The Lost Boys Give Back

The Lost Boys of Sudan are a group of thousands of young men from Sudan who fled the violence of their villages and lived in refugee camps for years before they were relocated to the United States, Australia, and other nations. After the cease-fire in 2005, many of them are looking homeward, and using the education and skills they've learned to help those who remain in Sudan.

After government troops destroyed his village in 1987, John Bul Dau walked for five years to reach the Kukuma refugee camp in Kenya. Nine years later, he was selected to come to Syracuse, New York with a group of Lost Boys. There, he worked as a security guard, attended college, sponsored the immigration of his surviving family members, married, and had two children. Dau was featured in the 2006 documentary God Grew Tired of Us about his journey, and wrote a book about it, called God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir. He organized the the Sudanese Lost Boys of New York Foundation to help with the educational expenses of other Sudanese refugees. In 2007, Dau established the John Dau Foundation working to provide healthcare to southern Sudan in the form of clinics and training for health care workers.

Salva Dut fled his village of Tonj in southwestern Sudan in 1985, when he was eleven years old. In 1990 he led a group of younger refugees to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for six years. Dut came to Rochester, New York in 1996. When he learned that his father was alive in 2002, Dut went back to Sudan. He found his father ill from disease and water-borne parasites. After resettling his father in a healthier town, Dut confronted the lack of clean water in Sudan and founded Water for Sudan in 2004. He now spends half his time overseeing the organization's efforts to drill safe wells in southern Sudan and the other half of his time working on a degree in international business in the US.

Valentino Achak Deng spent nine years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya both as a refugee and as a health care educator before traveling to the US in 2001. He settled in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2003 he met author Dave Eggers who collaborated with him to write the semi-fictionalized autobiography, What is the What. Deng decided that all proceeds from the book go to help rebuild his hometown of Marial Bai in Sudan. Thus was born the Valentino Achek Deng Foundation to builds schools, librarys, community centers, and teacher training institutes in Sudan.

Jok Kuol Wel, Ajang Bol, Duot Aguer, and Chau Thon are a group of Lost Boys who banded together to found HELPSudan International in 2005. The group's first project in 2006 was to establish a school in the community of Bor to serve 400 students. They are in the process of raising funds for a permanent building for the school. See an interview with founders Bol and Wel at YouTube.

Emmanuel Jal doesn't know his exact age, but he knows he became a soldier at around seven or eight years old. His family fled their village when it was destroyed. After his mother died, he was rounded up and taken to Ethiopia, where he was schooled for a while then conscripted into the Sudan People's Liberation Army. After months of fighting, Jal ran off with some other children. British aid worker Emma McCune took Jal under her protection and sent him to Nairobi, Kenya where he could attend school. Jal was around eleven years old when she smuggled him aboard a plane out of Sudan. McCune adopted Jal in 1993, but was killed in an auto accident not long after. Jal began singing while a student in Kenya and became nationally known for his music. International fame came after Jal performed at Live 8: Africa Calling in 2005. His life is the subject of the book War Child: A Child Soldier's Story, and a documentary film called War Child. Now living in England, Jal went on to establish the organization GUA Africa which works to open schools in Sudan and Kenya. You can sponsor a child's education through GUA Africa. Image by David Shankbone.

Abraham Deng Ater also traveled with the huge group of refugees to Kakuma refugee camp beginning in 1987. In 2001, he was brought to Tucson, Arizona. He achieved a B.S. in Health Sciences at the University of Arizona, became a US citizen in 2006, and went on to pursue a masters in Public Health. Ater returned to Sudan in 2007 to search for his family. His mother and two sisters survived the war, but his father and brother did not. The trip home inspired Ater and two friends to found the Lost Boys Schools for Sudan organization to build schools and provide books, computers, and supplies for students in Sudan. The organization also brings mosquito nets and other health supplies to and teaches health care basics in Sudanese communities. See an interview with Ater at YouTube.

Gabriel Bol Deng was ten years old in 1987 when his village was destroyed. He walked for four months to reach Ethiopia, where he studied English until the 1991 civil war forced him to travel with other refugees to Kenya. Deng arrived in Syracuse, New York with other refugees in 2001. He achieved a bachelor's degree in Mathematics Education and Philosophy in 2007 and was named Student Teacher of the Year. He then returned to Sudan with Garang Mayuol and Koor Garang, a trip that became the subject of the documentary Rebuilding Hope. Deng then founded Hope for Ariang to build schools, first for 700 children in the village of Ariang, then elsewhere in Sudan.

Samuel Garang Mayuol was five years old in 1987 when he fled along with his father to Ethiopia. His father died in the refugee camp there the next year. Mayuol made it to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 1992, where he became friends with Koor Garang and Gabriel Deng. He survived malaria and was brought to Elgin, Illinois in 2001. Mayuol discovered his mother to be alive in 2004, but couldn't travel to see her until the 2007 trip featured in the movie Rebuilding Hope. He was greeted as a hero in his village of Lang. He then began the Lang Water Project in collaboration with Deng's organization and worked with Salva Dut's organization to bring clean water to Lang and Ariang and to combat drought during the dry season and disease during the rainy season.

Christopher Koor Garang left his village in the Akon area of Sudan at the age of seven. After living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, he settled in Tucson, Arizona in 2001. Garang became a licensed practical nurse and is working on a nursing degree. He returned to Sudan with Samuel Garang Mayuol and Gabriel Bol Deng for the 2007 Rebuilding Hope trip, bringing with him mosquito nets and other supplies that he had spent years raising money for. Garang founded Ubuntu in Arizona to raises funds for healthcare work in Sudan. He also works with the organization Jumpstart Sudan. See an interview with Garang at YouTube.

James Lubo Mijak came the US in 2001 and settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. He received his degree in international studies from UNC Charlotte in 2008. He wants to build a school in his hometown of Nyarweng in southern Sudan through a project called Raising Sudan. Ngor Kur Mayol is another Lost Boy from Atlanta, Georgia who co-founded the project with Mijak in order to build a school in his native home of Aliap. Mayol also founded Sudan Rowan in collaboration with St. John's Lutheran Church in Salisbury, North Carolina. Sudan Rowan is an organization in North Carolina pledged to fund Mayol's dream of helping his village to rebuild.

Michael Kuany ran away from his village, Jalle, when government forces attacked. He was around six years old. Kuany walked, along with other refugees, a thousand miles to Ethiopia. He lived in a refugee camp there until civil war forced the refugees back in Sudan in 1991. Kuany walked again with other refugees to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for the next ten years. He jumped at the chance to go the the US in 2001, where he got his GED and then studied political science and international studies in college. Kuany founded Rebuild Sudan in 2005. The organization is in the process of building a school for around 400 children in Jalle.

This article was inspired by a post at Metafilter.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.


As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.


A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.


Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.


The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.


The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 


All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters


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