Samuel Mayang sees the world, yearns for home

SWANTON — On the second story of a Victorian house on Grand Avenue there is a one bedroom apartment. It is bright white and sparsely furnished with a pine table, a couch, and a hutch. On the counter are four or five orange peels and in the sink a few unwashed dishes sit. There are only three things hanging on the wall: a clock, a National Geographic world map, and a cardboard box that bears a hand- drawn railroad map terminating in Phoenix, Ariz.

This apartment is the current residence of Samuel Mayang, a Sudanese refugee and one of the “Lost Boys” of that country’s decades old civil war. Samuel isn’t a boy anymore, at best guess he is 33, and he isn’t lost either. Samuel knows exactly where he is and where he wants to go.

Indeed, Samuel has done more than his share of traveling. When he was only a boy he joined thousands of refugees on a treacherous flight through Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to escape the war. The war concluded in 2005 with the country’s division into Sudan and South Sudan.

Fighting has recently flared up again in rural areas. Samuel says he cannot remember much about his hometown of Ronya or his youth in Sudan. When asked, he says that it was a long time ago, “It’s been 26 years; I don’t remember,” he says.

After crossing the border, Samuel walked for years with thousands of other refugees to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where he spent the next 14 years in a tent with four older men. When he describes this time period Samuel simply states, “I was camping.”

Beneath his quick, rehearsed responses there is a much deeper story that, for whatever reason, he chooses not to reveal. Samuel knew no one at Kakuma and, as a boy, one can imaging his experience.

“It’s OK,” “I don’t know,” and “It’s been a long time; I don’t remember,” are responses Samuel has delivered on thousands of occasions since arriving in Syracuse, N.Y. on April 10, 2001. He remembers that date well; it is imprinted in Samuel’s mind and he circles back to it as a reference point whenever pressed for more detail.

Samuel remembers other dates as they relate to that April 10, and he remembers in great detail what has happened since. But he claims to remember little that preceded it.

Samuel doesn’t feel well. He is dealing with severe mental anguish that arises from his childhood trauma. “I have a sickness in my brain,” he says. “It feels like blood dripping inside my head all the time. It hurts and I can’t read or think or work for a long time. When I try to read I can only read a few lines and it hurts and I have to stop. I will feel better if I can go back [to Sudan]. If I can go back, it will get better.”

Samuel insists that he wants to return to America, but that a return to Sudan, to find his family and see his home, will cure his illness. The table in Samuel’s apartment is littered with drawings of sailing ships, “sea yachts” he calls them.

“If I could make some money, and buy a sea yacht, I could go back. But I can’t make any money, so I try to find a cargo ship that will take me to another continent. Then I can see my family and I will feel better and they will send me back.”

Samuel’s search for a cargo ship has taken him to Mississippi, Mexico and, nearly, to Montreal. Since 2003 and until his residence in the apartment here, he lived his entire life in tents, way stations, and temporary housing as he searched for a conveyance to Sudan. His itinerant lifestyle has cost him access to healthcare, food, shelter and a monthly stipend. Though the sacrifices may have taken a toll on his health, they don’t seem to have affected his resolve.

He was living in a tent behind Hannaford supermarket in Swanton last November when a local person spotted him and noticed Samuel seemed unwell. Samuel’s local benefactor asked not to be named in this article. She has been supporting Samuel by buying his food and paying his rent for more than six months. She says she hopes to help Samuel navigate the federal bureaucracy that oversees his immigration status.

“When I saw him, I knew he needed help. And since I’ve had a chance to learn about him, I’ve realized he is a bright, friendly young man. He has a beautiful, wide smile that melts your heart, but I don’t see it often enough. But he isn’t well and he needs help. Thankfully, a few people have stepped up to pitch in.

“Samuel is a wanderer,” she said. “He is content right now to stay here in Swanton and wait for the paperwork so he can visit home, but any day I could go over to check on him, and he could be gone. His tent is stored in a closet and he could grab it and go any time.”

Samuel has said for a long time that he isn’t going anywhere, that he is content to wait, although he doesn’t appear to understand what it is he is waiting for. He has all of the credentials he needs to fly to Sudan, but he has not completed the paperwork that would allow him to return to America. Once, he had the document, and many other Sudanese refugees have made this very same trip. But Samuel says his “passport” was stolen from him when he was in Phoenix, Ariz., riding the rails and searching for a cargo ship.

“I was going to Mexico to find a ship,” Samuel explained. “I wanted to go back, but in Sun City, someone took my passport,” he says, pointing at Phoenix on his hand-drawn map. “If I could get my passport back, I could go and feel better.” Samuel means that he wants to find that specific passport again.

Samuel’s benefactor is helping him to make the trip. “We brought him to the Association of Africans Living in Vermont and they offered to help Samuel up with housing, a job, and healthcare, but he turned them down. We want to help Samuel, but he won’t accept any until he can go back to Sudan. He wants to be alone – he complains that loud noises hurt his head – but all of the support is in Burlington, and he refuses to go. On top of all that, the lease is running out on his apartment in Swanton.”

In fact, Samuel’s lease ran out in May. “The landlords have been kind enough to let him stay week by week until he can make other arrangements,” said his benefactor.

Recently, Samuel has said that he is tired of waiting and will set out for Bellows Falls soon, as he sees that as the first leg of his journey to find conveyance to Africa.

“He says that he wants to go south and find a sea yacht,” said Samuel’s Good Samaritan. “I visited him on Tuesday and he was vacuuming and singing. I laughed and said that I’ve never heard him sing before. He told me that he feels happy. Really, I think he is relieved that he is going to be on the road. I’m trying to convince him to stay, but I don’t know how much longer I can help. He just won’t wait for the paperwork to come through.”

Indeed, it seems the road is where Samuel has lived most of his life.

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If you are interested in helping to support Samuel please contact the author of this story at and he will put you in touch with Samuel’s benefactor.