January 2, 2005: Headlines: Adoption: Sudan: Detroit Free Press: RPCV Gerald Burns opened his heart to five foster sons, including three from war-torn Sudan

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RPCV Gerald Burns opened his heart to five foster sons, including three from war-torn Sudan

RPCV Gerald Burns opened his heart to five foster sons, including three from war-torn Sudan

RPCV Gerald Burns opened his heart to five foster sons, including three from war-torn Sudan

ROCHELLE RILEY: House of hope and dreams

When Gerald Burns opened his heart to five foster sons, including three from war-torn Sudan, he didn't expect to learn as many lessons as he taught

January 2, 2005


Caption: Foster father Jerry Burns, 51, teaches his foster son Nemot, 20, how to mow a lawn at a home in Harper Woods. Nemot mowed lawns this summer to earn extra money. Photo: SYLWIA KAPUSCINSKI/DFP

Gerald Burns' life, like most, has been about choices.

But oh, the choices he has made!

He chose to stay in Detroit because his Detroit is great, a city of hope and promise and history, near Wyandotte, the place that raised him and taught him love and responsibility.

He chose to be a nurse practitioner, earning his bachelor's degree in his 20s, a master's degree in his 30s and a second master's degree in his 40s. His bachelor's in community health nursing came from Eastern Michigan University, his master's from Wayne State University.

He turned 51 in October, and thought about getting another degree to celebrate his 50s. But he doesn't need college to learn the lessons he's learning now. He gets those from his sons, the sons he chose, all five of them.

Burns, a single, churchgoing, Detroit-loving angel, is foster father to three Sudanese boys who were among the Lost Boys of Sudan, men and boys forced to walk out of their war-torn country in the late 1980s.

Foster father isn't an adequate moniker for Jerry Burns. He is "Daddy" -- raising his sons like most dads, moving into a spacious, two-story Outer Drive home to make them comfortable, buying them cars to get to their jobs and sports practices and teaching them about life.

He just enrolled his two of them in college. Elijah, 21, entered Henry Ford Community College in August. And 19-year-old Michael, who was valedictorian of his class at East Catholic High School, is completing his first semester at Michigan State.

Nemot, who is 20, is a senior at Pershing High School. Burns' other two sons, ages 19 and 20, declined to be named in this story.

It has been particularly painful for Burns to watch the evening news now.

"What is happening in Darfur now," he says. "It is so horrible, what continues to go on in that country. Back then it was Muslim against Christian. This time, it's Muslim against Muslim. But both times, it has been Arabic against African."

It is no small job to open your arms and your home to children who have been through what the Lost Boys went through, to become a foster parent. But foster parent implies temporary. Burns' family is permanent with boys whose lives are far different than they might have been.

How they came to Detroit and Burns came to be a father is a tale of men -- men raising men and learning from each other.

The boy barely remembers the men rolling into his village in Sudan 15 years ago. Michael was only 4 and didn't quite understand the gravity of the noise and the screaming. He does remember his uncle grabbing him and running out of the village. "We were in the Walk, but we were in a truck."

The Walk.

It is such a little word for such a long struggle.

"I've always said I was going to have 10 kids," Gerald Burns says in the living room of his east Detroit home. "But that's the kind of thing you say in your childhood."

Burns sits in front of a fireplace mantel filled with photographs of five boys in various states of happiness. Two smile that smile of slight discomfort at being photographed. One shows glee.

Life had other plans for Burns. The boy who grew up in Wyandotte and graduated from Gabriel Richard High didn't marry. Instead of settling down after college graduation, Burns, who was raised in the era of John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" joined the Peace Corps. For 2 1/2 years, from 1978 to 1981, he lived in Niger, "one of the poorest countries on Earth."

"They were poor in material things, but not poor in spirit," he says. "Half of the children were dead by their 5th birthday."

In 1978, Sudan, Africa's largest country, was in the midst of decades-old civil war between two regions (north and south), two religions (Islam and Christian) and two cultures (Arab and African). The conflict split the nation of some 28 million people, a north full of Arabic culture and Muslim religion and a south full of mission-trained Christians.

By 1989, Gerald Burns had been back in Detroit for eight years working at the Detroit Medical Center. That year, thousands of Sudan's youngest were forced out of southern Sudan, forced to walk or ride hundreds of miles through African wilderness, forced to trek for nearly two months until they reached Ethiopia. They lived in refugee camps for as long as two years before being chased hundreds of miles through Sudan to Kenya. Thousands died.

Gerald Burns says the Peace Corps affected him in ways he had not expected.

"Being in the Peace Corps and seeing the malnutrition, poverty and then seeing these wonderful people, it changes you," he says. "It was in the Peace Corps that I really learned that you always get back more than you give. When I joined the Peace Corps, I went there with very high ideals, thinking that I could change the world for the better. Instead, I found out that I was changed for the better. And I got much more back than I ever put into the Peace Corps, and I think the same is true for foster parenthood, but I would have to say for parenthood in general. Yes, I've got five boys. Yes, it's a big job. But I've got a lot more back than I put into it."

Fast Forward to 2000. Burns was sitting at home watching ABC News.

"Peter Jennings was on talking about the Lost Boys of Sudan and how they were chased out on foot to walk to Ethiopia and to walk to Kenya," he says.

Chased out of Ethiopian refugee camps, the Lost Boys ran, ducking fire or dying by bullet. Some were eaten by crocodiles as they tried to cross rivers. Half the refugees who left made it to Kenya, most of them ages 8 to 18.

The news program jolted Burns. He dialed the number on the screen and was connected with Lutheran Social Services in Baltimore. They told him there was a need closer to his home and referred him to Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. There, he was connected to their refugee foster care program.

"We talked about how they were trying to find homes for these boys, and I just knew...," Burns says. "God has been good to me in my life. I felt like that story was talking to me."

After being trained to become a foster parent, he was placed on the list to accept refugee children. That was in the winter of 2000.

In July 2001, he got the call to come and pick up Michael, then 16.

"I can still picture him that day. It's the first time you see your kid. You get choked up. He was a little scared, a little reticent. But I just sensed immediately that this was a really good kid. And of course, your first kid, you're probably most excited. I just knew."

Michael remembers it well.

"It was Friday, July 27, 2001," Michael says of the day he saw his "Daddy," after spending 3 1/2 months in his first foster home in Lansing.

"I was scared. The kids said Detroit is bad. I got mad. I thought they moved me because I was bad. It was a bad moment coming to Detroit. My heart was real hurt. I thought I was a bad person. Then I kept saying, 'When's Daddy picking me up?' "

Michael remembers the truck. "All the young people, my cousin was in the truck," he recalled. He remembers being placed in the back of the truck and not wanting to sit there, so he and his cousin moved to the front. The walking seemed to never stop. It did not stop for 800 miles. "It was 1991 when we left. It took a while, a month." They were allowed to stay in Ethiopia for only a year before being chased back into Sudan. "We were 15 days in Sudan. Everybody was together again," Michael recalled. Their joy was short-lived. They were forced out again, to Kenya

Despite living in four countries and spending most of his life in a Kenyan refugee camp, Michael holds Sudan dear. "Almost my entire life was spent in Kenya," he says. "But I consider myself Sudanese."

His mother lost track of him, following the trail first to Ethiopia, then to Kenya. Her search would take years.

In Kenya, Michael was placed on Lutheran Social Services of Michigan's refugee list. The agency flew him and his cousin Elijah to Michigan.

Elijah and Michael arrived in Lansing in December 2000.

"Michael tried to get Elijah to come with him" to Detroit, Burns says. Elijah lived in two additional foster homes and then shared an apartment with a group of Sudanese. Finally, he called and asked if he could be where Michael was.

"Of course, I said yes," Burns says. "Because it was Michael's cousin and I knew what he had been through, I took him."

Elijah was his fifth son.

"Nemot came to America on Sept. 10, 2001, on a plane from Syria. Nemot was born in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. His father, a Christian who served in the military, was killed and his mother died shortly thereafter, making Nemot homeless and parentless and unsure of his own age. One of his father's military buddies got him out of Khartoum and sent him to Syria, where he'd be safer. There, the United Nations gave him refugee status so he would not have to return to Sudan and certain death. He spent two years in Damascus before being flown to the United States, where he was assigned to Jerry Burns. . He was not one of the Lost Boys. "If he had come 16 hours later, his plane would have been turned around," Burns says. "I probably never would have gotten Nemot."

When you are forced from your country, you do not carry just the burden of the Lost Boys in your arms. You do not carry just the hurt of walking, walking, walking until you cannot stand. You also carry the heartbreak of leaving the country that is your home because you are not wanted. In Kenya, Michael lived in the tents with his cousins and an uncle. "I don't remember trying to concentrate on what was going on," he says.

Lutheran Services is one of only 16 foster care programs in the country that works with minors. It gets referrals from the 10 voluntary agencies nationwide that resettle refugees. "We have about 70 kids in foster care, and we get approximately 10 new kids a year," says caseworker Diane Baird. Lutheran Services makes every effort to keep family members -- cousins, siblings -- together. December 2000 was a busy month for Lutheran Services because the agencies were processing dozens of kids before their 18th birthdays.

"We had about 60 kids come into our agency within the same month, all from Sudan," she says. "If they didn't enter the country before December was over, they wouldn't have been able to get court jurisdiction and foster care. There's a huge difference between children and adult refugee settlement. Adults get help finding an apartment and finding a job and then they're on their own. Kids get much more intensive services."

It didn't take long for the boys to warm up to their surroundings, first in a smaller house, then in the larger house on Outer Drive. After the move, there was little as thrilling as the boys having rooms of their own. By the luck of the draw, Michael had to share. But having a roommate at home eased his transition to Michigan State, where he also shares a room.

"I haven't come up with a major. I was trying to do pre-med. Now, I just need to slow down," Michael says of his first semester at MSU. "I want to do things to help people, to share with some people. There's a lot of girls, but I don't bother with romance."

That'll change.

Michael is home for the holidays, and home is where his heart is.

"I like being in Detroit," Michael says. "I always have a good time with my friends. I could go anywhere."

The five boys attended different high schools, but have had similar American experiences -- jobs, girlfriends, sports.

Michael played football. He also ran track.

And Burns has juggled it like he's been doing it all his life. He had time to get used to the idea because the children came at different times.

"If I'd gotten all five of them on the same day -- whoo!" Burns says. But somehow, even if they'd all arrived at once, Burns seems the type to have handled it. He and the boys seem made for each other.

"I was a parent in need of children and these were children in need of parents," says Burns, who comes from a large family. He has five siblings, all married. But his siblings had no first-hand experience in what he went through.

"I went from 0 to 4 boys in six months," Burns says.

He did have help, and he says he's forever grateful to his friends, Erlinda DeLeon and Kathy McDonald. DeLeon "has prepared food every single week for the entire time I've had the boys except when she was on vacation," he says. "The food always lasts us a couple of days. She's been a tremendous help to my ability to care for my kids. Just cooking that food has been a tremendous sign of love.

"And Kathy has been very supportive. ... All five of my boys have special relationships with both of them. They've helped me parent the boys."

Still, it was hectic.

"It was like taking maternity leave," he says. "That's how you get your life organized. I guess you call it paternity leave."

One of Burns' biggest challenges was finding good schools for the boys where they could learn English and also feel comfortable.

"If you ever want to know about the good things about Detroit Public Schools, one of them is voc-tech," Burns says, referring to vocational-technical programs. "Detroit has many great voc-tech programs in schools, and Nemot got a certificate in meat-cutting at Golightly on Jefferson. And that's a really great job skill that he's got. That's really a great thing for kids who don't speak English as their first language."

English is Michael and Elijah's fourth language, he says.

"They speak Dinka, their basic language, and then they speak Swahili, which they learned in the refugee camps. They also speak Arabic, which is the official language of the Sudan, and Sudan is a former British colony, so they were taught English in the refugee camps. And they didn't start school until 8 or 9."

Nemot, he says, gets particular help from the Arabic program at Pershing High School.

Burns had high praise for the teachers not only at Pershing, but at Golightly and Western.

"Every single teacher and counselor that my kids have had has been outstanding," he says. "I go to all their PT conferences. I've only missed one because I goofed up on the day. I always feel bad because the Detroit Public Schools take a beating, and in some ways they deserve it, but there are many good things about the schools, like the teachers. There are many fantastic teachers, and the schools have been great to my kids."

One other challenge Burns faced was getting used to the noise.

"The biggest change at the start," he says, "was all these people in the house. It's not as big as it used to be."

Pretty soon, the boys began to live like they'd been here all their lives.

"They've fallen into typical American habits," Burns says, "They love Little Caesar's pizza. They're all basketball fans. They all are on different sports teams. The most amazing thing for the boys is the food that we have. Michael told me that they used to get food two times per month, and he said the food never kept them for a whole two weeks. They'd barter."

Now, Burns knows their likes and dislikes, and there are few dislikes. "They can eat me out of house and home," he says. "One gained 40 pounds! He ate all the time."

Burns' boys made him proud. He, in turn, made them happy.

"All of them have cars. All of them have jobs. All of them are in sports," he says. "I can always tell you exactly where they are."

Michael remembers his first car.

"I got to have my own car, a '97 Saturn Coupe," Michael says. "My daddy had found it in Troy. A friend called and said 'Somebody's selling their car.' The car was nice. But it was a stick shift. I said, 'Oh, no!' My daddy said, 'I'll teach you how.' "

Three of Burns' boys don't have parents. Michael does. His mother left the Sudan after he did, and spent years trying to find him. She finally did and spoke to him, for the first time in 13 years, in January 2002. The first time, Michael couldn't understand her.

"We knew she was going to call, but we didn't know when. One night, I was in bed, and the phone rang, and Michael said, 'Dad, my mom's on the phone.' So I immediately got out of bed, and took the phone, and I said, 'Michael, what's she saying?' He was quiet. Then he said, 'Dad, she's talking too fast.' I said, 'Michael, that's because she's got so much to tell you.' "

Michael soon was able to keep up with her words, and in future calls, he interpreted Burns' English for her.

One time, Burns says, "I thanked her for her son, and she thanked me and called him 'our son,' and I'll never forget that."

Why was it the boys? "The girls didn't get killed like the boys did," Michael said. "They would go after the boys to kill them. They would leave the girls alone until later." In Darfur, as is happening now, the men were seen as enemies and the boys were seen as future enemy soldiers. There were girls on the Walk, but there were far more boys.

Michael's mother, who now lives in Uganda, reached the Ethiopian-Kenyan border a week after her son left. All she knew was that he was alive. All she had for 15 years was his voice in her head.

"He hasn't seen her since he was 4," Burns says.

When foster children reach 18, their foster care ends unless the court extends jurisdiction. Jurisdiction can be extended until age 21. Foster children between the ages of 18 and 21 are required to attend 13-week independent living classes and seminars to prepare them to live on their own.

"Michael and Elijah have been through that class," says Baird, the caseworker. "Michael did that to go to college."

But, Baird says, foster children are not required to move out. It is a decision between foster parent and child. It is clear at the Burns house that Gerald Burns' sons are his for life.

This spring, Michael will get two long-awaited graduation presents: his green card and a visit to Uganda. There, he will see his mother, Sarah Achol Deng of the Dinka tribe, for the first time since 1989.

Rochelle's book "Life Lessons: Essays on Parenthood, America, 9/11 and Detroit" (Detroit Free Press, $14.95) is available at area bookstores. Or order your own copy at 800-245-508 or www.freep.com/bookstore

To read past Rochelle columns, visit www.freep.com/index/rochelleriley.htm.

Contact ROCHELLE RILEY at 313-223-4473 or e-mail riley@freepress.com. Her columns appear on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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Story Source: Detroit Free Press

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Adoption; Sudan



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