Ask the Filmmaker

Stephen in Indiana asks: The portions of the film about Santino's life in Houston showed him attending an all-white church and meeting with an all-white Christian youth group. Seeing as Houston has a large black
community, you would presume that there were also African American churches and youth groups that he could also have met with. Did Santino have any contact with Houston area black community, youth and/or church groups? If he did, why didn't the documentary show that? If he didn't, why didn't the film address that issue? Didn't the YMCA staff people who helped him get situated in Houston make any contacts with Houston African American community, youth or church groups?

Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk: Throughout the filming we were aware that the relationship between the Sudanese refugees and African Americans would be an important one to watch. One of the first things that some of the "Lost Boys" asked us when we were in Kakuma Refugee camp was "is it true that most young black men in the U.S. are in prison?" The fact that this was one of the few rumors that these young men had heard about our country was depressing, but telling of how far the virus of American racism has spread in the world. In Houston, the only contact that Peter and Santino had with the African American community was with their neighbors, and even then, it was not much. We were not aware (and we did ask about it on several occasions) of any black youth groups or churches who got involved with the Lost Boys in Houston. In the film, we tried to as much as we could show Santino's and Peter's lives as they lived them and filmed things that represented as honestly as possible what we saw going on. As you see in the film, some of the Sudanese men did have strong negative feelings about African Americans and others felt a strong kinship with them. We never witnessed or heard of the YMCA connecting the Lost Boys with the black community in Houston. If there had been more of a relationship, there would have been more attention spent on it in the film.

Several Sudanese refugees worked with us on the film (mostly, helping us translate Dinka to English), and we also had an African American young man working with us as an associate producer. They all became friends and it was clear that the connection helped the Sudanese youth break down their stereotypes about black Americans. That kind of one-on-one interactions is exactly the type of thing that is most useful for the Sudanese refugees (and probably all refugees). We have seen it make such a big difference in their lives.

Carolyn in Georgia asks: Why was Texas the state chosen for Peter and Santino to live when they arrived in the U.S.? Later, why did Peter move to Kansas?

Megan and Jon: The locations where refugees are resettled are determined in coordination with the State Department and the 10 private agencies that contract with the State Department to resettle refugees all across America. Where certain refugees are resettled often has to do with mundane issues such as which agency has enough housing or staff during a particular week or deeper decisions like where the agencies feel there is enough job opportunity or community support. Sometimes, specific refugees are placed in cities where they have family. Santino and Peter were arbitrarily assigned to Houston -- they had no connection to the place. Peter left for Kansas because he felt frustrated that he was making no headway getting into a school in Houston. He felt strongly that that was the reason he came to the US. After a few months in Houston, he heard from a cousin of his that there was a high school in Olathe, Kansas that had accepted a few Sudanese. One of his best friends from Kakuma Refugee Camp was also living in Kansas City though he ended up not staying with him. He seemed to feel little allegiance to Houston. So, based on what he heard about Kansas, he got in the car and drove himself there.

Mary Beth in Pennsylvania asks: Peter and Santino seemed very well-educated, considering their situation, and therefore underemployed as factory and Walmart workers. Are there chances that they will be able to find good jobs as Arabic translators? Also, this story unfolded around the time of 9/11 but the event was not mentioned in the film. Were Peter and Santino affected by 9/11? Bill Moyers show recently did a story about a high school in NYC that helps refugees in that age group. The school is entirely set up for people like Peter and Santino. Would they have been better off in NY instead of Houston?

Megan and Jon: Peter and Santino and most of the Lost Boys group are very well educated. They went to school during the time that they lived in the United Nations refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. By the time they came to the US, they were in the equivalent of high school. It's not so much that they are underemployed, but that their needs for continuing education are under-met. Most of the Lost Boys would very much like to be in college and university programs (and many are by now).

Many of the Lost Boys do speak some Arabic, and some probably could work as translators. Their first language is Dinka. And most are fluent in conversational English. If you are interested in getting involved with potential job placement for the Lost Boys of other refugee groups, please go to the Take Action page on our website.

9/11 did occur during the filming of "Lost Boys of Sudan." It did impact the lives of the Lost Boys who were still living in Kakuma because the US Refugee Program came to a complete halt for many months as a result. Peter and Santino were scared by the events of 9/11 thinking they had finally arrived in a place of safety only to see violence follow them, but their lives weren't really directly affected in any significant way. The Lost Boys know a great deal about the problems that arise from religious fundamentalism because they are victims of a war which is, in part, fueled by it. Osama Bin Laden actually lived in Sudan for a time, and the Lost Boys were living in Kenya when Al Qaeda attacked the US embassy in Nairobi.

The school that you mention in NY does indeed sound interesting. Any time refugees can get hands-on attention and social work that is specifically designed to listen to their needs and respond appropriately, it's probably a positive thing.

Patricia in California asks: Is there or can there be a kibbutz-like environment in which the refugees could live semi-communally, eat their native cuisine, learn English, have work at hand, and get an education? (Something like what Israel did for its refugees?)

Megan and Jon: Patricia, we are not aware of any formal situation like you describe. In the case of the Lost Boys, they do often live communally in group homes or apartments, sharing rent, food, cooking, chores, etc. This is true of other refugees as well. But your idea sounds promising. Please check out our website for ways to contact a refugee resettlement agency in your area and share your ideas and energy!

Judy in California asks: Once the boys landed in America and were placed in apartments, what help did they receive from their sponsors? Did anyone help them navigate the day-to-day experiences that we assimilate by growing up here? It seemed like they were just dumped here with not much back-up to help them learn the American system of getting through the day.

Megan and Jon: Thanks for your question, Judy. There are 10 agencies officially subcontracted by the US government's Refugee Program to resettle refugees. Their mandate is to provide basic services to newly arrived refugees such as airport reception, housing for at least one month, household goods and clothing, assistance with applications for medical and cash assistance, referrals to English language courses and job placement services. Their initial period of assistance is 90 days, though many agencies work with their refugee clients for much longer and offer many more programs. The goal of the agencies is to make refugees self-sufficient. The agencies work with very small staffs and tight budgets, receiving only a portion of their funding from the federal government. In our experience, the most successful resettlement agencies are the ones that know how to connect with the communities they are working in. Many agencies collaborate with universities and church groups and have mentor programs to help facilitate personal connections with community members and help refugees find education and quality employment opportunities. Some immigrants and refugees arrive and have a strong immigrant network to plug into; others like the Lost Boys have very few personal connections.

Unfortunately, as you saw in the film, the Lost Boys we spent time with in Houston did not have a lot of direct support from native-born Americans and remained relatively isolated during their first year in the US. There is a whole range of experience among the Lost Boys group that was resettled across the country. Some found very supportive communities when they arrived and have made strong friendships, others have found it more challenging. During our time with the Lost Boys, we came to understand that the single most helpful thing for a newcomer to this country is a friend, someone to help them navigate their new life. You can find more information about how to volunteer to support newly arriving refugees at the Take Action page on our website.

Sheila in New Jersey asks: Will you do a follow-up on these men?
-- and --
Diane in Canada asks: Do you plan on filming other documentaries of this nature?

Megan and Jon: We don't have any plans to do a follow-up on Peter and Santino, but you never know. We both make documentaries full-time. We also both enjoy working on character-driven, observational-style films and have an interest in international stories, so on that level it is likely that we will make films in the future with similar themes. Jon recently co-directed a film on the constitutional process in Afghanistan and Megan is producing a film on affirmative action in Brazil. But each film is its own journey and getting to know the "Lost Boys" has been a tremendously rich experience that will not be easily repeated.

Andrea in New York asks: Where did you draw the line in terms of becoming advocates for your subjects, for instance helping to hook Peter up with an educational institution when he wanted that so much? How much did you take that role, or the role of friend when they were lonely, and if not, how did you manage to keep a distance?
-- and --
Anne in Florida asks: What is the responsiblity of the filmmakers to the participants beyond [making their story known]? What response would you give to this dilemma in a more theoretical sense for documentary filmmakers in general?

Megan and Jon: The most challenging part of making "Lost Boys of Sudan," beyond the usual filmmaking struggles of fundraising, permissions and distribution, was not being able to be the friends that Peter and Santino so desperately needed. As filmmakers trying to give an honest portrayal of the struggle to start life in a new, strange country, we had to keep a certain degree of distance and intervene in their lives as little as possible. It wasn't an easy thing to do. It was so tempting to just help the guys find good jobs, sign up for community college, make new friends and discuss with them the breadth of who we are as a country. We knew if we did that, we would make life for Peter and Santino better, but not come away with a film that could help people all across the U.S. understand the challenges of being a newcomer to America. Peter and Santino signed on for the film because they felt that their story was an important one to share, that the world needed to know how Sudan was suffering and understood that their story was representative of not only the Lost Boys group, but refugees and immigrants more broadly. But there were many days where seemingly simple things weighed heavily on them and that was hard to watch. We are always people first and filmmakers second, so our guide was that we would never let the guys do anything dangerous, for example we strongly encouraged Santino to find driving lessons, though we didn't offer to give him those lessons. You are making those choices all the time during production and it is a dialogue filmmakers have to constantly be having with themselves. I think each person's gut tells them what is right.

Happily, now that the film is finished we can have a real friendship with Peter and Santino and offer them some of the help we had to hold back on. We are so gratified to see that the film does motivate people to extend themselves to newcomers. Additionally, Peter and Santino have had a range of interesting travel and educational experiences with the film, from Capitol Hill to Hollywood and everything in between. Through speaking engagements they have made some good personal contacts who have been generous helping them with their education. But both Peter and Santino are still working very long hours and struggling to put themselves through school. One way the film has directly benefitted the Lost Boys in general is that groups across the country have used the film for fundraisers and several thousand dollars has been raised for the IRC's National Lost Boys Education Fund, though much more is needed to make a real impact for the nearly 4,000 Lost Boys and Girls in the US.

Jaina in Pennsylvania asks: Is there a comparable story about the girls of Sudan?

Megan and Jon: Yes, Jaina, the Lost Girls have a powerful story as well. When thousands of children fled civil war in Sudan in the late 1980s the group was predominately boys. Of the 3,800 Lost Boys that were resettled in the US, less than 100 were girls. There are several reasons for this. When villages were attacked, the men were killed first and, often, the women and girls were raped and taken captive. In Dinka culture, many of the boys live for periods of time away from the village in cattle camps where they tend to the herds. In the late 1980s, these boys would return to their homes to find their families killed and villages destroyed. Other boys who remained in the villages were encouraged by their elders to flee instead of being captured and forced to become soldiers. Nonetheless, there were girls among the boys fleeing the war. Once the youth were settled into the UN refugee camp, the girls were placed with Sudanese families -- the boys were mostly settled into groups of their own. When it was time to identify the girls who were part of the original Lost Boys group, Kakuma camp had grown to be home to 80,000 refugees. So it was difficult to identify who the Lost Girls were. The difficulty in identifying the girls was compounded by the fact that girls are valuable in Dinka culture, as they bring a bride price. Families that had taken the girls in were often not eager to have the girls sent to the US. There is not a process for the Lost Girls happening, but there is a resettlement program prioritizing youth and women at risk, which many of the Lost Girls fall under, so they may come to the US under that part of the US Refugee Program.

Charity in Texas writes: I would really like to write to Peter and encourage him and let him know that his story touched me. Is there any way that you can give me an address or email to get in touch with him?

Megan and Jon: Hi, Charity. You can email Peter or Santino at Just put their name in the subject line and we will forward your emails to them. They really enjoy hearing from folks, though they are both quite busy with work and school and may not have time to respond.

Karen in New York asks: How can I find "Lost Boys" in my community? I viewed the story and want to help.

Megan and Jon: Thanks for your question. The Lost Boys group was resettled in nearly every state. You can check with your local refugee resettlement agency to see if any of the Sudanese youth were resettled in your area. Whether you have Lost Boys living in your area or not, there are very likely newly arriving refugees that would be in need of assistance. Many of the refugee resettlement agencies have mentor programs to help refugees connect with their new communities. The best way we recommend helping the Lost Boys directly is to support the Lost Boys Education Fund which is administered through the International Rescue Committee. You can find more information on how to get involved on the Take Action page on our website.