Academic journal article Family Relations

The Lost Boys of Sudan: Ambiguous Loss, Search for Family, and Reestablishing Relationships with Family Members*

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Lost Boys of Sudan: Ambiguous Loss, Search for Family, and Reestablishing Relationships with Family Members*

Article excerpt


The Lost Boys of Sudan were separated from their families by civil war and subsequently lived in 3 other countries-Ethiopia, Kenya, and the United States. In-depth interviews were conducted with 10 refugees who located surviving family members in Sudan after an average separation of 13.7 years. The interviews probed their experiences of ambiguous loss, relationships in the refugee camps, the search for family, and reestablishing relationships with family members living on another continent. With guidance from elders, peer groups functioned as surrogate families until the youth reestablished relationships with surviving members of their biological families.

Key Words: ambiguous loss, family reunification, refugees, separated children, transnational families, unaccompanied minors.

The Sudanese refugee youth known in the media as the "Lost Boys of Sudan" are an extreme example of separation and ambiguous loss among children victimized by war. The purpose of this study was to better understand the Sudanese refugees' experiences of separation and ambiguous loss and their efforts to reestablish relationships with surviving members of their families on another continent.

The Lost Boys of Sudan embarked on a perilous four-country odyssey after being separated from their parents during the civil war in Sudan. They walked to refugee camps in Ethiopia where they lived from the late 1980s to May 1991 before they were violently expelled following a regime change. They then returned to Sudan and lived in displacement camps for almost a year before attacks by the Sudanese government military forced them to seek shelter in a refugee camp constructed in Kakuma, Kenya. In addition to dealing with multiple traumatic events and chronic hardships, most of the children also struggled with uncertainty regarding the fate of their parents and siblings. Interviews with 147 Lost Boys in 1993 revealed that 72% of the boys were uncertain that they would ever see their families again (Jeppsson & Hjern, 2005). Many of die 3,800 Lost Boys who were resettled in the United States in 2000 - 2001 were still struggling with ambiguous loss-that is, not knowing if their parents were dead or alive (Boss, 2004).

Although the move to the United States took them farther from their villages in Sudan, better communications technology enabled them to continue searching for their families. Some of the Sudanese refugees in the United States were successful in finding family members, and at the time of our study, they were reestablishing relationships with parents and siblings who live in Sudan and neighboring countries. These transnational families were the focus of this study, which addressed the following research questions: (a) How did the youth describe their experiences of separation and ambiguous loss? (b) What supports and relationships sustained them during the period of separation? (c) How did the Sudanese youth reestablish relationships with surviving members of their families and what was their experience of reunification like?

Ambiguous Loss

Boss (2004) defined ambiguous loss "as a situation of unclear loss resulting from not knowing whether a loved one is dead or alive, absent or present" (p. 554). She described two types of ambiguous loss - the first type involves a family member who though physically absent remains psychologically present because it is unclear whether the person is still alive; the second type of ambiguous loss involves a person who is physically present but psychologically absent because of conditions such as dementia, addiction, or depression. After being separated from their families, many of the Lost Boys experienced the first type of loss as they tried for years to determine if anyone else in their family survived the carnage. It was this uncertainty that made this situation particularly stressful (Boss, 2006). In contrast, when a parent dies, there is the pain and the grief process that follows as offspring come to terms with the death. …

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