“All children, except one, grow up.”
So begins “Peter Pan,” the 1911 novelization of J.M. Barrie’s stage play, which debuted 110 years ago in 1904. In the span of that century-plus, the story of Peter Pan and his Lost Boys has undergone numerous adaptations, reinterpretations and reinventions, the latest of which, the musical “Peter Pan Live!,” aired last week on NBC.
The magic of Peter’s story is in some ways summed up in that opening line: What would the world look like if the innocence of childhood could be preserved forever?
The longing inherent in such a question becomes apparent when one considers the tragic irony that many children of the past and present navigate childhoods filled with unspeakable horrors, forced to become adults at incredibly young ages. For the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, the trauma of losing their parents is relatively gentle — they are the boys who “fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way.” Victims of little more than feather-headed nannies, the Lost Boys in Peter Pan enjoy a childhood in Neverland where the specter of approaching manhood — characterized by the violent and cruel pirate, Captain Hook — is reduced to a comic villain easily defeated by Peter, their hero and protector.
For the real Lost Boys in the world, however, violence and evil tragically wield much more power.
In Sudan, beginning in 1987 and continuing through the '90s, more than 20,000 children, most of them boys, fled a bloody civil war that claimed their families’ lives. Orphaned, their villages burned, the boys walked thousands of miles through desert, first to Ethiopia, and when the communist regime in that country ousted them, trekked through treacherous wilds a second time to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Roughly half of the boys survived the journey; the others were picked off by starvation, lions and enslavement as child soldiers by ruthless warlords. In 2001, about 4,000 of the boys, now young men, were given the opportunity to travel to Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to receive jobs and education. Some, however, stayed.
James Lual Atak was one of those boys. Though given the chance to immigrate to the U.S., he chose to return to Sudan to help the younger orphans still living there. When I met James, he was standing under the shade of a mahogany tree, teaching the ABCs to a cluster of children. Unassisted, James had been gathering orphans from the bush and educating them under trees. Most of the children were sick, and all of them were malnourished. None of them had homes. James had no means to help them with those critical needs, but what he lacked he made up for with an abundance of compassion.
While the story of "Peter Pan” provides children with the allure of escapist fantasy, to adults it can have a darker, cautionary, second meaning. A parent reading or watching this story alongside her children cannot help but wonder at the agony the parents of the Lost Boys must have experienced when they realized their children were missing. In the play, Peter understands that the boys he looks after need a mother, and because Wendy is good at storytelling, he chooses to take her to Neverland. At the story’s end, Wendy offers Peter and the Lost Boys the chance to leave Neverland and return home with her to London. Though Peter stubbornly refuses, the Lost Boys agree to go with her.
When South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, many of the former Lost Boys, scattered across the world, rejoiced. They made plans to take the education and job skills they had acquired in developed countries back home to help build a new nation.
But in 2013, South Sudan dissolved once again into civil warfare between the Dinka and Neur ethnic groups. As a result, an entire new generation of orphans, child soldiers and refugees — a new generation of Lost Boys — was created.
The cycle of violence continues, but there is hope as long as individuals like my friend James and the others like him continue to model selfless compassion for the lost and forgotten. To help others become, as James calls himself, “Lost Boys no more.”
Achieving this often means we have to tell stories that, unlike “Peter Pan,” tragically do not always have the happiest of endings. Unlike fairies, no amount of clapping can bring a child back from the dead. But there are stories of hope, too. By the grace of God, someday children in South Sudan will not have to wander through deserts in order to find peace. Through the efforts of organizations like Make Way Partners, standing in the gap for the most vulnerable in our world, children will find restoration and even hope.
You can move beyond the fairytale and participate in saving the lives of today’s “Lost Boy” or “Lost Girl” by becoming family for an unadoptable orphan today. Your life matters.
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