Hiding from merciless militiamen and trekking through unforgiving mountainous terrain, Madhel Majok escaped the genocide of the Sudan that killed his parents.
The 9-year-old fled to neighboring Kenya, where he survived vigilante shellings on his crowded refugee camp.
Majok remained in limbo for eight years, waiting for any country to grant him refuge.
Now 17, Majok has found safety in the home of Paul Boulanger, a 68-year-old single father who has fostered three dozen refugee children in 30 years.
Majok is 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,” 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.”
Boulanger also has teens living with him from the Congo, China and Myanmar. All are attending school, learning English and playing sports.
“Refugees come to my door. I have an empty bedroom. Why not?” Boulanger said.
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 the states must ask more households to open their homes for foster care or ask existing foster families to take in another refugee child during an economic downturn.
“Between all the wars going on and all the trafficking laws that have changed, more children are needing safe homes,” said Sherrill Hilliard, program manager for the Refugee Immigration & Assistance Program. “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.
This is not the only way parentless refugee children can find safe haven in the U.S. The Obama administration recently said it will allow orphaned Haitian children to enter the country temporarily on an individual basis.
And some groups, like the Heartland Alliance, 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, said Tim Irwin, spokesman for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
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 child’s schooling, health care and related expenses.
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.