Research Communications

Lost and Found 

Journalist helps Sudanese refugees tell tale of survival, love

May 24, 2011

He went days without food, staying alive by chewing the stems of sweetgrass. He kept moving, with the other boys, never safe from the constant threat of being killed by lions or murderous soldiers. To avoid certain death, he had to swim across crocodile-infested rivers.

She was only five when soldiers attacked her village, and she had to flee with her three-year-old sister cradled in her arms. With no water, she ate mud to force moisture into her mouth. She got malaria. Another villager was shot dead on the path before her.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl is the courageous story of John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech, southern Sudanese children who had to run for their lives when Arab army troops attacked their villages in 1987 during the Sudanese civil war.  John became one of the “lost boys,” along with thousands of other southern Sudanese boys who fled. Martha’s separate journey took her hundreds of miles without sufficient food or water.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl

“Both children eventually made it to Kakuma, a Kenyan refugee camp,” says Ohio University journalism professor Michael Sweeney, continuing the narrative. “John learned English and, in 2001, was accepted for immigration to the United States.  Filmmaker Christopher Quinn had met John in the refugee camp and followed him to Syracuse, New York, to film the journey of John’s new life.”  The result was the film God Grew Tired of Us, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 2004.

“National Geographic film producers were in the audience,” says Sweeney. “They loved the film and were immediately impressed with John when they met him.” National Geographic bought the rights to Quinn’s film and later decided to publish a book based on it.

Because Sweeney had an established track record as a writer for National Geographic, the editors hired him to work with John to write the book. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is their second book collaboration.

Though this newest book is a survival tale, it’s also a love story. John and Martha met in Kakuma, and John fell in love with her. She immigrated to the United States and settled in Seattle; John moved to Syracuse a year later.

“They talked for hours on the phone, and eventually Martha moved to Syracuse, where they had a church wedding in 2007,” Sweeney says. John built a house for them there, which they now share with their three children and John’s mother and sister, who also were granted immigration rights.

“I think that what Lost Boy, Lost Girl emphasizes is a new perspective on living in the United States,” Sweeney notes. “John now gives lectures frequently at colleges in this country to raise money for the foundation he established to build clinics and schools in southern Sudan, and one of his main themes when he talks to students is just how lucky we are to live in this country. People tell me after they read this book that they have a new appreciation for the simple things in life.”

By Jeff Worley

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.