As a news junkie, especially political developments and political opinion pieces, it is sometimes easy for me to lose my perspective on just what is really important. When we are able to keep things in the right context, the news of the day over some political maneuver or another is really quite unimportant in the larger scheme of things. And sometimes it is just as important to remember how lucky we are to be living in the good ol’ US of A.
This was brought home to me yet again on Sunday night while watching a piece on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.
Sunday night the program re-visited the “Lost Boys of Sudan” 12 years after the original report on their travails. The segment sought to catch up with the many young men airlifted to the United States to find out how they are getting along after living in the United States for many years. The catch-up piece originally aired on 31 March 2013 and was re-aired last Sunday (21 July). You may remember the lost boys — the roughly 5.000 children that left Sudan during that country’s murderous civil war to walk nearly 1,000 miles over the course of five years to refugee camps in Kenya. Extraordinary. And heart-breaking — their stories are incredible and many did not survive the journey.
What struck me was their unfailing optimism and faith that things would work out. In particular during the piece, one of the boys (now all men) was asked about how he and the others could keep going against such overwhelming odds. With a smile on his face, he replied that even though people called them the “lost boys” he knew that he wasn’t lost because God knew where he was. Even today, despite the fact that not every one of those airlifted to the United States was successful in his life here, all of those interviewed in the piece were uniformly optimistic and eternally grateful for the opportunity to come to our country.
Their story reminded me of my time in the naval service in the early 1980’s operating in the South China Sea (map) on transits between the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. On several different occasions we came upon single boatloads of Vietnamese refugees adrift at sea. Entire extended families and friends would load up a small boat (usually a wooden junk about 40 feet or so in length with 40 or 50 people of all ages and both sexes) and set out to sea in the hopes that a US Navy ship or a friendly merchant captain would spot them and pick them up. Many did not make it and are presumed lost at sea. Not every merchant captain was keen to pick them up either as it could become a significant bother to take care of them and because of the need to divert to an acceptable harbor to drop them off. Some of the ship’s Masters just looked the other way and kept going. Many did the right thing. US Navy ships always stopped — when we saw them. I often wonder how many we inadvertently passed in the night or in poor weather because we simply did not see them. (Small wooden boats don’t show up well on radar and in that part of the world there are nearly always numerous small fishing boats at sea so, without a visual cue, those on watch would have no idea that they were passing someone in need.)
Remember that the open sea is very much like the wasteland that the lost boys crossed — very little chance of getting food or water except what you bring with you. And like the lost boys, they were beset by many dangers stretching from terrible weather to pirates that would board the boats and take whatever (and whomever) they wanted with them. When we would find the refugee boats — and I need to point out that our mission was not to look for them, we would come across them purely by chance — they would be so grateful that it was gut wrenching. They had literally nothing, yet were indescribably happy knowing that they now had a chance at a better life.
Like some of the lost boys, some of those Vietnamese refugees made it to the United States. In my later years in the service, Sailors would report for duty on my ships that were Vietnamese and of an age and background where it was possible that I and my shipmates, or others like us, picked up their parents or even they themselves as children at sea those many years ago.
I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone to leave their homeland like those in Sudan and to set off on a walk of unknown duration, or to put my family in a boat and head out to sea knowing that if the right ship did not find us, we would all perish. They had no way of knowing that they would survive, much less dare to hope that someday they would make it the USA. Yet, they all remained positive, put their faith in a higher power and are eternally grateful for what help they got along the way.
What a powerful statement about the hopeful and determined nature of mankind and a testament to the basic humanity that knows no racial, national or ethnic boundaries that so many of us exhibit when given the chance. What a powerful lesson about our nation and how lucky we truly are to be citizens in this land. Sometimes we just need to keep things in the right perspective.