All Alone on the Western Front

A group of Sudanese refugees struggle to survive in Syracuse.

By Daniel Bortz

Lino Ariloka walked into Price Chopper every day at 6 a.m. sharp. He mopped the floors, stocked the shelves, and handled all of the heavy lifting. He earned minimum wage and received only a few hours of work per week.

Ariloka went home from work to a bare apartment and an empty refrigerator. Forget food, furniture, transportation, or electricity — Ariloka sent his paycheck to his family and friends in Sudan before spending it on such luxuries. He and his roommates went hungry if it meant their families across the globe had enough to eat.

Ariloka is a member of the Didinga ethnic group of the Lost Boys of Sudan living in Syracuse. After the Second Sudanese Civil War tore through Southern Sudan, young Sudanese boys and girls emigrated from their home country to escape the destruction. Their journeys inspired books and documentary films that captivated American audiences.

In 2001, approximately 40 Didinga arrived in Central New York with empty pockets and hopes of living the “American dream.” Most of them were too old to qualify for foster care, so they turned to a local church for shelter.

Now, eight years since their arrival, the Didinga still find themselves alone in a foreign country, struggling to make ends meet.

“People wanted to meet the young men; they wanted to talk with them, and then what happened was they kept struggling, and now they’re entirely on their own. And all those sponsors and mentors and volunteers that were there to greet them in the beginning — a year later they’d lost interest,” said Felicia “Faye” McMahon, an anthropology professor at Syracuse University who has worked closely with the Didinga since 2001. “They liked to hear the story, read the book, see the DVD. But these guys are struggling and there’s nobody helping them.”

The Didinga have spent the last eight years in a financial dead end. Some in the Syracuse community believe the Didinga should have fixed their monetary situation by now. But the Didinga can’t solve these problems unless Americans are willing to help them overcome the cultural barriers, McMahon said.

“Connecting to that Sudanese Lost Boys story is easy because it’s so interesting,” Bryan Crandall, an English education doctorate student at SU said. He sympathizes with the Didinga, though he works primarily with the Dinka, a separate community of 600 Lost Boys in Syracuse. Crandall believes the Didinga still struggle partly because Americans care more about the Didinga’s journey to America than their current well-being.

Ariloka survived that journey when he left his family at 10 years old. He walked with a group of boys from his village in Southern Sudan to Kenya, leaving his family and everything he knew. Even though he arrived in Syracuse empty-handed, Ariloka managed to crawl his way out of a financial rut and get an education. He worked multiple jobs to pay his way through college, earning a degree in finance from the State University of New York at Fredonia in 2006. “I barely slept,” Ariloka said. Now he works as a billing agent at the Bank of New York Mellon, trying to settle the massive debt he accumulated in student loans.

Still, Ariloka said he values independence and doesn’t blame others for the Didinga’s situation in Syracuse. “You can’t remain a child forever,” he said. “You have to grow up and become independent, or else you won’t make it.”

Despite Ariloka’s optimistic outlook, many of the Syracuse Didinga don’t share his determination to succeed. The struggles of scraping by and assimilating into a new culture discourage them. Most can’t get an education because they need to work full-time to put food on the table and pay rent. They can’t secure decent jobs because employers reserve higher positions for fluent English-speaking workers with a college degree. And they can’t buy a car without getting ripped off, since salesmen take advantage of the cultural barrier. Even volunteers who say they want to help don’t pitch in for long.

Although many volunteers deserted the Didinga, Carl Oropallo, a Syracuse lawyer, stays committed to helping them. He started sponsoring the Didinga through St. Vincent de Paul Church in 2001, devoting his time to help them adapt to American life. Oropallo recalled one night when he received a phone call from Deng, one of the Didinga at 3 a.m. He called Oropallo from the side of the road with a flat tire, unsure how to change it. Oropallo threw his clothes on and drove out in the middle of a snowstorm to help.

Fellow Syracuse Lost Boys like John Dau and Lopez Lomong found more recognition in the community than the Didinga, McMahon said. Dau started the John Dau Sudan Foundation, a nonprofit group aimed at improving health care in Southern Sudan. The foundation raised enough money to build the Duk County Clinic near Dau's home village in May 2007. Lomong travels the world to compete in Olympic track meets and works closely with Dau’s foundation. None of the Didinga have found that level of success.

McMahon said she’s tired of seeing the Didinga struggle to pay their bills because they only earn minimum wage. She hates watching people like Ariloka, who she calls an unsung leader of the group, work so hard and not get very far. And she’s sick of hearing people say how “incredible” Ariloka’s journey to America was: “Everyone’s so interested in that story — the heroic walk across Africa — that no one is listening to them standing here and saying, ‘We’re on the brink of being homeless.’”

Photography by Ben Addonizio

Editor's Note: This story reflects corrections from the original version published in the October 2009 issue of Jerk Magazine