Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Interview with Isaiah Kuch, of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
By Patrick Rapa

In a way, it’s remarkable Isaiah Kuch still feels a connection to Sudan.

He was only 6 when civil war forced him and thousands of others out of their villages in the southern part of the country. After that, he spent about four years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and another eight in a camp in Kenya. In 2000, he and the other Lost Boys were relocated to the United States in search of education and safety. Kuch has lived in Philadelphia since then, studying and working.

Now, armed with U.S. citizenship and a degree in economics, it would seem like an easy choice to stick around and move on with his life.

Not Kuch.

“I will always believe one day I will go back to Sudan and make it my home again,” he says soberly. That’s a common sentiment among his fellow refugees. They want to return to the site of their most difficult times, where they lost their parents and siblings, to help the place build and develop.

When he wasn’t studying at La Salle University, Kuch was working several jobs and sending money back to his half sister and half brothers in Kenya. So far, he’s been able to make enough to get his siblings out of the Kakuma refugee camp and into school.

That was the place he called home the longest. It’s an immense camp set up by the United Nations to house refugees from Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. Only compared to Pinyudo — the initial makeshift settlement Kuch fled to in Ethiopia — does Kakuma look livable. “There was food, but not enough. Water, but not enough. Schools, but not enough qualified teachers,” recalls Kuch. Skipping meals was commonplace and education stopped at grade 12 (after that, you could be enlisted as a teacher yourself).

Kakuma was also the place the Lost Boys were finally old enough to understand their situation, as much as it can be understood. “When all that in Sudan started, nobody knew,” he explains. “You just think it’s a fight, you go and hide, it’s going to be alright. In the refugee camp you start going to school, you start asking the question why.”

When faced with the opportunity of being relocated to the U.S., he took it, though not without reservations. “You have to also keep in back of your mind: Is this taking me farther away from home? Most of us thought it couldn’t be worse than what we went through.”

So on a freezing cold day in November of 2000, Kuch’s plane touched down in Philadelphia. It was quite a shock to the system. He remembers back in hot, dusty Kakuma seeing a picture of Alaska and thinking he’d like to live in a place like that. “Alaska looks really beautiful in pictures,” he laughs. “We didn’t understand all that snow means cold.”

This year he’s gonna skip as much of the Philly winter as he can while visiting family in Kenya, Uganda and, if possible, Sudan. Kenya, once considered the most stable country in eastern Africa, is currently embroiled in social unrest surrounding its recent elections. Kuch isn’t scared. As long as the flights are still allowed in and out, he’ll be going.

And right now, the war in Sudan is quieted thanks to a peace agreement — though the situation in Darfur remains dire and some are skeptical about the government’s willingness to adhere to the concessions it’s made. While waiting to see how that plays out, Kuch is applying to grad schools.

“There is hope,” he says. “You can’t lose that. Once you lose that, you don’t have anything left. You got to have some hope or otherwise life is meaningless. That never goes away. However I do not cheat myself by believing that this hope is going to come easily. I do believe it’s going to be as complicated as my past. But one day, one time, it will come.”

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