June 18, 2004

Lost no more: Sudanese refugee finds safety, security in Nashville and VUMC

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Philip Anyieth, who works in Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, came to the United States to escape Sudan’s bloody civil war. He and some 20,000 others who fled the country were known as the “Lost Boys.” Photo by Dana Johnson

Lost no more: Sudanese refugee finds safety, security in Nashville and VUMC

Philip Anyieth stands calmly in a busy hallway of Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital while he tells his story. He works for Environmental Services in the hospital — a recognizable figure who cleans everything from the tables in the food court to the miles of floors.

He can frequently be seen walking past the colorful arrangement of butterflies on the second floor of the hospital holding a trash bag and offering a friendly wave to passersby.

Anyieth {pronounced Uh-KNEE-ith], 24, wears a standard-issued, green and white striped dress shirt, neatly pressed hunter green-colored pants and shiny black shoes.

What really stands out when first meeting Anyieth is his sparkling, bright smile. But though this smile is friendly, one can sense a hint of caution—a certain kind of quiet reserve.

Looking at this young man, it is hard to imagine that he’s experienced years of turmoil and mind-numbing horrors. But the pain is obvious from the emotion in his voice and the mist in his eyes. Anyieth was one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” a name given to about 20,000 Sudanese boys who fled their homeland to escape civil war.

“Walking barefoot is hard,” he says. Anyieth knows this well — from at the age of 7, he was escaping a war in Sudan, trekking across the arid Northern African terrain to find safety.

The civil war in Sudan began in 1983. The main rebel army, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), was fighting the Sudan government’s military. Anyieth and the other Lost Boys who fled their home were part of the SPLA.

During their escape, they walked hundreds of miles across Africa in search of safety and peace. In 2001, many Lost Boys were chosen to come to the United States to start a new life in freedom and safety. Today, the United States continues to rescue Lost Boys from a life of brutality.

When Anyieth left Sudan in 1987, he and the other Lost Boys did not get a chance to say goodbye to their families. During the fighting, many of their family members were killed, and many Lost Boys witnessed their deaths.

“My father was killed,” Anyieth says, looking down at the floor for a moment, then looking back up, avoiding any eye contact.

“I have a mother and a sister still in Sudan.” This is a statement based on as much hope as fact — the truth is, he hasn’t seen his mother or sister in 17 years. Anyieth looks down at the floor again and quickly adds, “My sister was about 4 when I left.”

After leaving home, it took Anyieth and his friends a full month of walking to reach a camp in Ethiopia. They stayed there for about four years, until the Ethiopian army forced them to leave, throwing them in a river that runs between Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Many [Lost Boys] drowned in the river. We were told to go back to Sudan and never attempt to escape again,” Anyieth says.

The Lost Boys had no choice but to hide out in the open land. “We ate nothing but leaves and grass,” says Anyieth. Then they heard that they could find safety in Kenya, and made plans to walk there.

By age 12, Anyieth had reached a camp in Kenya, where he and his friends were supplied with food and water, supplied by the United Nations. The camp was built by the people in Kenya from outside resources.

“They used stuff from outside, like trees, to cover the roof,” Anyieth says. He lived in this camp for nine years.

Living in a refugee camp is nobody’s idea of paradise, but the boys had food, water, and safety —three elements they had lacked almost their entire lives. But everyone knew the camp was not a permanent solution. People concerned with the plight of the boys were working to get them into the United States.

Then on Sept. 25, 2001 — he remembers the date well — Anyieth was chosen to come to America. Anyieth, who had begun his barefoot trek at the age of 7, was now 21 years old.

“I came here through Catholic Charities,” Anyieth explains. These charities connect with churches to be a sponsor for African refugees for a few months. Then the boys are expected to get a job. Anyieth shows a lot of gratitude to these charities and churches. “The churches have been very helpful to me — I really like the First Presbyterian Church.”

Though now safe and free in America, Anyieth understandably experienced great culture shock. It’s pretty difficult to imagine living a life of basic survival then relocating to ultra-modern America. Anyieth admits it took a lot of time to feel comfortable here.

“America is a lot different,” he says with notable understatement. He smiles slightly, looks down at the floor and adds, “It’s OK now.”

Currently, Anyieth lives with several friends. Most of his friends are fellow Lost Boys, although he’s also made efforts to get to know Americans, too. “I hang out with one friend who’s an American. We went to the movies one time together and saw Pirates of the Caribbean,” he says.

Anyieth likes to eat at Shoney’s and his favorite food is potato salad. However, he is not completely “Americanized.” He’s not interested in a lot of mainstream American entertainment. “I don’t like watching TV or going to the movies a lot — the only TV I watch is the news,” he says.

Today, Anyieth lives a life that would sound familiar to generations of American immigrants. He works long days, pays bills and is going to school to better his life.

“Right now, I am kind of occupied with school and work — I don’t have a lot of free time,” he says.

Anyieth has worked for Environmental Services at the Children’s Hospital for the past seven months. Four other Lost Boys work with Anyieth in the Children’s Hospital, and a total of 16 Lost Boys work in Vanderbilt University Medical Center overall.

Though work is a priority for Anyieth, his main focus is to get an education. “Education is important to me,” he says. “A lot of things that I want to do depend on my education.”

Anyieth attended Nashville State Technical Community College for one semester where he learned to speak English through the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Now he attends Tennessee State University. He plans to graduate in December 2005, with a Health Care Administration and Planning degree.

Anyieth is considering several plans for post-graduation. One idea is to attend graduate school. He’s also considering the possibility of becoming involved in health care sales to fly supplies from the United States to Sudan.

Anyieth finds it difficult to talk about the family he left another continent, another world almost, away. A hint of tears well up in his eyes as he says, “I feel like I should go back and see them.”

Although Anyieth is not allowed to go back to Sudan as long as there is civil war, he may return when there is peace again. “I don’t have any intention of going back until I finish my schooling” he says. “But I might go back for a visit some time.”