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Circle of Refuge 

Sudanese refugees make Colorado Springs their home on the range

A brilliant sunny sky belies the bitter temperature this January morning outside Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in central Colorado Springs.

Inside, in the lobby, a pack of dark-skinned children dressed in their Sunday best circles the knees and lower legs of tall black men. A little girl with tight, short plaits across her head flounces the petticoats beneath her green dress and taps across the linoleum floor in her red patent leather shoes.

"She loves those shoes," observes a parishioner, a white woman. "She wears them every Sunday."

The service begins and Pastor Keith Knoff and Luther Martell, pastoral intern, lead the congregation in song and prayer, taking care to welcome all the Sudanese guests seated in the pews. In the back, left corner, a teenager in baggy jeans and a shiny jersey follows the service. He goes to Mitchell High School.

"I came here one year ago, from Ethiopia, with my mother, sister and brother," he says, adding that he is doing fine at school. "I am not from Ethiopia," he adds. "My homeland is Sudan."

When the congregation is called up to take communion, the Sudanese children follow their fathers to the front of the church to kneel at the altar. The mothers, jiggling babies in plastic baby carriers and bouncing crying toddlers on their knees, stay behind in their seats.

May we be a shining light to the nations,

A shining light to the peoples of the earth ...

The congregation sings, reading from the printed program.

May we be a healing balm to the nations,

A healing balm to the peoples of the earth ...

One final prayer and the crowd disperses to the basement for a potluck lunch, to be followed by a meeting about English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for the Sudanese, to begin the following week.

Simon Duoth, lay minister for the Sudanese community at Mt. Calvary, rounds up his children, including twin girls -- one with glasses, one without. Duoth works in janitorial services for Colorado Springs School District 11. It is a good job, he says. His children are well-mannered and beautifully dressed.

A symmetrical pattern of raised dots of flesh on his face, the result of an adolescent male cutting ritual practiced by his tribe in Sudan, catches the strong early afternoon light flowing through the windows of the church foyer.

His son, he says, probably won't go through the ritual scarring when he reaches the designated age.

"It is very painful," he says. "Lots of blood. If he doesn't want to do it, it's OK."

From Sudan to the Springs

Adapting to American ways while preserving a balance of homeland traditions is just one of the challenges facing the Sudanese families, some 50 of them, who have in recent years made their way across the United States to call Colorado Springs home. There is no official count, but the current estimate of Sudanese in the Springs numbers about 180.

Unlike their fellow countrymen, the famed Lost Boys who resettled as youngsters from refugee camps in Kenya to the United States in the 1980s, these families are among the 400 Sudanese who come to America each year, fleeing squalid living conditions in overcrowded camps and sure danger, even possible death, in their home villages.

Most of them left their homes in southern Sudan as teenagers, walking across dangerous borders to refugee camps to escape religious and political persecution and the crossfire of an increasingly violent civil war at home. Some of them stayed in those camps as long as 10 years before gaining passage to the United States

Some came directly from refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya to join family members already in Colorado. Most migrated to the Springs from other American cities like Omaha, Nashville and Dallas -- their original points of immigration.

Many still have parents and siblings living in squalid conditions in refugee camps where conditions grow worse each year.

Gai Thong, 30, and his family, including a wife and five children, have been in Colorado Springs for two years. His story is similar to that of many Sudanese who left their wartorn country and eventually made it to America.

Thong is a member of the Nuer tribe, one of the three predominant tribes in largely Christian southern Sudan which has been plagued by invading government/Muslim troops almost constantly for the past 20 years. The largest country in Africa with over 1 million square miles of land, Sudan has been ripped by civil war for all but 10 years, from 1972 to 1982, since it gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956.

The Khartoum government and rebels of the southern region are still at war today, exerting a level of brutality that has grown exponentially as factions in the south of Sudan have turned on each other in tribal wars, especially the Dinka against the Nuer.

While the confrontation is most often explained as a religious conflict -- the Khartoum government of the north is Muslim; most southern Sudanese are Christians or practice native religions -- it is also racial, Arab vs. black African. And the conflict has grown increasingly bitter as it has focused on the control of southern oil fields, aggravated by interference from foreign powers, including the United States, in a thinly disguised effort to control those fields.

Since the mid-80s, an estimated 2.5 million Sudanese have been killed in that country's ongoing war, or by disease or famine; another 4.4 million Sudanese have been displaced from their homes, either within the country, to refugee camps in neighboring countries or to foreign lands.

Gai Thong left Sudan in 1985 when he was 13 years old. His village, Maiwut, had been attacked repeatedly by government troops that didn't always distinguish between rebel soldiers and civilians in the village. The Ethiopian border was 50 miles away. Thong fled with his family mother, father, his father's other wife and seven siblings -- to an Ethiopian refugee camp run with support from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the world's largest humanitarian relief organization.

"The situation [in the camp] was very bad," said Thong. "No clean water, not enough food. Just once a month you get some food, some rice, some millet."

He finished high school in the camp. In 1994, he left for Nairobi, Kenya, where he initiated paperwork to apply to immigrate to the United States.

In 1995, he left with his family, at that time a wife, two children and a younger brother, for Nashville. His plane ticket was paid by a relief agency, but in the form of a loan that had to be repaid at around $1,000 per ticket. In Nashville, a sponsorship by Catholic Charities provided the family with an apartment for four months. Thong got work in a pallet factory for $7 per hour.

He learned to drive, got a car and met other Nuer in the community. There, most Sudanese refugees found housing in public housing projects in the poorest -- and most crime-ridden -- areas of the city.

In February 1997, Thong moved to Omaha, to be near cousins and friends, and at the same time began the paperwork to have his extended family -- mother, brother and sister (by then his father was deceased) -- brought to the United States. In Omaha, he reunited with Buom Deng a childhood friend from the camp in Ethiopia, and became acquainted with an American friend who traveled to Colorado Springs to look for work.

In September, 2002, Thong and Deng followed their friend to the Springs. Thong applied for an apartment three bedrooms for $635 with his American friend as a reference. He and Deng moved west and soon others followed.

In 2001, Thong's mother, brother and sister joined his family in Colorado Springs. They had been in Dimma, the refugee camp in Ethiopia, for seven years.

"It took more than three years to come here," Thong said. "They've been waiting a long time."

Thong currently works three 12-hour shifts a week in custodial services at Sanmina-SCI, a computer chip factory in Security, and is looking for another part-time job since he now supports his mother and his younger siblings. His wife, Nyabuony, works four days a week at The Broadmoor hotel in housekeeping. Three of their children attend Colorado Springs public schools.

When he is not working, going to Pikes Peak Community College, caring for his children or transporting his family to school, the hospital or church, Thong is working with other Sudanese to launch the Southern Sudanese American Friendship Community Association of Colorado Springs -- a central place where all Sudanese refugees in the community can come for help with myriad, complicated resettlement issues.

Cultural differences

The Sudanese sometimes find themselves at odds with the habits of the people in the new place they've come to call home.

For example, when one member of their community has a problem -- drinking, for instance, or too much fighting -- it is dealt with by the community at large. Conflict resolution through talking is such an engrained part of a Sudanese person's life that it is hard for him or her to understand the American way of calling police, settling problems in court or looking to social service agencies for guidance.

In general, these traditionally agricultural people have large families with many children. Traditionally, men do not engage in "women's work" like food preparation and child care, but in the United States, they are learning to adjust.

Most of the Sudanese women who come to America from Sudan or refugee camps elsewhere in Africa have no education. Their work is understood to be work that supports the husband and the family. If they have been traumatized by violent events in their past, says one Sudanese woman who now works helping others to resettle here, it is best if they are assisted in forming their own self-help groups rather than going to strangers for counseling. To speak of rape or violence outside the family of Sudanese women, she advises, would be unthinkable for most.

Sometimes, the Sudanese find themselves in situations of misunderstanding with authorities, most notably the police, because of insufficient English language skills and cultural differences.

And because they are refugees and likely poor, they often find themselves living in dangerous conditions

After being asked many times why he wanted to come to Colorado Springs, and why he left Nashville for Omaha, Gai finally told this story of struggle and survival on the American streets:

"They shot my friend. On Jan. 2, 1997. We lived together in the same area, north Nashville. He work at midnight. He started at 11 at a grocery store. It was the beginning of the year. He came home about 2 or 2:30 because there wasn't enough work.

"It was the new year. He had a wife, a one-month-old daughter. He had an empty refrigerator, so he decided to go back to the store to buy some food.

"When he came back, he find people in the area. People stop him, tell him, 'We need some money from you, we want your car, your keys, your food.'

"He said, 'No, I have no money.' They said, 'Get out of the car.' He tried to say, 'I cannot give you anything.' He was close to his door. He called to his cousin, 'I am in trouble now. Come out and help me out.'

"At that moment the people shot him in the chest. At that moment he died right away.

"I lived not too far away. A friend called and said 'We are in trouble now.'

"We called our people together, because that is how we solve our problems. All the people came at the same time and they were all arrested because they were crying and the police think they want to make a war now.

"Our brother was killed. What do we do now?

"In the morning, about 6:30, they release us. The guy who killed our brother was 16. We know that guy. He move to some area of south Nashville. Police tried to look for him all the time; in about two weeks they found him.

"That's why I left Nashville. I was very mad. Sometimes we tried to call the police; they wouldn't come there because it was so dangerous [where we lived].

"Omaha is very, very dangerous too, but the police there was very good. Where we lived was a dangerous place, but we had a lot of people working together. There were bad people there. You cannot drive at night. Lot of violence; everybody have a gun.

"This is best place. In Colorado Springs, there's no north, no south. Very good security. In Colorado Springs, people mix it together, black and white.

"I never hear any violence since I came here. My kids are OK. My kids are safe.

"I lived in my country, Sudan, for 13 years, from 1972 to 1985. War all my life. Fighting every day. I was a teenager, I go to war. I don't like war. I'm very, very tired. I lost all of my friends. All of my best friends are gone already. They died of fighting.

"I hate guns because I know their danger. People are dying. I see them. I hate guns."

'Next destination' for immigrants

The problems of recent refugees to the United States like the Sudanese are compounded by their geographic leanings -- they are more likely to settle in cities that don't have traditional infrastructures designed to aid large numbers of immigrants.

According to the Urban Institute, an organization concerned with the needs of new immigrant communities, "Dispersal of our newest arrivals to regions that historically have attracted relatively few immigrants means that the international issues previously confined to only a handful of states -- access to language classes, health care, welfare benefits and jobs -- are now central concerns for most states.

Additionally, immigrants settling in states with relatively weak safety nets may not fare as well as those in more generous ones, should the economy continue to decline."

Nineteen states, forming a broad band across the middle of the United States, saw immigrant populations more than double in the 1990s. Colorado, with a US Census reported foreign-born population of 370,000 in 2000, is one of them.

This flow of immigrant populations to new states, it is important to note, has not been benefit driven but job driven. Economies that prospered in the economic boom of the '90s saw more immigrants and refugees relocating to their communities, whether or not social services were readily available.

Building the New American Community (BNAC) is a joint project of several large national non-profits dedicated to immigrant advocacy, funded by the federal government. BNAC has identified three such "new immigrant" cities Lowell, Mass., Portland, Ore.and Nashville -- and has funded efforts to create programs based on locally identified needs in an attempt to streamline and customize aid efforts for immigrants and refugees.

Portland, for example, has organized community retreats for immigrant communities, and designed leadership development workshops to train potential leaders in coalition building, organizing, media relations and civic participation.

Nashville has held media and communications training, started new English/citizenship classes in work sites and in the community, and developed an employers' guide to the international workforce.

And Lowell advised the City of Lowell's Department of Planning and Development of the needs of immigrant communities.

Putting immigrant needs in context at last summer's Office of Refugee Resettlement's annual meeting was Michael Fix, research associate with Population Studies Center of the Urban Institute. Fix sketched these demographics in an effort to emphasize the importance of helping first generation immigrants: one in nine Americans is an immigrant or refugee, and one of five children in the United States is the child of an immigrant or refugee. Immigrants and refugees account for one in four low-wage workers, and one in four low-income children is the child of an immigrant or refugee.

"My point here," said Fix, "is that despite high flows, these 'next destination' states and communities have typically had less experience settling newcomers and less developed infrastructure than more traditional receiving communities -- creating new tensions and new opportunities."

Another trend noted by Fix, is "a steep decline in immigrant use of public benefits in general, and in refugee use of benefits in particular." From 1994 to 1999, the use of public funds by low-income immigrant families with children fell to rates equal to those of citizen families.

But while these numbers reflect the success of work-first efforts and a strong economy, they also raise concerns about the vulnerability of families outside the safety net in today's economic downturn. Immigrant families remain relatively poor 43 percent of immigrant and 44 percent of refugee families with full-time workers have incomes under 200 percent of poverty -- rates almost double that of U.S. citizens. And their children are far less likely to be covered by health insurance

Helping itself

Dabang Gach is president of the Southern Sudanese American Friendship Community Association (SSAFCA) of Colorado Springs, founded in 2001. A Sudanese refugee himself, he knows all too well the difficulties facing refugee and immigrant communities in the current economy.

Because he cannot find work in the Springs, Gach, along with two other local Sudanese, currently works more than 100 miles away in Fort Morgan at a meat-packing plant. He leaves on Monday and comes home on Friday, staying in a residential motel in the interim, leaving his wife, Nyabuay, who speaks very little English, at home with their two children.

Between the long commute over state highways, overnight shift work and the brutal nature of the job, he finds himself in some of the most dangerous working conditions imaginable.

Still, he is grateful to have a job.

"Many Sudanese people in Colorado Springs are suffering for one reason," he explains, his face an iron shield of seriousness. "No jobs."

Gach and his family live on the basement level of a government-subsidized apartment complex. Their home is sparsely furnished but filled with the ringing laughter of their 2-year-old son Buay and his cousin.

"Hi, Mommy," they scream to the reporter in their midst, light-skinned and blue-eyed. "Hi, Mommy!"

Gach also lived in the Dimma refugee camp in Ethiopia for most of his young adulthood. He came to the United States in '99, arriving in Washington D.C., locating first in Omaha, then joining the exodus of Sudanese to Colorado Springs.

Education is key, says Gach, to meeting the immediate needs of the Sudanese community -- jobs, health care, child care, getting a drivers license and, eventually, citizenship.

"We did not go to school from age 15 to 29," he explains. Along with the other members of SSAFCA, including Gai Thong, and with help from three local churches (Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Highland Park Baptist Church and Faith Covenant Bible Chapel), Gach is working on providing ESL classes to all Sudanese who need English instruction. Catholic Charities has offered its assistance in assessing how many Sudanese need instruction, the best times for classes and the disparity of skills in the community.

Professors Bill Lyons and Kee Warner of CUSprings have been instrumental in helping Gach and his colleagues set up their non-profit organization, walking them through the intricacies of needs assessment, appointing a board and networking in the community.

"We need a regional office, a way to come together," Gach said. With a central location and a hotline available to all local Sudanese, the community association could provide advocates for children entering schools and for schools trying to serve refugee children, could assist in transportation, in securing health care and drivers licenses and could be a central clearing ground for Sudanese cultural and family activities.

"We will learn the American system," he explains, "how a person can get in trouble; how a person cannot get in trouble; and we will teach this to our children."

"To start something is not that easy."

Night has fallen and Buay has settled into his crib, sucking on a bottle. He jumps up when he sees the visitor leaving. As she exits the building, she is engulfed by the joyous rush of 2-year-old voices.

"Bye, Mommy!" they scream, smiling and waving. "Bye, Mommy!"

"See," says Gach, "already they are speaking English."

How to help and learn more:

The Southern Sudanese American Friendship Community Association of Colorado Springs is in need of the following gifts and services: office furniture and supplies, computer, telephone, answering machine, fax machine, sofa. The association would also appreciate gifts of used computers to assist school children at home. Gifts of cash would help subsidize the cost of ESL classes.

All gifts are tax deductible.

To make a donation or to speak with one of the association members about how you can help, call 634-1053, Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, and leave a message for the SSAFCA. Be sure to leave a return telephone number, a name and a cell phone number if possible.

To learn more about the ongoing conflict in Sudan, see: Emma's War: An Aid Worker, a Warlord, Radical Islam and the Politics of Oil -- A True Story of Love and Death in the Sudan by Deborah Scroggins (Pantheon: New York), 389 pp, $25.

  • Sudanese refugees make Colorado Springs their home on the range

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