By Mary Jo Curtis
One Mother’s Day Adrie Kusserow ’88 knocked on a door in Vermont, hoping to meetsome of Sudan’s “lost boys.” That knock has changed many lives—including those of girls who’d been more likely to die in childbirth than to finish high school.
On a sunny afternoon in February, Adrie Kusserow ’88 returned from skiing through the woods near her Vermont home and settled into her family room with a cup of tea. On three sides of the room, large windows look out on acres of pristine fields of snow, tall pines and snow-covered mountains.
This is the land where Kusserow grew up. Her mother lives close by along the drive off the mountain road, and Kusserow’s childhood home is a stone’s throw away in the opposite direction. She and her husband, Robert Lair, built their sun-filled house 10 years ago, and it is here they are raising yet another generation, their daughter, Ana, 14, and son, Will, 11. This land is home.
When Kusserow began to speak, the topics were joltingly at odds with the peaceful setting. She talked of Sudan’s “lost boys,” of her time in refugee camps, of the need to build a Sudanese school close to a safe border in case of enemy attack.
A professor of cultural anthropology since 1996 at St. Michael’s, a small, Catholic liberal arts college outside Burlington, Kusserow teaches courses on refugees, modern-day slavery, social inequality, medical anthropology and the anthropology of religion. She has conducted fieldwork in Uganda, India and Nepal, and she’s taken her students to Sudan, Uganda and Bhutan. She’s a staunch advocate for studying abroad, doing community service work and conducting fieldwork.
A clear theme runs through her life and career: She wants her students—and Americans as a whole—to more deeply understand how many of the world’s citizens live: in poverty, fear, danger and bondage.
Atem Deng, center, met Kusserow, far right, after he came to Vermont. He married Adieu Dau Thiong, who joined him in the Green Mountain State.
This work began while she was an Amherst student. In her sophomore year, Kusserow enrolled in a semester-abroad program with a School for International Training in Nepal. “When I went to Amherst, I kind of panicked. I needed to do something radically different and get away from the upper-middle-class, privileged life I’d been living,” she says. “I lived in a Tibetan refugee area near Kathmandu, and it changed my life forever.”
She returned to Amherst to major in religion, study English and anthropology, and graduate Phi Beta Kappa. She left the Pioneer Valley for Harvard Divinity School, where she earned a master’s degree in comparative religion. The curriculum included anthropology, and she became deeply interested in psychiatric and medical anthropology, fascinated by the varied ways different cultures interpret and respond to illnesses of the mind and body. Since Harvard offered a doctoral program in social anthropology, she stayed to earn a Ph.D.
“Religion and anthropology are so close in many ways,” Kusserow says. “Much of the world doesn’t put religion in a box for Sundays; so many cultures are bathed in religion.” After finishing her studies, Kusserow returned to Vermont and began teaching at St. Michael’s. In 1998 she traveled to Kathmandu to observe how Tibetan monks and nuns were adapting Tibetan Buddhism for Western audiences. Three years later, on Mother’s Day, she met the lost boys.
During the 22 years of Sudan’s Second Civil War, 20,000 children fled their homes in southern Sudan as Muslim aggressors from the north attacked Christians in the south. Many of the parents of these children were killed; many of the girls were sold into slavery. The surviving “lost boys”—largely between the ages of 5 and 11—set out on foot for refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya; during that 1,000-mile journey, half of them died.
In 2001 the U.S. State Department organized one of the largest resettlement projects in its history, airlifting some 3,800 lost boys—by then in their late teens and early 20s—from refugee camps to various locations in the United States. On May 13, 2001, Kusserow and her husband learned that a group of 30 lost boys from the Bor area and Bahr el Ghazal had ended up in the Burlington-Winooski area. Kusserow, who’d been following the news on the Sudanese war, wanted to meet them.
“We knocked on the door unannounced at this pretty abysmal apartment,” she says. “We walked in and found five guys there, and the heat cranked up to 90. I was struck immediately by their sense of isolation.”
The U.S. media has devoted substantial coverage to the lost boys who came to the United States, but Kusserow feels the public has seen an incomplete story. “The media portraits have been fairly shallow,” she says. Vermont reporters seem to turn to the same four or five boys over and over again, she says, “quoting the ones who speak good English, have gone to college and are not struggling.” But Kusserow has seen some other local refugees—men now in their 20s and 30s—struggle with depression, alcoholism, their identity as immigrants. And among many other challenges, she says, “they’re under incredible pressure” to send money back to their families.
These men expected more from life in America. “The greatest disappointment for them is probably that they can’t afford an education,” she says. “The boys who are often highlighted are the ones who graduate.” And college doesn’t always lead to a better life. Some of the college-educated lost boys find they can’t get professional jobs while competing in a tough economy with American-born applicants. “For many,” Kusserow says, “life is a real struggle here in the U.S.”
After befriending some of the Vermont lost boys, Kusserow made them a part of her own students’ lives. She brought them into classes she taught on refugees, where her students learned about their experiences. Her students also helped the lost boys adjust to life in America by, among other things, teaching them to drive.
Atem Deng, a member of the Dinka tribe from Bor, is one of the Sudanese young men Kusserow met that day in 2001. Now 33, he’s had a relationship with Kusserow and her family for so long, she says, that “he’s part of the family.”
Deng remembers life with another family, too—one he was part of until war intruded upon their lives in 1987. At age 7, he and other children fled his village, at first hiding in trees nearby during the day and trying to return home at night, “but troops were following us and killing everybody they encountered,” he says. That threat continued as Deng set out barefoot on a two-month journey to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The soldiers weren’t the only danger along the way: wild animals preyed on the children, and hundreds were killed by crocodiles or drowned as they tried to cross the Nile River. Deng says he survived simply because he “was lucky.”
He remained in the Ethiopian camp for four years, until fighting also broke out in that country, and a new regime decided the refugees were no longer welcome. The Ethiopian militia forced the boys to cross the Gilo River back into Sudan; again, many children did not survive the river—or the soldiers waiting on the other side. “It was the same situation, and they were waiting for us,” says Deng, who went back to hiding during the day and traveling at night. “We hid in the trees and ate leaves.”
It was another two months before 11-year-old Deng and other boys reached a refugee camp in Kenya. They remained there for 10 years, until the U.S. airlift began in 2001. Again, Deng says he was “lucky”: He was among the lost boys sent to America before the program was discontinued following 9/11.
As he and his countrymen settled into their new lives in Vermont, Deng says, “everyone was wonderful and so helpful to us.” He forged a relationship with Kusserow and her husband, who became “my second parents.” Not knowing whether his first parents had lived or died in the war, he made inquiries, networking by email with people he knew back in Africa. In 2005 Deng discovered his parents were alive and living in a refugee camp in Kampala, Uganda. He asked Kusserow to accompany him to see his family. She decided to bring her students.
“I don’t know how to describe that moment,” says Deng of the reunion with his parents. “Our lives had changed. I thought they were dead, and they thought I was dead.” He later found two brothers and two sisters who’d also survived.
As Deng and his parents celebrated, five of Kusserow’s students conducted interviews and gathered life histories from others in the camp. From there, Kusserow and nine students traveled to the massive Imvepi Settlement Camp for the Sudanese in Arua, Uganda. “It stretched for miles, with thousands and thousands of people,” she says. In conducting life histories with the residents of Imvepi, Kusserow was surprised to learn the extent to which the Sudanese believe in the power of education: “Never before have I encountered refugees who were so obsessed with education. We heard the slogan, ‘Education is my mother and my father.’”
But while children were eager to go to school, parents—of daughters specifically—were not always eager to send them. Their reluctance was tied to cows. When Deng met his future wife, Adieu Dau Thiong, in the refugee camp, Kusserow discovered that Deng would need to pay Adieu’s family 300 cows before the couple could marry. Kusserow and husband Lair offered to help, allowing Deng to buy the required livestock and bring his wife home to Vermont. “People don’t want their daughters to go to school, because that will delay marriage—and they know they can get cows when their daughters marry,” Kusserow says.
That and other factors inspired Kusserow and Lair’s next move. Illiteracy rates are high in South Sudan. According to UNICEF, only 27 percent of the population can read, and only 30 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 have ever even been inside a classroom. The completion rate in primary schools is one of the lowest in the world; fewer than 1 percent of girls complete primary school. According to an April 2014 New York Times editorial, roughly one-third of South Sudan’s population is facing starvation.
“We’d never encountered a country with such an abysmal rate for everything, from literacy to childbirth,” says Kusserow. “The statistics are so brutal: South Sudan has proportionately fewer girls going to school than any other country in the world. A girl has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than graduating from high school. We found the greatest need was to provide support for the education of girls, so we came back home and started to raise money for a school.”
Lair and Deng applied to the World Bank for funding and received $200,000 to build a boarding school. The second part of the project involved establishing a nonprofit NGO, Africa Education & Leadership Initiative (www.africaeli.org), which Kusserow, Lair and Deng created in conjunction with an advocacy group—the Lost Boys of Sudan of Vermont—to support secondary education for girls.
The school is located in Yei in South Sudan. “We hoped once it was built, it would eventually be self-sustaining,” Kusserow says. It’s now run by Wani Kenneth Evans, a Sudanese man. “We chose Yei because it’s close to the Ugandan and Congo borders.” While the area is currently considered relatively stable, if rebel fighting comes “too close for comfort,” the students will be able to flee across a border to safety, she says.
They chose to build the school as a boarding school to not only educate the girls but also to keep them fed and safe. “At home they’re often put to work, and boys are given educational preference,” Kusserow says. “The girls are in danger from early pregnancy and marriage, and the school is a wonderful way of keeping them from those risks.”
Africa ELI has helped to build additional schools, and it’s now working to build more. While the nonprofit was organized to support girls—admission priority goes to girls and refugees ages 14 to 26—boys receive about one-third of its scholarships. “In educating boys, we hope to make them more accepting of education for girls,” Kusserow says. The organization operates on the philosophy that educating the young women of the country will build gender equality and result in healthier families, better economic conditions, improved social interaction and stronger leadership.
Prior to 2005, no coordinated education system existed in southern Sudan, according to Anita Henderlight, director of Africa ELI. There are now more than 200 graduates of the Yei school—including a young woman named Betty. One of Africa ELI’s sponsored students, Betty graduated in 2011, worked her way through teacher training college and is now head teacher at one of the organization’s primary schools.
Henderlight has no shortage of praise for Kusserow and her role in establishing the NGO and bringing education to the region: “Adrie is such a superstar for all of us in South Sudan. She is committed to girls’ education and such a force for good around the world.”
Violence along the border between South Sudan and its northern neighbor, the Republic of Sudan, has risen since South Sudan became an independent country in 2011. With coveted oil fields lying within South Sudan, the border remains contested. Aerial bombings from the north continually threaten the border provinces, killing adults and children and destroying villages and schools.
As a result, says Kusserow, there is now a second wave of lost boys (and girls) fleeing the bombings in the Nuba Mountains along that border. On her last trip to South Sudan, in 2012, she interviewed boys and girls who’d fled the Nuba region. Among them was Sadig Babur, who describes a harrowing journey “running from bombardments and ground attacks” with a group of friends. Traveling for “many days,” he says, he saw “thousands of women, children and elders die on the roads” before he reached a refugee camp that did not have adequate food or water for the barrage of arrivals.
Like Deng, Babur was lucky; he hailed a passing convoy driver who gave him $40 and a ride partway to Yei. Soon he enrolled in the school at Yei, working in exchange for tuition credit. He says “Madam Adrie” also helped cover his school costs. He’s now a student at Emmanuel Christian College in Yei, hoping to raise the money to complete his education there.
Only about half of the boys who try to leave Nuba survive the two-week trek to find refuge in Yei, and girls are even more vulnerable. Some of the children Kusserow interviewed talked about finding a refugee camp after fleeing the mountains. “But many were raped or sold for marriage,” she says. “Everyone wants money. It’s not appropriate for girls to travel, and we see fewer and fewer.”
In her days as a divinity student, Kusserow also studied poetry, although she “kept it under wraps” at the time, she says. Once she was immersed in anthropology, she found a place for verse in her work, and in 2013 she published her second volume of ethnographic poetry, Refuge (BOA Editions). Dedicated to her family and “all refugees everywhere,” it focuses on her observations and experiences in South Sudan and Uganda. One poem describes an injured sex worker lying in a gutter, struggling after having been beaten for asking a customer to use a condom. In another, Kusserow observes a crow pecking for food and celebrating its feast:
And suddenly I knew how war
must feel on the earth’s beleaguered back,
the constant pecking,
the restless itching armies,
the wince and smart, gush and heave of old arguments dug up…
One poem, dedicated to Deng, describes him hiding in the branches of a tree:
… he shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands
sliding into it like a snake,
his whole body covered except his mouth.
Perhaps others were near him,
lying in gloves of mud, sucking bits of air through the swamp holes,
mosquitoes biting their lips,
but he dared not look.
Kusserow says her poetry moves people in a way that her academic articles do not. Then she makes an unexpected observation: “Some of what I write about in Refuge is that Americans seem to need these refugees. They’re the bouillon cube of horror that spices up suburban life. They give our lives perspective.”
She concedes that she’s among these Americans, “in the sense that I can’t survive on consumerism, hyper-individualism, materialism and competitive capitalism. Work with refugees gives a sense of meaning and purpose to many lives and puts the ‘white whine worries’ of the upper middle class in perspective.”
Deng continues to provide that perspective. Still living in the Burlington area and working as a machinist, he’s about to face another major change, this time a happy one: he and his wife are expecting their first child in August. But he worries about his parents. In recent months, as fighting resumed in South Sudan, he once again feared they were dead. Using his email networks in that country, he was relieved to find they were in Yei, once again adjusting to refugee life. He was able to wire money to them.
“These soldiers just kill people randomly, even in hospitals. My parents were very lucky,” says Deng. In his childhood village “there’s nothing left from the bombings and lootings. Why would I ever go back there? For what?”
Deng and his wife, even though they live in the city, have a view of the mountains from their home in Vermont. There are no mountains near Deng’s village in Sudan, only desert. Nor is there any snow. “It is so cold here,” he says with a laugh, “that at first I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
He’s thought of moving somewhere warmer, he says, but that would mean no more weekly visits to Kusserow’s mountain home. “I want to be with Adrie and her family for life,” he says. “They are my family now. This is my home now.”
Mary Jo Curtis is a media relations specialist at Mount Holyoke College and a freelance writer. Adrie Kusserow ’88 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Joshi Radin