Sudanese refugees find future in the United States
By Maritza Cruz
It is September 15, 1989, a day that Deng Kuot says he will never forget.
Mr. Kuot, his father, mother, brother and three sisters were eating dinner inside their home at 7:00 p.m. in their humble village of Panachier, then part of both Gogrial and Wau State in the Bahr el Gazal Province. Suddenly, soldiers stormed into the house with automatic weapons. Kuot ran alone to the bushes. There was no time to pack clothes, shoes, water or food. He was only 6 years old at the time.
“I prayed to God, ‘Save my lovely parents and I,’” he said to himself, crying until he no longer could.
He said they attacked his village, burned their houses, raped their women and stole their cows.
The next morning, he met other boys were fleeing with each other and joined them. The oldest boy was 11. He walked to Ethiopia with 1.3 million Dinka people, 16,000 of them were boys. Mr. Kuot said it was difficult to survive because of diseases, snakes, lions, mosquitoes, alligators, vultures and the rebels.
Northern Sudan is mostly Muslim and Arabic-speaking. Southern Sudan is more indigenously African in race, culture and identity.
In 1983, the military regime tried to impose sharia law as part of its policy to “Islamize” Sudan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) pushed back against Islam and led insurrections in the south where a majority of Christians and Animists lived. This became known as the Second Sudanese Civil War which was from 1983 to 2005.
It took about six months to reach Ethiopia. Many of the boys never set foot on Ethiopian soil. They died of disease and starvation. The older boys helped the younger boys by feeding them unknown vegetables and water from the ground.
Mr. Kuot remembers his father telling him when he was 5 years old that when there was no food to eat it was “okay to eat things that the birds eat in the forest.”
Mr. Kuot said the group had to cross the Gilo River in Ethiopia. About 2,000 Dinka people were killed or disappeared under the water. Fortunately, he survived. From Ethiopia, he traveled to Kenya.
He stayed in Kenya for seven years. He applied for refugee status in 1998 and did not come to the United States until August 16, 2001. He was 19 years old when he arrived.
When he arrived at the Tucson International Airport he was greeted by Jill Rich, a volunteer who was heavily involved with the Lost Boys. The Lost Boys were children who came from Sudan.
“I call her mom,” Mr. Kuot said. “She taught me how to light a stove, to peel potatoes and to open cans.”
He said the International Rescue Committee (IRC) gave the Lost Boys free housing for four months, but after those four months they needed to pay their own rent. Mr. Kuot got a job at Albertson’s on Silverbell Road where he still works today. He first started as a cart retriever outside, and then worked his way up to cashier.
He said one of the biggest challenges when he first moved to Tucson was communication. He used to write phrases on pieces of paper and have someone read it. Mr. Kuot went to Pima Community College to learn English.
He also said lack of transportation was difficult because he had to go to work early in the morning and did not want to bother his friends. He had to take the bus instead. One time, he got lost on the wrong bus and ended up on the other side of Silverbell.
“In America here, it’s a hard thing to be sufficient by yourself,” he said. “If you don’t be sufficient you’re going to be outside on your own. I was worried about that. So you’ll be outside on your own, you don’t have no family, you cannot be treated good, sometimes police can call you and…say you’re a criminal.”
He said the biggest difference in culture in Sudan and the U.S. is gender roles.
“See those arrows here,” Mr. Kuot said, pointing to the arrows carved into his scalp with knives. “They give these to you to become a man. You don’t have to cook, you don’t have to do other things a man can do.”
He said there isn’t much dating. Women cannot go over to a man’s house until they are married.
Mr. Kuot’s parents passed away, but the rest of his family lives in Africa. He worries about them and would like them to come to the U.S., but said it is difficult for refugees to come here. He said the process is long and many people can never leave.
Mr. Kuot now has a family of his own in Tucson. He is married and has three children – a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old and a newborn.
“I need to make my children’s life better than me,” Mr. Kuot said.
In January 2005, the National Congress Party (NCP), and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army (SPLM/A), signed a peace agreement. The peace agreement established a six year period where they would test if Sudan could be unified.
After the peace negotiations, an autonomous government is formed in South Sudan, mostly led by former rebels. Even after the peace negotiations there was a fragile peace between the North and South Sudanese. In March 2008, tensions arose between an Arab militia and SPLM over the disputed oil-rich Abyei area on the border.
In July 2011, South Sudan seceded and became its own country.
Lual Magot, 19, came to the United States in 2006 when he was only 9 years old. Mr. Magot’s family is from Bor, South Sudan, but he was born in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. They fled from South Sudan because the Islamic government was treating the Christian South Sudanese as second class citizens.
He lived with his mother, five brothers and his sister. His father stayed in Africa because he was a military commander, and he wanted to stay to protect the people’s lives. He preferred to give his family an opportunity for a better life.
“Right now, they’re just trying to survive, you know, with whatever you have. Whether it’s going to hunt or waiting for rations from the U.N.,” Mr. Magot said.
He said the biggest challenge when he moved to Tucson, Arizona, was the language barrier. He did not know any English. He said it was like moving to a new world where you’ve only heard stories about it.
“They said, ‘In America you’re going to be living like a king,’” Mr. Magot said.
The IRC helped Mr. Magot’s mom get a job and helped the children find a school. They also showed them the rules and laws of the land.
Mr. Magot attended Tohono O’odham Community College on a basketball scholarship. He studied criminal justice. He is taking a year off but hopes to play basketball at an out-of-state univeristy.
Deng Deng, 19, graduated from Cholla High School in 2015 with Mr. Magot. Like Mr. Magot his family was from Bor, South Sudan, but he was born in a refugee camp in Kenya as well. The camp was crowded with refugees from Sudan, Somalia and Uganda.
In Kenya, the children went to school for four hours a day. “We didn’t wear shoes, because we didn’t have money to buy like stuff like those,” Mr. Deng said. “From first grade, I used to walk barefoot, and it was very hot over there.” He said they did not have transportation, so when they had to go somewhere they had to walk for miles to even get to the hospital.
Mr. Deng’s family applied for refugee status in June 2004. He moved to the United States in 2011 with his mother and four brothers. He said his family forgot about their application until they got a call in 2008. They thought their names had been removed from the list.
Mr. Deng said they heard the United States was the best country. “We used to think that everything was free like they just give you a home, and you just own it, and you just have it,” Mr. Deng said. He said when they found out that was not true they were happy to be away from the conflict. They mostly came to the United States for an education.
Mr. Deng knew some English before coming to the states because his parents decided to pay for schooling in Kenya. They taught him Swahili and how to read. When he got to Tucson, Arizona, he was placed into ninth grade. In Kenya, he was only in sixth grade.
He said the biggest challenge he faced was making friends. He said he initially was nervous to talk to people because he spoke to another refugee who warned them about bullying. Mr. Deng said he first started making friends in the classroom because he could tell which students were doing well and who was not.
“I was always thinking that if I go and talk to them and my English is not good they’re going to make fun of me,” Mr. Deng said. “I didn’t talk for a while when I was in class.”
Mr. Deng said the IRC gave his family an advisor from Somalia. The advisor drove the family to get groceries, documents like their social security cards and taught them how to use their appliances. The IRC also introduced them to Tucsonan culture – A mountain, downtown Tucson and hiking. They helped pay their rent until his mother and brother get a job. After they got a job they had to pay back their loan from International Organization for Migration.
“First, you need to learn English if [you] don’t know English,” Mr. Deng said. “Second thing is going to be when you go anywhere you have to go with someone that knows the streets. It’s easy to get lost if [you] can’t read.”
Mr. Deng said his father lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He said his father wanted to come to the U.S., but could not because he has other children. Mr. Deng’s cousins and half siblings stayed with his father in Africa. He said his family misses them, and they miss seeing their family like they used to. He said they were very close.
He said they were fleeing from religious persecution. His family’s faith is Christian, and the Islamic government wanted to control their village. In Kenya, he said they didn’t have any dreams for their future.
“There are some nights we go to bed hungry, and we have to go to school in the morning,” Mr. Deng said. “It was real difficult, but here we good, we sleep good, you know. We have lights. We have food, and we come to school. We’re having fun.”
Mr. Deng is a student at Central Arizona College with a full-ride athletic scholarship for track and field. He first ran competitively in high school, but he always loved to walk in Kenya. “Over there, sometimes I get hungry and there is no food,” he said. “When I go and walk I forget about not having food.” His legs were strong from the walking, so running was not a big step away from walking. He hopes to transfer to the University of Arizona next year.
“We heard from people that already came here,” Mr. Deng said. “They say, ‘In America, if young kids go there they can go and go to school and learn and when they come back they can change all this stuff.’”
“School is the key to life,” Mr. Kuot said.
Both Mr. Deng and Mr. Magot hope to finish their education and return to South Sudan to give back to their community.
“I see myself going back to help the people out with whatever degree that I get,” Mr. Magot said. “I want to go back and give back to the people, you know, all those who have been suffering, who died, who fought for our freedom back home. I want to give the younger generation a chance.”
Mr. Deng and Mr. Kuot thought the executive order travel ban President Trump signed was immoral.
The first executive order travel ban was issued January 27 and barred citizens from Muslim majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the U.S. for 90 days. All refugees were banned for 120 days. Syrian refugees were banned indefinitely. The ninth circuit federal appeals courts blocked the ban. However, the Trump administration is planning to release a revised executive order on immigration that is expected not to impact green card holders.
“They’re escaping violence and all kinds of crazy stuff that is happening in their life and [they want to] get a chance, basically get a second chance at life,” Mr. Magot said. “In order for someone to understand it they have to live in their mind.”