God Grew Tired of Us
When civil war broke out in Sudan in the 1980s, some 25,000 boys ages three to thirteen fled the atrocities in their homeland on foot. They walked over 1,000 miles across barren desert to find refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. Those who didn't die from starvation, wild animal attacks, and bombing raids eventually found shelter in a UN refugee camp in Kakuna, Kenya. Taking inspiration from Peter Pan's band of orphan boys who protected and provided for each other, a journalist of that day dubbed these children the Lost Boys.
In recent years, the U.S. has resettled nearly 4,000 of these young men. God Grew Tired of Us follows three of the Lost Boys—John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach, and Panther Blor, chosen for relocation by the International Rescue Committee—to their new homes in Syracuse and Pittsburgh. This sounds like leaving hell for heaven, until you realize these men have never seen electricity, flushing toilets, or running water. And they're anguished to leave behind the friends who have been closer than family for 15 years. Still, with wide-eyed and wary hope, they come.
The first hints of what a different world they're entering occur on the airplane ride. The boys are fascinated by the overhead reading lights, the announcements from the captain that seem to come from nowhere, the oddly packaged food. They eat pats of butter and mustard packets as if they're part of the main course, wobble their way onto escalators in the airports, and marvel at Hasidic Jews and punk rockers in New York. The orientation to their new apartment includes the instruction that here we don't throw our trash out the window, as well as demonstrations on how to use a shower, refrigerator, toilet, and lamp. They boys watch with rapt attention and we watch them with awe and amusement.
The rest of God Grew Tired of Us is a checking back in with these three men at regular intervals over the next four years. The film never introduces us to anyone in the U.S. who is helping them make the transition, so it's hard to know how much the men are being shown the ropes—or how much they've just been left on their own to figure things out.
We watch them get jobs and discover television, marvel at shopping malls and wonder about Santa, miss their brothers back in Kenya and look for their missing family members. All the while they grapple with the ongoing grief of all they've endured, as well as a sort of survivor's guilt for being some of the chosen ones to get a fresh start when they know all too well the hunger and purposelessness their brothers are suffering back in the refugee camp. As John, the most pensive of the trio, says, "If I get a good place, why not them?" The question weighs heavy, as does the sense of responsibility to make something good of this opportunity—for themselves and especially for their friends and family back home.
God Grew Tired of Us doesn't shy away from the complexities these three lives represent, including the countless ripple effects of world conflict and the messy realities of resettlement—how it's a way forward but not always an easy "solution." One of the strengths of this documentary—besides the obvious and important awareness-raising—is its ability to help us see our culture from a fresh perspective. It's fascinating (and at times shaming) to watch the men's gratitude for factory jobs most of us would consider menial at best, as well as their languishing loneliness as they learn that talking to strangers in America draws suspicion instead of fellowship. That said, the film isn't heavy-handed or manipulative. The men simply observe and process the huge change in their lives, grappling with the grand canyon between what has been and what now is.