HOLLISTON, Mass. – Hiding from merciless militiamen and trekking through unforgiving mountainous terrain, Madhel Majok escaped the mass slayings and genocide of the Sudan that killed his parents. The 9-year-old orphan fled to neighboring Kenya, where he then survived vigilante shellings on his crowded refugee camp.
Majok remained in limbo for eight years while waiting for any country to grant him refuge.
Now 17, Majok has found safety in a small New England enclave 30 miles west of Boston. He's a star soccer player at Holliston High School, listens to Tupac and Biggie at his leisure and lives comfortably in a foster home, thanks to a federal program that matches refugee minors with American families.
"I like it. It's peaceful... quiet," said Majok, who wears American urban-style clothes and stays in a home with four other refugee Asian and African children. "Took me a long time to get here."
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has 700 refugee children in foster care, has asked states to prepare to foster more international refugee children like Majok, whose parents either have disappeared or been killed by war or natural disaster. The need is heightened by continuing armed conflicts in Africa and recent events such as the earthquake in Haiti.
The request means that Massachusetts and other states must ask more households to open up their homes for foster care or ask existing foster families to take in another refugee child at a time of economic downturn.
"Between all the wars going on and all the (human) trafficking laws that have changed, more children are needing safe homes," said Sherrill Hilliard, the program manager for Refugee Immigration & Assistance Program in Washington. "And we're doing our best to find them."
Massachusetts, a state that historically has taken in one of the largest shares of the nation's unaccompanied refugee minors, has been asked to increase its current share of 93 to 125, said Richard Chacon, director of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants in Massachusetts.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says 14 states and the District of Columbia, participate in the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.
It is not the only way parentless refugee children can find safe haven in the U.S. The Obama administration, for example, recently said it will allow orphaned Haitian children to enter the U.S. temporarily on an individual basis. And some groups, like the Heartland Alliance in Illinois, help unaccompanied undocumented children by providing housing and legal representation.
The U.S. program, developed in the early 1980s to help thousands of parentless children in Southeast Asia, has aided more than 13,000 refugee children fleeing war, famine and economic turmoil. It remains the most consistent source for refugee children in the U.S., with the assistance of the United Nations.
In 2008, foster homes and related facilities in the United States and 67 other countries took in 16,300 orphans, according to Tim Irwin, the spokesman for the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees. That's the highest number since the agency started keeping records, Irwin said.
In the U.S., states license foster homes with the help of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The federal government reimburses states for all costs of the children's schooling, health care and related expenses.
It's the same federal program that helped resettle 3,800 "Lost Boys" from Sudan in the early 2000s.
Cost of care for refugee minors varies, depending on need. In Massachusetts, the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants has budgeted about $3 million to serve 93 minors.
Arizona's State Refugee Coordinator Charles Shipman said his state has been asked to increase its numbers from 43 to 63. Arizona can find those new foster homes, Shipman said, but it's going to take some time.
"You have to work to develop more homes," Shipman said. "It's a pretty intense process to adequately serve these kids."
Hilliard said her state has been asked to double up from 50 to 100 children. "We've already got eight more on the way," she said.
Mary Bartholomew, who oversees the Massachusetts program for Lutheran Social Services, said social workers in the state are racing to look for new homes because of the expected rise in numbers. She said some former foster parents are opening up their homes to more children.
Michelle and Peter Zimmerman, of Leicester, Mass., said they wanted their two sons, now 15 and 13, to know "how blessed they were."
After taking in Liberian refugee Sam Barclays, who later joined the U.S. Marines, Bartholomew asked the family to consider fostering two refugee brothers who had escaped a prison in Myanmar. The boys fled Myanmar where they were wrongly accused by the military government of trying to sell a car, said Lian Sian Kim, 18.
The Zimmermans accepted.
In 2008, after living in hiding in Malaysia, Kim and his brother, Lian Sian Sang, 16, arrived at the Zimmermans' doorstep. "It was nice," said Kim, now a student at Leicester High School. "I didn't like the snow at first. But it's OK now."
A few months later, Majok arrived at the home of Paul Boulanger, a 68-year-old single father in Holliston, Mass., who has fostered three dozen refugee children in 30 years.
Boulanger also has teens living with him from the Congo, China and Myanmar. All are attending school, learning English and playing sports.
Gabriel Mugisha, 17, who escaped violence in the Congo with his siblings, said the only major conflict among the group is trying to decide what to eat for dinner.
"Refugees come to my door. I have an empty bedroom. Why not?" said Boulanger. "God put them here."