“Mama Reita is a true mother of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Since we made Phoenix our home, she has organized and celebrated our birthday parties and of course, she established the Gabriel’s Dream Scholarship, from which I received assistance. I pray to God to bless her with more years so that she can see the fruits of her hard work.” (Panek Thii, Lost Boy of Sudan)
As South Sudan struggled for its independence, many young people were trapped in camps, cut off from their homes and families. They became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. A few were fortunate to be sent to the United States, and other Western countries, where they might further their education and have an opportunity for a normal life. However, it would be a life without a connection to their homes. Thankfully, some people tried to fill that vacuum in their disrupted lives. Many were helped by aid agencies, teachers, employers, and foster parents. But, for those Lost Boys who ended up in Phoenix, Arizona, there was somebody else, somebody very special. That person was Reita Hutson, a woman whom the Lost Boys still call Mama Reita.
“God had guided us into the hands of a woman who showed most of us the love and caring of a loving mother.” (Malek Deng, Lostboy of Sudan)
On July 20, 2020, Deng Mayik Atem and Madit Yel of Ramciel Magazine sat down with Mama Reita. Here is that interview:
RM: How are you doing?
MR: I still get up each day looking forward to what God has in store for me. It isn’t as easy as it once was. My knee hurts and my back is a little weak. But I’m used to pushing my body. I was born during the Great Depression in a farming community in Ohio. Life on a farm back then was difficult, and it got a lot harder when Dad was called into the service. He was thirty-three and had three children, but the country needed him, so off he went to serve under General George Patton. My brother and I were very close, he must have been 9 and I was eight, but we did our best to help out; it was hard work. Our sister was just a few months old. We were renting a house on a farm that had no running water and Mom cooked on a wood-burning stove. We pumped in the water for cooking, laundry, cleaning, and drinking.
When I first got to know about Sudan, I talked with Gabriel and he told me about his life. It was funny how much we had in common, such as growing up on a farm. We both raised chickens for eating and eggs. We’d gather wood for the fire and pump water for drinking, laundry, and bathing. That water had to be brought into the house no matter what the weather. During the war, there was a garden to tend. You couldn’t go into a store and buy much as there was rationing since most everything was going to the soldiers. So that garden was important. My family planted a big field of potatoes. Like Gabriel, we did have to scare the birds off the garden so they wouldn’t eat everything, and, of course, the girls helped their mommas with the cooking. There was a German farmer who lived down the road abd didn’t have any children. I guess being German he wasn’t much liked back then. My brother began following him around, and he taught him a lot including letting him drive his tractor and truck. Now, he’s eighty-five and he’s still farming. My brother is one of the most successful farmers in America. I guess you could say he and I grew up ambitious…and disciplined. In those days, you listened to your parents and grown-ups or your backside heard about it.
RM: Did you go to school?
MR: Oh, yes. Of course, it wasn’t like schools nowadays. There were twelve grades all in one building. There was discipline at school, too. I was five when I started school and some students were seventeen. But we all knew we were supposed to follow the rules. And, another thing, we were supposed to follow God and His teachings. We were introduced to God at school, and my mother made sure we said our prayers every night. We did not attend church on Sundays, but talking about God was still allowed in school so the teachers would tell us about Jesus and the Bible. We even had a weekly chapel meeting. When my father came back from Europe, there was something called the GI Bill and the government helped veterans buy houses. We bought a house in a town called Findlay, Ohio. I was in sixth grade then. I learned there was a church about a mile or two from our house, so I started walking to church twice a day. It wasn’t just to pray but also for youth fellowship, and choir practice. That church became a second home to me even though my parents didn’t go. I walked to church and I walked to school. Parents today do too much for their kids. When I was growing up we had to do a lot for ourselves and contribute at home. Today’s parents aren’t doing right with their children. Children have to learn to be responsible and disciplined. That’s how I was raised and how I raised my children.
RM: How did you first hear of the Lost Boys of South Sudan?
MR: Well, the first time I heard of Sudan—of course, it was Sudan, not South Sudan—was watching television. I was living here in Scottsdale. There was a program called Touched by an Angel; it was very popular and I liked it because it was religious. One day, the story was about people being sold into slavery in Sudan. Wow! I didn’t know there was slavery in this day and age. In the story, there was a young boy who wrote to his congresswoman and convinced her to help raise money for Sudan. Now, this was fictional TV, but it touched me. At the end of the show, Wayne Watson was singing “for such a time as this I was placed upon the earth to hear the voice of God and do his will.” I felt like God was moving in me and wanted me to do something for the Sudanese. A week later, Tom Brokaw interviewed a man from Sudan; his name was Abraham Yel. He said something that I will never forget, “I am a lost boy in the world, but I am not lost from God.” I wanted to reach out to him and to the other boys from Sudan, but my life was busy. I had grandchildren, children, friends, and a busy career as a Realtor. I didn’t know much about using a computer, and there wasn’t anything like Facebook or many social media. I read an article about the Sudanese living here in Phoenix and one day I saw a group of children playing in a park where I walked every day. They were with their Sunday School teacher. She told me. “These aren’t Lost Boys. They live here with their parents.” I saw more articles and I knew that God wanted me to do something, but I had no idea what. One Sunday I went to the grocery store and there was a tall, very black man who was standing by the maintenance closet. Something told me, “Oh, my God, this is one of the Lost Boys.” I introduced myself. He was very quiet, but he told me his name was Gabriel. Just like the angel. I thought, “God sent a young man bearing the name of an angel as confirmation to me.”
RM: What has your relationship with Gabriel been?
MR: From that simple beginning, Gabriel became like a son to me. The relationship grew slowly and required a lot of getting past the differences in our views of the world. For example, one day I asked if he wanted to have something to eat. He looked as though he had been hit by lightning. I didn’t understand his reaction until later when Gabriel came to my house and my family was there, including my son David who lives in Ohio. As we were eating dinner, David asked Gabriel, “Is this the first you ever ate with women?” Gabriel said it was. Little by little, Gabriel became part of our family. My eldest granddaughter was attending a Christian Academy in Scottsdale. I took Gabriel there to see a wonderful music production called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I loved how Gabriel reacted to the play. He called me Mom, the way my other children did. As I said, he became a member of our family. One day, just out of the blue, Gabriel said, “You know there are only two things I want, Mom: my education and my teeth.” His lower front teeth had been knocked out during a rite of passage into manhood. When Gabriel told me that, I was flabbergasted. Such incredible differences between cultures! Among his people teeth were deliberately pulled, while we Americans spent fortunes on braces for our kids. Gabriel’s simple wish started me thinking ̶ What might I do to make a difference? That was the beginning of Gabriel’s Dream, the non-profit organization I created to help him and other Lost Boys receive an education, dental and medical care. We did hundreds of other things, like helping with rent payments, car repairs, clothing, furniture, and more.
RM: Was Gabriel the only Lost Boy with whom you became close?
MR: Right after I met Gabriel, I met Jany Deng, a wonderfully outgoing young man, and Michael Lieh. They were doing fundraising for the Lost Boys’ Center. I started volunteering at the Lost Boys’ Center: showing Lost Boys how to write resumes, helping them find jobs, getting the simple things like toothbrushes and can openers, helping them with whatever I could like furnishing their apartments, and getting my friends involved. My daughter, two of my friends from church and I decided to host the very first Easter for the Lost Boys, which we held at the Center. Of course, I didn’t know Sudanese don’t commit to things ahead of time, so I had a sign-up sheet. When I went back to the center and looked, there were only nine names. Still, we cooked a lot of food and hoped people would come. And low and behold, about 150 people showed up. My daughter, Julie, commented that it was like “the loaves and the fishes” because we had enough food. When we finished eating, Tut Gatyiel, the wonderful leader of the Lost Boys, gave a thank you speech. I cried while he spoke.
I had met a pastor at a Bible study, who was the minister at the big church in Paradise Valley. He invited me to speak at his church, and I brought Jany, Chol Jok, James Manyiel, and several other Lost Boys with me. After the service, Dr. Bruce White, a dentist, gave me his card and offered to help. When I took Gabriel to see him, he offered a dental partial, which meant artificial teeth attached to Gabriel’s teeth. I told Gabriel that was so nice, but if God willing, I would get him permanent implants. I had no idea how expensive implants were at the time. Later, Dr. White introduced me to a dental hygienist who volunteered at a dental clinic. She introduced me to a Jewish Dentist from South Africa, who volunteered to help Gabriel. It takes a long time to do implants, but eventually, Gabriel had his teeth. When other Lost Boys saw how Gabriel’s teeth looked, they asked him if they could call me. I said, “Yes.” So, that is how it began. Little did I know how monumental this project would become. I made their appointments and took every one of them to the dentist, and cared for each one at my home when they had surgery. Once they got the implants, then another dentist did the restorations, and if they needed fillings or cleanings, that required a different dentist. Some needed braces and wisdom teeth removed. Most of them required at least four to five dentists to fix their teeth problems. I had over one hundred of Phoenix’s best dentists volunteer to help them. The dentists have told me that they do a lot of pro bono work, but the Lost Boys were the most appreciative of any and they loved helping them. So, Gabriel Kuany who also goes by Gabriel Chol Kuany was the first of my Lost Boys, but there have been many others. Gabriel and I visited my family in Cleveland in the summer of 2005. That meeting led my son David to help establish the Cleveland Lost Boys Association, and both he and my daughter Jennifer helped plan and cook meals like I was doing in Phoenix.
RM: What has given you the greatest sense of accomplishment in your work with the Lost Boys?
MR: Everything. (She laughs) I think the most important thing has been the work with education. I gave many young men scholarships. I raised most of the money through newsletters, and Gabriel and I spoke at churches and organizations. I also got a lot of support from Arizona State University, which provided scholarships to some of my boys. I was blessed to get three awards: The National Association of Realtors Good Neighbor Award, Arizona’s coveted Hon Kachina Award, and a Worldwide Compassionate Award. Each award meant money for scholarships. My church, McDowell Mountain Community, also helped me monthly. But perhaps the best thing has been getting good medical and dental care for young men who needed it.
They weren’t always Lost Boys. One time a Sudanese young man’s sister called me. She said he was ill from a bad dental infection. I called one of the dentists and arranged for the sister to take him there. Later the dentist called and said, “You know, if you hadn’t called me, this young man would have died because he had a bad infection that was traveling down his throat.” Then there was Gabriel Lual. He asked Gabriel for my phone number and called me to ask for help. He had terrible headaches, and could not work. Since he was on the state-assisted medical insurance plan, he had just been given pain medications. I took him to a neurosurgeon who found a blood vessel pressing against his trigeminal nerve. He needed surgery, which solved the problem. While Gabriel was in surgery two of his relatives came from Tucson to pray with us and they stayed with me during the 7-hour surgery. Gabriel is healed!
Getting good dental care was so important for so many of the boys. It must have been terrifying the first time I took them to the dentist. Their only previous experience had been when their lower front teeth were painfully removed with hot metal as a rite of passage into manhood. I was amazed that they came with me so willingly, especially since many hardly knew me. And those dentists! What wonderful work they did! I began with just two, and they told other dentists. I recruited some through the Arizona Dental Association by setting up a booth for our program every year for four years at their annual convention. All of the dentists were listed as “Best Dentists” in the Phoenix Magazine. I got Lost Boys to also volunteer at the convention as I knew their presence would attract a lot of people.
RM: One of the most personal things you have done over the years is hold birthday parties for Lost Boys and Lost Girls even though most of them do not know their actual birthdays. Why did you do that? What makes those birthday celebrations important to you and them?
RM: I know that the Lost Boys and Girls don’t know their actual birthdays. When their documents were created, they were assigned birthdays arbitrarily. Here in America, having a birthday party is one-way parents tell their children that they are special. It’s a way of saying, “This is your day.” Well, I couldn’t do that for the Lost Boys, but holding one special birthday celebration for them it was my way of telling the entire South Sudanese community that they were special. It was always on January 1st as many were assigned that as their birthday in the refugee camp. Of course, we did Easter and Thanksgiving and first Sundays to help bring the community together, but somehow that annual birthday party said you guys are special, you are important to me, I love you. Sadly, I’ve had to cut back in the past few years. A Physical therapist injured my back and I had to stop. Still, I can look back on those celebrations and think how joyous they were for me as well as for the South Sudanese and their friends who joined us. My volunteers and I loved doing it.
“Around 2006, she started making appointments with the dentists to fix our teeth, and the funny thing she used to do? She admitted us at her house after the surgeries, so she could take care of us. She did that for every lost boy, and another thing Mama Reita used to do is celebrate our birthday every January 1 for the whole Sudanese community in Arizona. She also helps us with school tuition here in America and back home in South Sudan. Mama Reita was a gift to the lost boys and Sudanese community. May God keep blessing her for the outstanding and incredible job she had done for us. We will remember Mama Reita in our lifetime.” (John Nhial Pat, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan).
RM: There must have been many people who helped you over the years.
MR: Too many to count, far too many to name. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, pastors, friends and family, and so many churches. Oh, the list goes on and on. I remember when Mayen Ayuel contacted me. His wife and baby were in Egypt. He said they had applied for a visa for his family to come. However, they were going to bring the wife and baby separately. I knew John McCain because I had volunteered in his office, so I helped Mayen write a letter to him seeking help. John made the arrangements for the wife and child to travel together. I guess people began to hear about me and see me as some sort of an expert on Sudan. Of course, I had never been to Africa, but I did care enough to keep trying to learn. After Mayen’s wife and child arrived in Phoenix, she became pregnant. Sadly, they lost the baby, but then she started having other problems. She was admitted to the hospital, but they didn’t understand what the hospital was telling them and they called me. The hospital did three MRIs and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I had read enough to suggest they look for parasites that they ultimately found in her brain. Thankfully, the treatment worked. After that, the hospital would call me about its patients from Sudan even though the HIPAA regulations said they couldn’t. I helped get treatment for a lot of young men for parasites and for Trachoma, a disease that causes their eyelashes to scratch their eyes. I also found lawyers who volunteered to help them when they got into difficulty with the law.
RM: What do you think prepared you to do so much to help the Lost Boys of Sudan?
MR: First, my faith and the belief that God called me to help. Then, too, my childhood prepared me for a life of doing for others. Next, there is my love of hard work, something I learned as a child. When I was helping the Lost Boys, I often worked from 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., seven days a week. I was 65 years old when I started helping, the age most people leave the workforce. I never got tired! My telephone rang all the time. I’ve also had a wonderful and fulfilling life as a mother and grandmother, and as a working woman. Along the way, my career has taught me how to communicate and how to reach out to those who can help.
I feel that all of my careers gave me the skills to be successful. I truly felt like God went before me opening the hearts of people to help, and it always seemed that a solution to a problem just came my way. I will never forget James Chan. I kept him several times overnight when he had dental surgery. The last time I kept him, I went outside with him to say goodbye. As we stood in my driveway, he said, “You know, this is the first time in my life I have known what it’s like to have a mom.” To have somebody who had been through what he had and to have him say that to me, it was a moment I will always cherish. None of what I did had anything to do with me. I was just the vessel. Like one of my friends said, “You made yourself available, you responded when God called.”
RM: Many readers of Ramciel are going to college. Based on what you know of the Lost Boys, what advice can you give them?
MR: I don’t think they need any advice from me. Gabriel often told me what life was like for him as a boy. Because there was no electricity, the family would sit and talk, learn all about their ancestors, the importance of the family, and the village. I probably learned more from them than they learned from me. I think the strength they showed on their journey and in coming to a new country had to have come from their family, and life in the village and cattle camps. Somehow, I think that their life prepared them to walk thousands of miles, deal with terror, and survive when most of us would have perished. Many of our young people do not have the strength, humility, good manners and respect for others, and authority that I have seen in the Sudanese Lost Boys. In the face of adversity, the Lost Boys did not cry or give in. What was so amazing is that they never lost the joy of the Lord. Most of their employers told me they were the best workers they had ever had. They came with determination and they have put so much effort into their lives. They immediately wanted to start community college, and many of them are still in school working on advanced degrees. Some have doctorate degrees, some are in law school. I find it astounding how much they have accomplished, all without ever feeling sorry for themselves or complaining. If the young men and women of South Sudan want to know how to deal with the world, I suggest they look to the Lost Boys and how they have faced their lives, see how they have pressed on despite their circumstances, and risen above them to achieve success.
“The community of the Lost Boys of Sudan is so thankful to American volunteers like Mama Reita, for their unyielding support of our advocacy for peace in Sudan. Today, we are proud citizens of the Republic of South Sudan, which Reita supported vehemently.” (Deng Majok Chol, one of the lost boys of Sudan and Harvard Alumni)
RM: Now that the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan are grown into adults, is your work finished?
MR: Yes. I was forced to retire due to back and knee issues. However, before I retired, I teamed with a California surgeon, who had been to Sudan with Doctors Without Borders, and the two of us supported thirteen medical students, one of whom was a woman. We had to raise $100,000 a year. It was hard for me to do that because, during that time, I was injured in physical therapy and got a herniated disc. All of them have graduated, some have returned to Sudan, and one is doing his residency in Kenya. Eventually, I got a scholarship for future doctors for South Sudan. Gabriel’s Dream was helping support these thirteen young men and one woman who were going to medical school in Kenya along with an organization known as Future Doctors for Sudan.
“Mama Reita Huston became my direct sponsor and mentor. She has been able to sponsor my studies from the beginning of the third year from 2015 to 2017. During the sponsorship, there was a timely payment of tuition fees and living expenses with studies running smoothly. I sincerely thank Mama Reita for helping me out during this difficult time. Her help has been invaluable, I don’t know how I would have managed without her help and support. Because of her generosity, I was able to complete medical studies and become a doctor.” (Dr. Elioba John Luate Raimon)
RM: You have been receiving recognition for your work with the Lost Boys, for example, your appearance on the Queen Latifah show. How do you feel about such recognition?
MR: You know I wrote for a newspaper, I had a career in public relations and produced some big events, so I knew how to get one’s name into the news. If you Google my name, there are a lot of photos and articles, and I received several honors for my work that had a lot of news coverage. I was still a Realtor for the first few years when I started my foundation.
The National Association of Realtors and the State of Arizona gave me prestigious awards, so I wasn’t surprised when the crew from the Queen Latifah show called me. There was a lot of interest in the movie the Good Lie, and I was happy to be on her show so that the world could see why I love these young men. Even though I was in pain from my back, I was happy to do the show, especially because it was going to be about the boys and the movie. I wanted the world to see why I love these young men. But I do admit that when there were so much love and appreciation shown to me and checks given to support our work… well, that was wonderful too.
“Mom, your humbleness, kindness, and caring have given me footsteps to follow, and your love and support have given me wings to fly. You are the best Mom ever.” Gabriel Kuany
Deng Mayik Atem (Publisher) and Madit Yel (Editor) of Ramciel Magazine