killing their parents. ("They took the girls, they took them and used them up.") On a barefoot trail-of-tears walk to Kenya, Santino and Peter and about 20,000 others came to the U.N.'s refugee camp in Kakuma. After several years there, handfuls of these so-called "lost boys of Sudan" were recruited to come to the United States to work and study.

More precisely, they're dropped with very little preparation into the middle of Houston. "This is our village?" asks one, looking over a street map of the city. In a clean but cheap townhouse, the two and some fellow Sudanese neighbors adapt to American life as fast as they can. They're caught between the whites, who fear them, and the local African Americans, who aren't keen on the Sudanese either.

Peter heads to Kansas City, where he wrangles shopping carts at the Wal-Mart parking lot in between classes at Olathe East High School. Santino stays behind working on a Texas assembly line, running afoul of the traffic laws. The two are alienated from the hard work, with no relief in sight. Calling home, Peter is harassed by his sister to send money; when he complains, she answers, "Remember how hard it is in Africa? It hasn't changed." But his fellow students don't understand him, either. These Sudanese—so open and so sincere—weird people out.

Maybe the bitterest moment is when a very inexperienced student reporter from the high school paper tries to ask the right questions from Peter for an interview. She's nice, blonde and smiling, and she looks concerned—and you doubt she could find Africa on a globe. Peter—baffled, not certain what she wants to hear about his ordeal—searches for an answer. What could he possibly say to connect the fading memory of his home village and the minimansions, freeways and hard plastic surfaces of suburban Olathe? Mylan and Shenk's documentary is as devastating as Daughter From Danang—the other fine study of the gulf between the United States and the rest of the planet.

Lost Boys of Sudan (Unrated; 87 min.), a documentary by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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