June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

Until he arrived in Atlanta last fall, Dominic Arou had never seen a light switch, a cell phone or a flush toilet. Still, he was luckier than many of his countrymen. Born in Sudan at the height of a bloody civil war, Arou, now 22, last saw his family when soldiers attacked their village in the late ’80s, killing the adult men and abducting many of the women and girls. He was just 6 or 7 at the time—his memory is sketchy and records are nonexistent—but he managed to escape. After trekking more than a thousand miles across harsh terrain with little food and no shelter, Arou reached a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya in 1992. Along the way, he had seen countless other orphans fall prey to disease, bandits and wild animals. “When we crossed rivers,” he recalls, “I saw boys swallowed by crocodiles.”

Some 10,000 young men—dubbed the Lost Boys of Sudan by rescue workers—have made similar journeys, and the civil war in their homeland continues to this day. But for Arou and 3,600 others, the years of wandering and waiting have come to an end. Thanks to a U.S. government ruling granting them refugee status in 1999, groups of Lost Boys, now aged between 16 and 25, are being resettled in cities around the country. Last year 150 arrived in Atlanta, where they are finding jobs, taking classes—and, with their clipped, British-inflected English and quiet determination to succeed—making a notable impression on the locals.

They have also found a champion. “I had heard these stories of orphaned children walking across Africa, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to be unruly and wild,'” says Mary Williams, 34, who was working as a fund-raiser in the Atlanta office of the International Rescue Committee, one of several agencies involved in the resettlement effort, when she first met the new arrivals. “Instead they came in smiling, making eye contact with every person they met and with an attitude that blew me away. I just fell in love with them.”

Last August Williams, the informally adopted daughter of actress Jane Fonda, left her job to create the Lost Boys Foundation, which is dedicated to giving the refugees free health care, helping them find employment and aiding in their adjustment to American life. “I knew I had to do something to empower these boys, to help them hang onto whatever it was that allowed them to survive that walk and to use it to survive over here,” she says. Williams has hired a tutor to help 15 of the young men earn G.E.D. certificates. She has recruited a network of some 50 volunteer “moms” who spend time at the refugees’ group houses and apartments, offering everything from cooked meals to advice on proper dress, finance and dating. Last month at an Atlanta gallery she helped organize a sale of traditional clay animal figurines crafted by her wards, generating $5,000 for the foundation. Her efforts seem to be making a difference. “She wants us to have good jobs, and that’s what we want,” says Nathaniel Nyok, 23, one of six Atlanta Lost Boys hired to play bit parts in a new Bruce Willis action movie being filmed in Hawaii. Adds Arou, who is earning enough as an assistant at a decorative fabric show-room to pay rent for a small townhouse he shares with four others: “Lost Boys in other parts of the country don’t have the support we have in Atlanta. Because of Mary, I feel like we have a future.”

Williams’s own past gave her ample experience of dislocation. One of five children of Mary and Randy Williams, both Black Panthers, she spent her early years in a Panther commune in Oakland. From the time she was 10, when her mother split with the militant organization, Mary says few of her memories of growing up are happy ones. She eventually became so estranged from her family, she says, that today she isn’t sure if either of her parents is alive.

Her ticket out of the chaos came when she was 12, in the form of an invitation from an uncle (also a Black Panther) to attend a summer theater camp run by his friend Jane Fonda and her then husband, activist-politician Tom Hayden. “It was amazing,” Williams says of the camp, held at the couple’s Santa Barbara ranch, where children from a wide variety of backgrounds worked together to produce plays and musicals. She blossomed in the nurturing presence of Fonda, whose two children, Vanessa Vadim, now 33, and Troy Garity, 28, were among the campers. “There was an instant connection,” says Williams. “She was the first person in my whole life who talked to me and seemed to understand what I was saying.”

Williams returned to Oakland, and she and Fonda kept in touch by phone and mail. Then, at 14, she was repeatedly raped by an acquaintance. “I met the wrong person at the wrong time,” she says. Left to cope on her own, she withdrew, sleeping all day and rarely leaving her room. Fonda noticed the change in her young friend, though at the time she knew nothing of the cause. “The spark had gone,” says the star, who began urging Williams to move in with her in Santa Monica. Although Williams finally joined Fonda’s family two years later, it took time—and therapy—before she reemerged from her shell. She finished high school and in 1990 graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., with a degree in African-American history. Since then, she has worked for humanitarian causes in Tanzania and Morocco and earned a master’s in public health at Boston University. “If I hadn’t met Jane,” says Williams, who refers to Fonda as her mother, “I would have a ton of babies right now and be nowhere.”

Currently single, Williams—who lives alone in a spacious house filled with African art—is not the Lost Boys’ only benefactor. Atlanta-based R&B diva Lisa Lopes enlisted several of the new arrivals to record vocals in their native language of Dinka for a demo she was producing for a female quartet named Egypt. (Since her death in a car crash on April 25, the project has been put on hold.) But no organization in the U.S. has done more for the Lost Boys than Williams’s foundation, whose $160,000 budget is financed by private donations—including a $100,000 grant from the Fonda Family Foundation.

Williams believes the refugees have a gift of their own to offer: inspiration. “They have chosen not to let a bad event define who they are,” she says. “I want everyone everywhere to hear their story.” She credits Jane Fonda for giving her the tools to carry out her mission, adding, “She’d follow me around, hugging me and saying, I love you,’ and I thought it was weird. And then I got used to it, and then I started believing it. Now I hug the Lost Boys the same way.”

To which Fonda responds: “It all shows the ripple effect of love.”

Patrick Rogers

Gail Cameron Wescott in Atlanta

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