|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|
WRITTEN BY PAULA BOCK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
|A Journey of Countless Steps
Once a 'Lost Boy of Sudan,' Santino Lual is standing tall in Seattle
Your feet are bare but hard and nimble. You hop on one leg, laughing and playing in the fog, toppling another boy, when you hear shots. The animals bray and bolt, flinging dirt into the air. You see many men on camels and horses, cloths wrapped around their heads. They are shooting at your friends, stealing your cattle. They are Islamic fundamentalists from northern Sudan attacking the remote tribal south.
It is the late 1980s, several years into a long civil war over religion, turf and oil that will eventually kill 2 million people and force 4.4 million to flee the largest displacement of people in the world. Though you do not track time by calendar, you will always remember this day.
You run. You crouch behind a clump of black trees so the men on camels will not see your black body. You consider hiding in the forest until the bad men go away, but you notice their camels are loaded with supplies and you fear they can wait you out.
You will never find your way home.
You see smoke rising like zebra stripes across the sky where your village was, where all the villages were, several hours' walk away.
You spot another boy in the brush, then another. The three of you hide in the woods that night, and the next morning join a stream of cattle boys and some women and children, too, all running, no one knowing where you are going.
Your older brothers have already gone to fight. Your sisters were at home when it was attacked. You look among the river of faces but do not spot your parents. Did they die in the house made of grass?
Hush, the big people tell you, keep walking or the bad men will catch up. Hundreds of boys; eerie quiet. You hear only the click of insects and the whine of hot sun.
THEY CALL YOU a Lost Boy of Sudan.
All told, you have walked 1,000 miles. Across the desert., twice. Barefoot. You have swum a crocodile-infested river while being shot at. You have lived four years in one refugee camp, nine in another. You have not given up on finding your parents but, most likely, you and the 10,000 or so other surviving Lost Boys are orphans.
Even amongst all the suffering of the world's 14 million refugees, you stand out. Last year, you and the other Lost Boys were moved to the top of resettlement lists.
In May 2001, you find yourself in Seattle with about 100 other Lost Boys brought here during the past year. You have come directly from a place with no electricity, no running water, not enough food. You are not naïve. Just new.
You plunge into this otherworldly life.
If nothing else, you thought you knew how to walk, but suddenly you lose your balance on the airport escalator. The stairs move! Cars flow like leaves in a river. Buildings grow taller than clouds. ("Were these buildings built by men?" you ask. "Or did they just fall down from heaven?") You visit Seward Park and worry you'll be attacked by wild animals. You wonder why no one talks to each other while waiting for the bus.
You had dreamed of getting an education in America. You hadn't realized you'd need to first get a job.
You take classes at night. By day, you work as an elevator operator in the Smith Tower, Seattle's premier landmark building. You have no idea these elevators are unusual, perhaps the only manually operated lifts left in the nation outside San Francisco and New York. Since almost everything in your life has been extraordinary, it's hard to say what's normal. You just keep moving forward. And, up and down.
In the polished copper elevator, you wear a gold-trimmed uniform and black wingtips on your once bare feet. You command an elevator crowded with dot-commers and lawyers clutching takeout lunch and cardboard cups of specialty coffee. You push buttons, pull levers, slide accordion gates. You chit-chat, mostly about the weather, but if passengers ask, you'll mention something about raging hippopotamuses, slave traders, snake bites, cholera tragedy so enormous and raw it makes the jewelry-box elevator seem surreal.
"Are you ready for the weekend?" you cheerfully ask, halting the elevator at floor after floor. "You're welcome, sir!" Your posture is excellent; when you walk, you appear to float. Not so long ago, wandering the vast desert, you'd thought you were one of the last boys alive on Earth.
Ten months ago, you lived in a mud hut on the other side of the planet. You recite, by memory, the geography text you first read four years ago in the refugee-camp school: The earth on which we live is shaped like a ball yet it is not quite round. Your teacher told you the globe spins on its own. "Really? Is that really true?" you asked. "How do you know?" You never quite believed it.
You are 22 (or so). Your name is Santino Lual.
YOU ARE APRIL Schiffman from Floor 16, a senior ad producer for the Walt Disney Internet Group, 26 years old, recently married, silver hoop earrings, honey brown hair, Nokia 5165 cellphone, Franco Sarto boots with squarish toes and heels.
You love going out with friends for lunch and coffee, so you ride the elevator six times a day.
Seeing Santino always puts you in a good mood.
"You get all wrapped up in work and, just, stupid things like your shoes or your clothes. You ask him: What'd you do this weekend? He'll tell you how he got together with all his friends and prayed for the other kids, hoping they make it over, and you're just like, Wow. It makes you think about what's important your family and friends because he doesn't have his family or friends."
DID IT TAKE a week to cross the desert? Months? Even now, you are not sure. As a child, even one day without your mother seemed like a very long time.
On a map, it is more than 600 miles from your village to Ethiopia, where you find refuge in a camp sponsored by the United Nations and controlled by soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army. These rebels hope you'll grow up and join their fight against the northern Sudan government. But after a few years, Ethiopia's dictator is overthrown by militia unfriendly to the Sudanese rebels. In 1991, Ethiopian soldiers attack the camp, chasing you out and across the crocodile-infested River Gilo.
Swim? Or be shot? You know how to swim, but many others do not. You dive deep, away from bullets. Surface. Dive. When you reach the far shore, oddly, someone thrusts a goat into your arms, then POW! Explosion. Blood spurts. You think your day has come.
But the bullet kills only the goat. You live.
You cross the desert again! You try to return to southern Sudan, but there is still war. So, with thousands of other boys, you plod on. You are rescued by the Red Cross and trucked toward a refugee camp in Kenya. On that last leg, rebels attack the convoy, shooting three drivers and killing three boys. You dig a hole to bury them, at night, in a parched village.
When you reach Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, you are sick, naked, your feet torn by Jerusalem-tree thorns.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees wonders how one in three of you managed to survive. If only they could see through your eyes the friends you left behind in the river and the desert.
Vultures and hyenas would soon come, leaving the desert spotted with bones.
YOU ARE CAMILLE Edmond, a refugee employment counselor, a former Peace Corps volunteer, 28 years old, a banker's daughter headed for a career in social work.
At 3 a.m. you wake up thinking, "I only have 120 days to get these people employed! This sucks!"
In the darkness, you question the underlying policy, whether four months is enough time for every newly arrived refugee to get on their feet, let alone manage a job.
Come daylight, your task is to find jobs. You scan Help Wanted, Chamber of Commerce Web pages. You hold a résumé workshop an exercise in creative writing. How to translate the Lost Boys' experience into something an American employer can understand?
You plug leadership, resourcefulness, conflict resolution. Santino Lual was volunteer coordinator of a multinational youth soccer league in Kakuma Refugee Camp. You write a cover letter about walking across the desert. You don't mention he's been in an elevator only once.
Who knows what landed Santino the job? Maybe his coaching experience. Maybe the excellent work habits of the refugees placed there previously: Fanny Kalonjis from the Congo, Hussein Sahal from Somalia, Myo Thant from Burma.
Maybe it was Santino's charm.
"You know how certain people just kind of stand out in the crowd, people that are just happy?" asks Erin Mitchell, who hires the elevator drivers. "I didn't care if they had ever worked before. I didn't care if they didn't have perfect English. They just had to be nice people, positive people, optimistic. You had to give that sense, when people get in your elevator, that you're happy and friendly but if there was an emergency, you'd take care of them."
"Teamwork," says Michelle Coleman, who manages the elevator operators. Besides the refugees, the group includes a poet, a rap musician, a few Southern gentlemen and a young immigrant mom. They cover for each other, share potluck lunches, take field trips to the zoo. They celebrate each other's birthdays.
Santino is on the 17th floor when his intercom buzzes: "Santino! Santino! Come down to the lobby right away!" He zooms down, thinking it's an emergency, slides open the glass doors and leaps out. A cake is on fire, his name in red frosting, and all his bosses and the other elevator operators are singing, Happy Birthday Santino!
It is Jan. 2, the first work day after Jan. 1, the date-of-birth the State Department assigned to all Lost Boys when they entered the U.S.
Santino trembles and laughs and backs into his copper cubicle. He's never celebrated his birthday before.
Your mother told you the chief gathered all the Dinka people in your village to talk about attacks at the Kiir River where your people often brought their cattle to drink. The chief said: Now the men will go and fight with spears.
But the people from the North had guns. Your oldest brother was killed.
Your mother liked to tell you stories. She was very tall, like others in your tribe, and her two front teeth were separated like the prongs of a digging stick. One night, she called your sisters and brothers together and told you if war broke out you must run away from danger. Maybe she would not be with you. Maybe there'd be no food or water. If that were the case, you'd have to sit together and figure out a good idea.
You remembered her words even after you'd forgotten the sound of her voice. You ate wild roots, fallen fruit, insects, leaves, gazelles if you could trap them. You drank from puddles and plants. Sometimes all the boys argued:
OK, where are we now? It is better we go back.
It is better we stay here. We don't have food and water!
It is better we go forward and God will bring food for us.
They are coming. They will kill us!
Mostly each boy helped the other. You saved a wire hook you found on the ground and used it months later to catch dogfish when you were very hungry and came to a river. You shared the dogfish with Isaac, Lino, William Piol, Dominic and Annei.
They were with you in the desert, the second crossing, when you ran out of water and one night it rained so hard that fish appeared and you caught them in your shirt. Where did the fish come from? You're not sure. Maybe God. Christian missionaries visited your village three generations ago; your mother taught you about God.
People call you Lost Boys, but you think a better name would be Children of God from Sudan because you didn't receive any help from the rebels or the government and you suffered so much and God was with you and that's why you survived.
All six of you are alive. Dominic is in Atlanta; Annei lives with a foster family in Lynnwood. William Piol, Isaac and Lino are stuck in Kakuma. Their files have been lost, and unless the documents are found, they will not be able to leave. You do not hold much hope; still, you pray.
You have heard the place in the desert with fish has become a lake.
Physician Tom Hulse and his wife Linda own an apartment building in Burien and rent to the Lost Boys at a good rate. They take them to church every Sunday and introduce them to Wendy's hamburgers, Godfather's pizza, snow in Snoqualmie, high-school basketball games.
The Hulses are one extreme of a complex answer to a question Santino asked Brokaw on the TV show: Why do so many people in America not know much about Sudan? Do they even care?
Americans, Brokaw explained, are busy working and raising their families, and Africa seems so far away that no, they don't think all the time about people suffering in Sudan.
Santino ferries busy Americans up and down in his elevator all day. He hears them talking about brokering multimillion-dollar deals and flying the company jet on weekend getaways.
He is fascinated by, not resentful of, the abundance.
Yet if anyone asks, he will tell them many children he knows do not have enough to eat. That Sudan's government is still bombing civilians. That some people are hanging themselves in the refugee camp because they have lost hope.
"Sometimes I remember," Santino says. "It is really bad and makes me mad. I don't even sleep."
The waitress arrives and piles the table with stacks of pancakes and French toast, plastic tumblers of juice, strips of bacon, mounds of scrambled eggs.
How much food in Kakuma? Santino picks up his juice glass. Two cups each of cornmeal, peas, beans and oil, he says, to last one person 15 days.
There should have been more grain, but the trucks carrying it from the port of Mombassa got stopped by corrupt officials and starving Masai and Turkana tribesmen who'd lost their cattle to fighting and drought.
Scoops of butter puddle on Santino and Tong's plates. They tell about the video they watched at a friend's last night: Babe, a feisty pig who won a sheepdog competition with help from talking barnyard animals.
Santino asks: Is it really true how the animals can communicate with each other?
Even though Santino and Tong are 22 (or 21 or 23), it somehow feels like telling children the truth about Santa. If fish can appear in the desert when you're starving, why shouldn't farm animals talk to each other?
"It was just a movie," Tom Hulse says gently. "Not real."
"Oh," Santino says. "Because I can't believe the dog can't speak English if the sheep understand."
The movie, Santino says, reminds him of a question on his test for a primary-school certificate in Kakuma: If five chickens were watching a plane fly overhead, how many eyes were looking?
A: Five. Because chickens can look up at the plane with only one eye at a time. The subject was mathematics.
"Well," Linda Hulse asks, "did you pass the test?"
Santino beams. "Yes."
WHEN YOU RIDE the elevator to the top of the Smith Tower, the doors slide open to reveal a room of windows. Up here, you can see many white mountains, a forest of tall buildings, a volcano, orange cranes above the water and big ships from all over the world. You can almost see how the Earth is round.
The top of the tower is a good place to hold a party or think about the world. It is called the Chinese Room because it has an ornately carved Wishing Chair said to be a gift from the Empress of China. You can sit in the chair and wish.
If you are Santino, what you wish for, what you really really want, is to be with your parents again. If you were living with your family, your mother would tell you many wonderful stories. You might never have learned about elevators or the round Earth spinning on its own, but your mother would have made sure you had enough food to eat and you would have grown up tall, like your older brothers. Your mother was very tall.
You almost remember her.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|