Where are the Lost Girls?

This is Aduei Riak. In 1999, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the U.S. State Department, and other advocate organizations established a program that resettled over 4,000 Sudanese refugees. Of those Sudanese refugees, 89 of them were girls. Riak was one of the 89. There has been numerous press about the Lost Boys of Sudan, but where are the Lost Girls?

Aduei Riak was three years old when a civil war broke out in Sudan, and she was forced to flee from her village of Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Riak, her mother, and several relatives escaped to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and her father  joined the rebel forces. In 1991, when war broke out in Ethiopia, Riak and her family were forced to flee the refugee camp, and they were separated on the trek back to Sudan. Riak recalls that, “except for a 7-year old cousin, ‘I was pretty much on my own.'” She goes on to remember, “There was bombing, shooting everywhere. No food, and a lot of walking day and night” (Jones).

According to Mapendo International, “As many as 2,000 children are believed to have drowned, were shot or eaten by crocodiles as they tried to cross the Gilo River back to Sudan” (Jones). Because Sudan was still war ravaged, the children, including Riak, were forced to flee once more. Around 10,000 children survived the journey to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Below is a map to help you visualize Riak’s journey. Although this map’s starting point is different than Juba, Juba is featured on the map, and the other points of reference are correct. I also like how the map has the actual time that it took to get from point a to point b. It really makes you think.

Once at Kakuma refugee camp, Riak resumed her schooling. Unfortunately, the camp provided limited schooling for the children. Riak lamented the fact that, “in Sudan, her education was in a classroom, but ‘All that was taken away,'” because of the war. “We went from sitting in a classroom … and coming home and having a nice meal, to being under a tree” (Jones). Riak won a scholarship upon completion of fourth grade, and it allowed her to attend a boarding school in Kenya. She only came back to Kakuma for the holidays. Years later, her cousin, who was still living in the camp, was identified as a “lost boy,” and their “shared food ration card brought her to the attention of resettlement officials. The two came to Massachusetts in 2000” (Jones).

Riak was resettled in a suburb of Boston when she was 16, and she lived with various families. She moved in with Helen Peters and Garrett Parker in 2002,  foster parents with whom she “remains close to” (Jones). She is now a graduate of Brandeis University, is a paralegal at the law firm of Ropes & Gray, and is applying to law school. She wants to go back to Sudan “for good” once she has her law degree and experience she feels is necessary to “help build her people up” (Jones).

“‘If I went back today, I’d be useless,’ she says, adding she wants to use her legal skills to help women and children. ‘When the time is appropriate, I will definitely go back and be part of the community. [… ] There’s nothing special about us. We just got lucky to get to the U.S. We owe it to those who are still there'” (Jones).

So now that you’ve heard Riak’s story, you are probably wondering why there were only 89 girls relocated to the United States. So, where are these Lost Girls?

Listen to Riak’s opinion in an interview with NPR on Lost Girls and her journey to America.

“The way that the camp was structured has a lot to do with why there were so few girls in the group. […] In Sudanese culture, women are not allowed to live on their own, so girls were sort of like merged into community, which was basically families with little kids. Boys were grouped into what was called “minor groups.” When the resettlement agencies were in the camp identifying people for resettlement, they saw these organized groups that were particularly men. They could go through a rooster and identify their names, age, and what year they arrived in the camp. Guys were more organized compared to women. Because once they [women] went to the communities, their records were lost. Since we marry young compared to young men, a lot of girls were mothers. The resettlement wasn’t designed to assist mothers.”

So as Riak articulated, there are several reasons why there are so few Lost Girls, and it all (mostly) has to do with one thing: gender. First, it is important to note that many more boys escaped than girls. Tara McKelvey, a journalist, points out,”The children who escaped were usually herding cattle in the fields when their villages were plundered—when the children saw the villages burning, they fled into the bush. As a result, most of the escapees were boys; the girls were usually in the villages, cooking and cleaning their homes, and they were killed or kidnapped by the enemy.” So, girls were already more likely to be kidnapped or killed than boys before they even had a chance to try and escape their villages.

Of the girls that did survive the village attacks and survived the journey to Kakuma, almost all of them that did not have arrive with family were placed with “foster families.” Many of these foster families exploited (and are still exploiting) these girls as domestic servants. Some of these girls were also sold by their foster families for a bridal fee. Like Riak explained, because Sudanese culture dictates that women are not supposed to live alone, these girls were forced to live with families. In contrast, boys were allowed to form groups that were only loosely supervised by adults. There are a couple of reasons why boys were more likely to be a part of the resettlement effort than girls.

First,  the UNHCR began a pyscho-social counseling program for boys, and their list of counseled boys was one of the lists used for the resettlement program. Because girls were placed in (or were  already a part of) “nurturing” families, it was believed that they did not need counseling. I just want to point out that this is totally incorrect. Michael Wessells argues, “Inside camps for refugees […], where men drink excessively, girls and women are in as much danger from rape, sexual harassment, and family violence as they are from armed conflict” (86). Further, “The emphasis on sexual violence can also obscure other forms of violence that damages these girls. Much of the violence, however, is silent because it is structural, that is, a product of institutionalized patterns of social inequality and gender discrimination” (Wessells 87). So, basically, girls needed counseling just as much as boys did.Second, many of these girl’s “files” were lost once they were placed into foster families, so they didn’t have the requisite paper trail that would have allowed them to be part of the resettlement process. Third, many of these girls were already mothers by the time that the resettlement program began, and like Riak stated, “the resettlement wasn’t designed to assist mothers.”

Even more heartbreaking–many of these girls, now women, are still stuck in UNHCR purgatory.

McKelvey argues that the UNHCR is to blame:

In December 2000, Julianne Duncan, an anthropologist specializing in refugee children filed a report explaining in heartbreaking detail how the girls were being shafted. But UNHCR officials were distracted. In April 2001, several employees in the UNHCR office in Nairobi, Kenya, were arrested and charged with extorting money from refugees. More than 20 workers were dismissed. “The girls were back-burnered again,” said a humanitarian worker who spent four years in Kakuma.”

Now What? 

RefugePoint was founded to “protect and care for at-risk refugees in Africa. RefugePoint’s rescue resettlement efforts, health clinic, and advocacy campaigns address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees in Africa, ensuring that forgotten victims of persecution, massacre and atrocities are brought from danger to safety.” 

“Spending time in Kakuma camp, RefugePoint’s founders saw that these girls faced the most severe forms of danger and persecution. They were seen as commodities and sold into marriage as early as twelve years old. They were prevented from school and used as servants in some households. They faced rape, violence, and discrimination. While nearly 4,000 Sudanese boys resettled to the US, only 89 girls came through the same resettlement process. RefugePoint was founded to address the needs of these and other girls who fall through the cracks of humanitarian programs and are in danger” (Refugepoint).

RefugePoint is focused on serving individuals, families, and communities that have “fallen through the cracks” and are in extreme danger. They have rescue operations in east and west Africa, and a medical clinic in Nairobi that serves people that are AIDS/HIV positive. Read a NY Times article that documents their urban food program, here.

What do you think about Riak’s story? Do you think the UNHCR should have done anything different in regards to placing the girls in “foster families”? Do you think that their resettlement plan was sexist?  Or do you think they did everything they could to help? 

Works Cited:

Wessells, Michael. Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection. Harvard University Press: 2006.

McKelvey, Tara, Where are the “Lost Girls”?, 3 October, 2003, available at:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2003/10/where_are_the_lost_girls.html [accessed 29 February


Jones, Charisse, ‘Lost’ in Sudan’s Violence, She’s Found Hope in USA, 23 July 2007, available at:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-07-23-lost-girls_N.htm [accessed 29 February 2012].

 RefugePoint. Available at: http://www.refugepoint.org [accessed 29 February 2012].

5 thoughts on “Where are the Lost Girls?

  1. valopez says:

    You bring up some very good points. I definitely think the UNHCR could have done more to help girls. If UNHCR officials had dug deeper, they might have uncovered the disturbing truth: Girls were also victims. By focusing so much on boys, the agency inadvertently reinforced a bias against girls. It is disturbing that so many young women suffered and their stories–relative to boys–are rarely heard. Kudos to Riak for speaking up for girls. Also, a big thanks to you for asking, “Where are the Lost Girls.” Unfortunately, my response to that question would be… “They’re still lost.”

  2. Dulce says:

    It is unfortunate that the girls were inevitably lost. The UNHCR should have made more efforts to include the lost girls (regardless of whether or not they had children themselves or were being temporarily cared for). What if a female was under the age of 18 and had children in the US? What is she was married off at the age of 12? The UNHCR created a blanket program but as their program title and refugee demographics show, they were sexist in their attempt to help this community.

  3. Nick says:

    Your questions are right on target! Yes, there is definitely a gender inequality in terms of how many boys vs how many girls found refuge in western countries. It also makes me wonder how many Sudanese adults (especially parents of the lost boys and girls) were able to fly to the U.S.? I have linked your blog to my post about the Lost Boys – thank you for providing a fresh new perspective!

  4. Amy says:

    Thanks for sharing, Anastasia! I had the same question when thinking about what to put together for the class, and had hoped that we might have time to talk about it, so i’m really glad for this blog. I think the resettlement plan was sexist, but it makes me think about how tough the decision would be to make, when the individuals your are hoping to support come from a sexist culture. Do you stay consistent with the norm, or would bringing in an outside value system of equality be better? I think in these situations, aid workers make the best decisions they know how to, and it is really hard to anticipate what the repercussions may be.

  5. It’s great to put a human face with the obvious resiliency that the Lost Girls at all stages of their various journeys have. It also reminds us how this heartbreaking story can become even more so in the face of insufficient policy choices and a lack of cultural specificity, particularly when it comes to gender. Clearly the UNHCR needed to dig deeper, as Dr. Lopez has pointed out, and they would have been able to see the interlocking systems of oppression at work within this patriarchal culture that was making victims out of girls on many different levels beyond merely their refugee status. It’s interesting that RefugeePoint has re-purposed this language of the “lost” refugee to refer to individuals who have been forgotten in other ways–many resulting of multiple overlapping oppressions. A resettlement effort from this type of approach seems much more workable.

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