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City Lights: Back to the Lost Boys

February 09, 2011|By Michael Miller

Sometimes, as a reporter, you get to stand back and simply observe twists of fate. I had that opportunity last March when two of the Lost Boys of Sudan visited Huntington Beach as part of the HB Reads program. That year's selection, "They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky," was the memoir of three of the war-torn country's refugees, and two of them, cousins Benson Deng and Benjamin Ajak, made a presentation at Huntington Beach High School and attended a party at former Mayor Ralph Bauer's home in Huntington Harbour.

It doesn't take a careful reading of "They Poured Fire" to realize how unlikely that event was. In the book, the Lost Boys — and their minder, Judy Bernstein, who accompanied them to Surf City — describe horrors that sound barely conceivable in Orange County, from walking for days without food to dodging murderous government militias. Through courage, guile and plenty of luck, the authors ended up on a plane to the United States in 2001.

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It was a happy ending, but a temporary one. When Deng and Ajak spoke in Huntington, they talked about their difficulties adapting to life in America, where they had to find jobs quickly and struggle to get an education. So as the HB Reads program started again this month, with the city's attention focused on another book and author, I contacted Bernstein to find out how they had fared in the last 11 months.

The answer turned out to be both sobering and hopeful. But first, a bit of background.

When I interviewed Deng and Ajak last year, they were living in San Diego, where they and hundreds of other Lost Boys had settled over the last decade. Deng had secured a job at a waste management company, while Ajak scraped together a living as a motivational speaker. (The book's third author, Deng's brother Alephonsion, didn't accompany them to Surf City because he was pursuing a college degree and had to attend class.)

Life for the Lost Boys was tough in San Diego, they said, with some refugees being assaulted in their low-income neighborhood and many relying on friends to drive them to the doctor or connect them with employers. Still, even the well-off ones opted to stay in the neighborhood, which provided a tighter community than the suburbs.

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