The Lost Boys of Sudan

Over 30 years ago, Sudan’s civil war uprooted 20,000 Sudanese children. They were known as the Lost Boys.  

In 1987, civil war drove an estimated 20,000 young boys from their families and villages in southern Sudan. Most just six or seven years old, they fled to Ethiopia to escape death or induction into the northern army. They walked more than a thousand miles, half of them dying before reaching Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The survivors of this tragic exodus became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

In 2001, close to four thousand Lost Boys came to the United States seeking peace, freedom, and education. The International Rescue Committee helped hundreds of them to start new lives in cities across the country.

War and Flight

The outbreak of civil war in Sudan in 1983 brought with it circumstances that would permanently alter the lives of thousands of Sudanese boys and young men. As forces of the government of northern Sudan resumed its campaign against the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern-based rebel group began inducting boys into the movement.

In the next few years, an estimated 20,000 Sudanese children fled their homeland in search of safety in what turned out to be a treacherous 1,000-mile journey to Ethiopia.

Wandering in and out of war zones, these "Lost Boys" spent the next four years in dire conditions. Thousands of boys lost their lives to hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. Some were attacked and killed by wild animals; others drowned crossing rivers and many were caught in the crossfire of fighting forces.

Kakuma Refugee Camp

In 1991, war in Ethiopia sent the young refugees fleeing again and approximately a year later they began trickling into northern Kenya. Some 10,000 boys, between the ages of eight and 18, eventually made it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp—a sprawling, parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years under the care of refugee relief organizations like the IRC.

The IRC began working in Kakuma in 1992 to assist the Lost Boys and other refugees fleeing the fighting in Sudan. Its programs expanded over time to include all of the camp’s health services: treating refugees who arrived malnourished or sick, offering rehabilitation programs for those who were disabled, and working to prevent outbreaks of disease.

Older boys took part in IRC education programs and received support to learn trades and start small businesses to earn money to supplement relief rations. The IRC also helped these young entrepreneurs start savings accounts and access small loans to invest in their futures.

“The IRC’s health, sanitation, community services and education programs touched, in one way or another, the lives of all the Lost Boys who were in Kakuma and who were eventually resettled in the U.S.A.,” recalled Jason Phillips, who managed IRC programs in the camp from 2000 to 2001. “We accompanied and supported them throughout a large part of their journey.”