UGA alumnus Mark Bixler returns to Athens this week to discuss his new book, The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience. The book grew out of Bixler’s articles about Sudanese refugees for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has just been published by the University of Georgia Press. Bixler will discuss the book at Barnes and Noble in Athens at 7 p.m. on March 31. A signing will follow.
The book focuses on four men in Atlanta who are part of a larger group known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. In the late 1980s, war in Sudan separated thousands of boys from their parents and forced them to march hundreds of miles. Many died of starvation, disease or animal attacks. Survivors came of age in refugee camps.
Acting on humanitarian grounds, the United States opened its doors to 3,800 Lost Boys in 2000 and 2001. Never before had the federal government welcomed refugees without mothers or fathers and with so little knowledge of the modern world. The Lost Boys had never seen tall buildings or flicked on electric lights, but they had four months to get their bearings and find a job.
Bixler met Jacob Magot, Peter Anyang, Daniel Khoch and Marko Ayii as they stepped off an airplane in Atlanta on July 18, 2001. He chronicled their first four months in Atlanta in a front-page newspaper story.
“The response was incredible,” says Bixler, who received an English degree from UGA in 1992 and has worked as a reporter since. “More than 100 people called to donate time or money.”
Bixler believes the story resonates with so many people because at its core are universal human emotions. The story of being forced from home, wandering through the wild, and coming of age with a desire to learn, he says, is a story about grief, resilience and the yearning to transcend obstacles.
Nancy Grayson, editor-in-chief of the UGA Press, saw potential when she read the articles. She asked Bixler if he would write a book. They decided Bixler would spend two years following Magot, Anyang, Khoch and Ayii.
“I could not get this story out of my mind,” says Grayson. “And it was a perfect match for us because it was an important national event told through a local story.”
The result is a rich portrait that shows courageous survivors adjusting to modern America, working long hours in low-wage jobs and struggling to receive an education. The book also explores the complex history of Sudan and the evolution of U.S. refugee policy, benefiting from Bixler’s interviews with former President Carter and former Sen. John Danforth, who was President Bush’s special envoy on Sudan and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“While lively and even entertaining, the book does not simply tug heartstrings with touching anecdotes,” noted Publishers Weekly. “The book does not ignore the pitfalls and politics of refugee resettlement, which are especially complicated since 9/11, but Bixler’s perspective is optimistic. He also provides essential background, including a crash course on U.S. refugee policy and a short history of Sudan.”
Magot, Anyang, Khoch and Ayii have now been in the United States for almost four years. They are in school and on their way to achieving their potential, but pursuing the American Dream requires sacrifice-Magot often works from 3 p.m. to midnight, studies until 2 a.m. and goes to class at Georgia Perimeter College from 8 a.m. to noon. Other Lost Boys make similar sacrifices.
To help them, Bixler has created the IRC Sudanese Assistance Fund with the Atlanta office of the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit agency that resettles refugees. Bixler is donating a portion of his proceeds to the fund (he’s also donating proceeds to Jubilee Partners, a Christian community near Athens that has oriented 3,000 refugees since 1980). UGA Press is donating a portion of its proceeds to the IRC Sudanese Assistance Fund, too, and tax-deductible contributions are welcome. The money will mainly help Sudanese refugees pursue an education.