From Horror to Heroes

For these Sudanese refugees, just surviving makes them real comic-book supermen

"That's the best part of what's going on," Disco says. "Gabriel, now, is like, 'I'm a spokesperson for my people.' It's given him great pride. The guy on the back"--Disco holds up a copy of the book, pointing to the simple, poetic paintings on the back cover--"Gabe [De Aganyni], was unable to paint for five years. Missionaries had given him his oil paints and everything else, but he was unable to paint. He's just a pure natural talent, but this project awakened his skills, and he was able to use his artistic talents. Things like this hold more value than the monetary, because this has helped heal somebody."


If Michael, Gabriel, Matthew and Santino didn't expect to be in the superhero business, then neither did James Disco. Then again, he never really knew where his life would take him next. Until recently, Disco had been, admittedly, a dilettante, flittering from one project to another. He helped put together World Fest in Atlanta, an international music festival, and did some other business for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. He worked in film and video, even modeled some back in the day.

It all started to come into sharper focus in 2001, thanks to his sister, Liz Disco-Shearer, at the time an administrator for Catholic Charities in Dallas. She was working to resettle Sudanese refugees in the Dallas area; of the 3,800 or so lost boys in the United States, about 200 live here. She found furniture for their apartments, clothes, job training, whatever she could provide. More than anything, she gave them a family, a home, a place to feel safe. "She's a real hustler for the refugees," says Dr. Susan Clark, director of the University of Dallas' English language programs and a volunteer in the refugee resettlement effort.

Susan Clark, editor of Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan comic, with Gabriel Akol. Clark says retelling the lost boys' story was traumatic.
Mark Graham
Susan Clark, editor of Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan comic, with Gabriel Akol. Clark says retelling the lost boys' story was traumatic.
Artist Myk Friedman, middle, walked a line between being too horrific and just graphic enough in producing Echoes. Dut Benjamin, bottom, contributed his own artwork to the book.
Mark Graham
Artist Myk Friedman, middle, walked a line between being too horrific and just graphic enough in producing Echoes. Dut Benjamin, bottom, contributed his own artwork to the book.

Safety was a real struggle that first year. After a decade at Kakuma, most of it spent under fire from hostile tribes, the lost boys finally escaped to the United States. Then 9-11 happened, and the boys thought they had caused it, that the Arabs were coming after them again. They still think that way.

Even without the fallout from 9-11, it was tough. They didn't have a support network like the other refugee communities Catholic Charities had helped settle in Dallas--the Vietnamese, for example. Some of them were still minors, and those who weren't might as well have been, since their maturity was postponed by the war and the poor health in the camps. They looked old enough, but they were just kids, really.

During the resettlement process, Disco-Shearer took a shine to two of the boys, Gabriel and Santino, who arrived here in April 2001. She grew especially close to Gabriel. He's 23, around the same age as her son.

"I'm like the foster mother that he doesn't have here," says Disco-Shearer, who now serves as executive director for St. Vincent de Paul, another faith-based organization. "We talk about everything. I have a 22-year-old, so it's the same way I talk to my son. I talk to him about, you know, things of the world. And they come over for holidays and they spend Christmas here, and he's actually lived with me for, like, a period of two months. I still have Gabriel's stuff stored in the attic here in my home."

Her brother began volunteering at Catholic Charities in 2001, helping Liz with refugee setups. He met some of the boys that way and, as Liz had hoped, bonded with Gabriel and Santino at those holiday dinners. Eventually, he wanted to do more than lugging mattresses and sofas up four flights of stairs. He didn't mind the hard work. It just seemed as though his talents could be put to better use elsewhere.

"So I was like, 'You know what? I've done stuff in the past with the arts,'" Disco remembers. "'I think I can do something that will make a little bit more of a difference.' I know if I could help put together a project for 100,000 people, if I could connect things, I could connect this."

His first idea was to tell the story in documentary form, but filming a documentary would cost too much money and make very little of it. Only Michael Moore has had much success turning a profit by turning a cause into a film. Not that Disco is in this for the money, but if he was going to give something back, he had to get something to give.

Besides, he felt the story was too horrific to be told on film. "It's ghastly what they went through," he says. "To do it and make it realistic and from a historical standpoint, you know, it wouldn't be PG-13. It would almost be like The Exorcist or something."

Ultimately, he settled on a sort of hybrid format: non-fiction comic books, a mix of black-and-white comic-book art and photographs of the lead characters. Disco wanted people to see the faces of the boys before they saw them as an artist's rendering, to better drive home the point: This. Really. Happened. And also: They survived.

Armed with an idea, Disco started assembling a team that could make it happen. He knew that Clark was in the midst of a similar undertaking: writing the memoir of Abuk Makuac, a Sudanese woman who had raised her son--Dut Benjamin, one of the refugee artists involved in the Echoes project--in the camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, before coming to the United States in 1994. When he read Clark's unfinished manuscript, Disco knew she was absolutely the right person for the job.

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