From Horror to Heroes

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

"We brought them on a picnic; we had some hot dogs, and they kind of looked at them kind of funny because they thought they were literal dogs that we had cooked somehow," says Virginia Campbell, who has worked closely with many of the boys through an outreach program she set up at St. Patrick's Catholic Church.

They've adjusted now. They are Americans, and proud of it. Above the television in the living room of the North Dallas apartment Akol shares with four others, including Santino, a large American flag hangs on the wall, dominating the room.

Sitting across from Akol in his apartment, he looks like the college student he is. Akol works at the University of Dallas as a custodian now. Next semester, he'll be a student there. He's already taken almost enough courses at community college for his associate's degree in criminal justice. At the University of Dallas, he plans to study theology. His faith is also evident in the apartment. Tacked to the corner of the American flag is a calendar featuring the Virgin Mary. A similar picture adorns the button-up shirt Akol is wearing.

Gabriel Akol, one of Sudan's "lost boys," whose flight from civil war in Africa is captured in a new comic book
Mark Graham
Gabriel Akol, one of Sudan's "lost boys," whose flight from civil war in Africa is captured in a new comic book
Michael Ngor saw his brother murdered by soldiers before he fled for Ethiopia.
Mark Graham
Michael Ngor saw his brother murdered by soldiers before he fled for Ethiopia.

Still, there are constant reminders of where he's been, what he's seen. On the coffee table between us is a copy of the September 10 edition of The New York Times, folded open to a story detailing Colin Powell's declaration the previous day that the United States views the rapes and killings that began in the Darfur region of western Sudan in January 2004 as genocide.

"Maybe the whole nation now is coming to see what's going on in Sudan," Akol says, pointing to the newspaper. "It makes me feel better now. If the whole world hear what happened, that people transgress human rights, people will be able to see what is going on. That is the same situation going on [in Darfur]. That's the same situation still that started in 1983. People died like that. People were being bombed. It pain me a lot, because that's the same situation I experience before, and that's the same situation that's still going on for long years. People are dying every day."

Akol has become the spokesman for Echoes' lost boys, the one who has been quoted the most in news pieces, the one providing the sound bites on NPR and BBC radio. It's not because he wants the attention--far from it, actually--and it's not because his story is all that different from the other boys' tales.

The reason is very simple: Akol speaks the best English. He is soft-spoken, and his voice still carries his tribal Dinka accent. But his language is clear and precise.

It's hard on him, though. He may be the most fragile of the foursome, the most prone to waking up in the middle of the night, screaming. The nightmares have gotten better over time, but they still come back. He sees the soldiers in their uniforms, their guns pointed at him and his friends. He sees people dying all around him. He sees his village one last time. His parents aren't in those visions, because he didn't have a chance to say goodbye. The other boys went through the same thing, but Akol has had a more difficult time shaking it.

Those memories help him, though. They don't make the story any easier to tell time and time again, but when he tells it, those horrific details help people understand. And when they understand, Akol and the boys feel better. Because someone out there cares. They are no longer just invisible immigrants.

Clark saw all of this when she and James and Liz invited the boys to a high school journalism conference. They were nervous at first, sitting in front of microphones in a room full of unfamiliar faces. But they soon warmed to the task, feeding off each other just as they had in that room in the back of Catholic Charities. By the end, the students were crying.

"There is this old Swedish saying: 'Sorrow shared is half the sorrow. Joy shared is twice the joy,'" Clark says. "And I could see that sorrow in them reduced to half right there, with that connection."

The boys were feeling so good by the end of the conference that they decided to sing a song. Two of them, actually. The second one, with lyrics in Dinka and English, showed their resolve, their commitment to their new mission and their new country: "No turning back/No turning back."

"I've seen a real transformation in Gabriel," Clark says. "I'm not as close to the other guys. I don't see them as much. He was just kind of recovering from his own trauma. Just barely keeping a job. He went to school and then quit. He just couldn't keep it together. Now, he's real strong. He's confident, he's got purpose, he's calling me, telling me when he's got interviews."

In the end, this isn't about relief funds or raising awareness. It's not even really about comic books. As far as Liz Disco-Shearer is concerned, Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan would have to be considered a success, even if that first issue hadn't hit stores, even if the second one never does.
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