The children who escaped—dubbed the “Lost Boys” because they were mostly unaccompanied males—marched through their war-torn country for years, threatened by lions and starvation. Years later they arrived in several American cities only to experience another sort of hardship: the struggle to make ends meet and to further their education.
Valentino’s harrowing, bittersweet story has been brought to life by Dave Eggers in the book “What Is the What,” recently released in paperback. The author recently stopped in Washington, D.C., to promote the ongoing work of rebuilding in Sudan and field questions about Valentino’s life, including the role of the church.
Valentino was baptized a Catholic as a child in the Sudan, although other Lost Boys are Episcopalian and Lutheran, Eggers says. After arriving in Atlanta, “Valentino had quite a church community,” Eggers said. He still does—at Allegheny College, where he’s pursuing further education.
“Churches have been incredibly important in all cities where these refugees are,” Eggers says, because the refugees were given just three months of assistance after resettlement. Further help has been necessary. “Churches and foundations stepped in,” Eggers says. “Without them, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Eggers tells of a woman from a Charlotte, N.C., Baptist church who invited a few of the men she encountered at the local grocery store to stop by the church for further help, only to discover 35 Lost Boys at the church the next day.
Although the church is present through the services offered, Eggers paints a portrait of Valentino as someone still searching for the sort of community many Christians find in the church. The book is not primarily a commentary on the church’s outreach to these men, but the spiritual aspect of Valentino’s life takes a back seat to the daily struggle to make ends meet and to avoid being taken advantage of.
The novel is based almost entirely on Valentino’s recollections, although Eggers labels the book a novel because he used the experiences of other Lost Boys to fill in Valentino’s vague memories of family life before his village was attacked. It painfully reveals how the struggles of these men continue in the States, where they find it difficult to achieve their hopes for more learning and for marriage. “His story is representative of millions of other immigrants,” Eggers says.
Today, people are beginning to return to Southern Sudan. There’s a hopefulness now, after years of war and bloodshed.
Part of that is due to a Bush-administration-backed peace agreement between the north and the south in Sudan, but is cautious about the increasing number of violations to that agreement. “The Bush administration really did a lot to broker that peace,” Eggers says. “But this is a terrible government [in Sudan]. It’s incumbent upon the Bush administration to keep a close eye on it. I know they’re trying to do that.”
Valentino has returned to his hometown of Marial Bai, where he hopes to build a school. He faces a shortage of trained teachers, and those who remain are trained to teach in Arabic—not English, as Valentino wants. The work is still in the early stages.
Meanwhile, Valentino pursues his education at Allegheny College. “He wanted to be here with me today,” Eggers says, “but he had to drive back to Allegheny for a test.”
Valentino’s story is one of courage, a triumph of hope over despair. But many of his hopes remain unfulfilled, and despair is always lurking, threatening to overwhelm him. So far, he hasn’t let despair consume him.
Eggers says the purpose of writing the book was to foster understanding between those in the United States and the Lost Boys. It is a story that needs to be read—by Christians in particular, who can help supply spiritual comfort in addition to physical needs, and who can pray for these Lost Boys. It’s also a reminder of the tremendous blessings we have here in America, and a path to better understanding the immigrant experience, especially among these African refugees.
In short, “What Is the What” is a must read.