It’s been 20 years since I traveled with thousands of other boys more than 1,000 miles by foot over three countries to find safe haven from the civil war in Sudan that made many of us orphans. We were known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” forced to flee from our homes, families, and communities due to violence and conflict.
We in the United States faced a humanitarian crisis last summer not unlike what I experienced all those years ago, and it continues today. It also involves thousands of children fleeing alone from violence from which there was no one to protect them.
These are the unaccompanied children who have been coming to the United States from Central America and Mexico in historic numbers, with nearly 58,000 last fiscal year, a tenfold increase from just a few years ago.
A significant number are expected to come again this fiscal year; one estimate projected 39,000.
Gangs and other organized criminal groups have overrun these young people’s towns and communities and are targeting them for forced recruitment. Rapes, kidnappings, and extortion are commonplace in these children’s lives. In desperation, they come to the United States to seek our protection. I know their desperation.
I was 12 years old when I was separated from my family by war. From that point, I took care of myself and some other young boys who had also lost their families. The ordeals that I went through at that age were very difficult, but it was compounded by the fact that I was also taking care of five-, seven-, and nine-year-old kids. They were continually crying, often terrified of being killed, very hungry, sick, and desperate for their mothers. There was nothing at that time that I could give to them. What I said at that time was that “today is bad, tomorrow will be better.” Just to give them that support, to give them hope that maybe tomorrow (what did I know about tomorrow at that time?) would be better. But I was giving them hope so that they could stay alive.
A number of us made it to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. After some years, we were welcomed into the United States to create a new life in safety and free from fear. I was 26 years old.
The children coming alone today from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala fleeing violence are not receiving the supportive welcome that I and other Lost Boys experienced when we arrived, however.
They are placed into deportation proceedings without adequate assistance to help them make their claim for U.S. protection. There are no public defenders in the U.S. immigration system, although the U.S. Department of Justice launched a program through AmeriCorps to provide a limited number of attorneys to these children nationwide. While a step in the right direction, it does not come close to covering the tens of thousands of children in need.
Children in nearly 70 percent of pending cases — from toddlers to teenagers — have been unable to find attorneys, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, reporting on immigration data from fiscal years 2005-2014.
It is nearly impossible for these extremely vulnerable children to present their cases to an immigration judge and argue against a government attorney alone. They can then be returned to whatever harm made them flee in the first place.
This is unimaginable to me.
When I got to America, I learned that this is a country where people are selfless and bighearted, and can help others. I was able to become a productive member of my new community and also to do many things to help my home country.
We must give unaccompanied children fair access to the basic justice that this country stands for. This starts by ensuring these children have representation to help them make their claim for safety.
I am grateful to the United States every day for giving me a safe haven. We must also allow these children a fair chance to receive this priceless protection.
John Bul Dau, a former “lost boy” of Sudan, lives in Syracuse and is president of the John Dau Foundation in Skaneateles, New York. Dau is author of “God Grew Tired of Us,” and a member of the board of directors of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that provides pro bono representation to unaccompanied children in their deportation proceedings.