Lost Boys graduate
Like most new high school graduates, Alfred Ngong and Abraham Deng have possibility stretching before them. Ngong graduates from West Fargo High School today, Deng from Moorhead High School. Both plan to start college in the fall. Ngong will trai...
Like most new high school graduates, Alfred Ngong and Abraham Deng have possibility stretching before them.
Ngong graduates from West Fargo High School today, Deng from Moorhead High School. Both plan to start college in the fall. Ngong will train as a civil engineer at North Dakota State University, and Deng will go to Minnesota State University Moorhead; he hasn't decided on a career, although he's considering something in medicine.
They have a whole, big world out there to see. But some would say they've already seen too much of it.
The two 19-year-olds are Lost Boys, Sudanese orphans who trekked across two countries ravaged by civil war. They survived by their wits, taking care of each other, and saw friends killed by bullets, floodwaters and wild animals before finally landing in refugee camps.
When they finally were brought to America, many of the Lost Boys were placed with foster families. But Ngong and Deng are unusual even by Lost Boy standards; they came here as legal adults and have lived on their own the whole time with no parents -- foster, surrogate or otherwise.
While many a high-school kid dreams of independence, the Lost Boys know the reality.
"It was really hard," Ngong says. He found a part-time job at Menard's, but three days a week that meant a full day of school followed by a full evening of work -- and that would be followed by homework. He often didn't get to bed until 3 a.m.
His situation eased a little when an anonymous benefactor started paying his rent. But he still needed wages for bills and food.
For Deng, living on his own was no big deal. "It cannot affect me, because that's (what) I (was) used to before," he says. "I started when I was 6 years old. I can stay alone without a father, because I get used to (it)."
Both boys got some education in Africa, but the schools were rudimentary at best. The teachers were poorly trained, supplies were often unavailable and discipline was harsh. "Even if you miss class for a good reason, you get beaten sometimes," Ngong says.
Still, both hungered for a real education. In fact, Deng was drawn to Moorhead by the quality of the high school.
"Education is the backbone of human life," he says. "If I don't go to school, how can I survive? I can work by my hands, manual work, which is not a proper job for me. What will be my future tomorrow? I care about tomorrow, that's why I go to school.
"I prepare my future now. I don't want my future to be the way I am now. I want to change that lifestyle."
Ngong says one of the first things he wanted to do after settling here was continue his education. "I have to do something good, for people I'm living among and for people back home in Africa," he says.
Entering an American high school took some adjustment, but Ngong kept his perspective. "It was difficult, but it was not as difficult compared to the life I had in Africa," he says.
It was sometimes hard to hear fellow students air relatively mundane gripes about things like disagreements with parents.
"I sometimes explained to a couple of my friends that you really don't know how it is like to go without parents and live alone, doing everything alone," says Ngong, who was orphaned at 4. "I used to tell some of my friends, but not often."
Deng has had the same kind of conversations.
"I talked to those who are friends to me," he says. "When they ask me, I'll talk plain to them and then they can understand where I come from."
Still, he understands that some of his friends who complain about their parents don't understand what it's like to be an orphan.
Betty Reyerson, the ESL teacher at West Fargo High School, says the Lost Boys' work ethic is "unbelievable. I have never seen Alfred waste five minutes in school. If anything, he gets impatient with kids that waste time."
And that doesn't just apply in school. Reyerson, who along with Kathy Scott, a colleague, has become close to Alfred and his two cousins, once had the boys over to do some yard work. They wouldn't stop for lunch.
"They said it was dishonorable to the family name to be lazy when they worked in refugee camps," she said.
The Reyersons' connection with Alfred and the other lost boys has gone far beyond the professional.
"(Today), it will be a wonderful but a hard day for me to see him graduate," she says.
For all the differences between life back home and life here, Africa is never very far away.
It affected Ngong's choice of a career, in fact.
He decided to become a civil engineer because he watched some Lost Boys drown as they tried to cross a swollen river to escape pursuing Ethiopian troops.
"If there was a bridge across that river," he says, his eyes taking on a faraway look, "the kids would have crossed it easily. Maybe I'll do some construction, where some roads and some things are needed."
If it sounds like the Lost Boys are all work and no play ... well, there's at least a little bit of truth to that. They don't talk much about having fun.
"We don't have fun at all," Deng says. "We go home and we start (studying). We think that fun is a wasting of time."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541