Literary Activism

Harriet Levin Millan

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Josh's Journal

The following day, my family took Michael and his mother to a Koala Sanctuary. It was the first opportunity that Michael had to spend time with his mother alone without the company of his siblings. Not to mention, it was their first mother-son experience together, one which they will remember forever. Walking side by side, they led us into the sanctuary. We were all about to embark on our first encounter with native Australian animals. The sanctuary was full of furry koalas sleeping in the eucalyptus trees drugged off their leaves. The creatures were incredible with their long nails dug into the bark of the trees. We even saw a mother carrying its baby on its back. I couldn't help but think of Mama Majok and how she would have loved to have held her baby those 19 years, but then I looked ahead and saw the mother and son walking side by side, arms locked, and realized that although they could never relive those years, they were finally together after all the years of hardship. Following the koalas, we entered a field full of kangaroos. My dad, my mom, Teddi and I approached a kangaroo. It was a great experience to feel the kangaroo lick food pellets off our hands. We took pictures and petted the amazing creature, one of which I have always been fascinated by because of the countless projects on marsupials that I've had to endure in school. Michael and Mama Majok went to the kangaroo next to stroke it and feed it as well. The best part was watching the sheer joy from Michael's mother as she bonded with her son like she had never done before. My father took a great picture of Michael's mother, which embodied all of the emotions that she was feeling at that instant. The day was magical. We continued the tour by hanging out with more kangaroos and then watching two dingoes playfully chase each other around their pens barking and growling, then attacking one another. There were tropical birds, as well as boar-like creatures called wombats. We all ate lunch and talked about the fabulous tour. The journey through the Koala Sanctuary was concluding. However, it was the start of a new beginning for the Kuch's.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Rick's Thoughts

The trip started with meeting Michael in LA.  I have been to LA before but never under such exciting circumstances.  Traveling to Australia was actually so much easier than I thought it would be. The flight was at night so we were able to sleep most of the way. Getting through the terminals went pretty smooth and we were all psyched with anticipation after we collected our luggage and headed into the taxi towards Michael's family's temporary Brisbane residence.  My heart was pounding with nervousness as we pulled up the driveway, unloaded our luggage and waited for the moment when Michael would finally realize the purpose of this odyssey.

When the gate finally opened and Michael's family members came rushing out to greet him with hugs and tears, I choked up and couldn't help but feel a sense of accomplishment in helping this dream come true.  His mom was crying and trembling as she held onto Michael as though she never wanted him to leave her again.  One by one, each sibling came toward us and hugged us and then finally Michael's weeping mom hugged me tightly. I tried the best that I could to capture some of the moments on film but it was one of those times where the goosebumps just took over.

The experience of reuniting Michael with his mother has been an incredible journey.  From the moment I met him at our home for dinner, I knew there was something special about this young man.  When my son, Josh, suggested that maybe there was the possibility to begin a campaign to raise money and awareness about bringing Michael and his mom together after all these years, at first I thought it was a stretch.  Now, after being there to witness the event, I see how thoughts like these can become a reality!

My thoughts now are about how rewarding it is to do something good to help people and how in this small way my giving back can repay some of the favors that people did to help my ancestors when they came to America.  Michael is going to be someone great some day.  I am happy to participate in helping him get closer to his goals.  I am looking forward to returning to Brisbane on the last leg of our adventure to hear how his week has turned out with his newfound family.  He has already texted us and told us that he has many stories to share.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Achieu and His Courage

After we left Michael and went back to our hotel, we took a walk along Brisbane's South Bank. It's a really beautiful part of the city with restaurants and cafes along the river that won the Wall Street Journal award for being the best planned city walk in the world.  And it was.  With an art museum, a performing arts center, botanical gardens and a University all leading into one another, the river walk was both convenient and beautiful.  We had a great lunch and relaxed.

Later that night, Ellen and I hopped in a cab and went back to Adior's house to meet her brother, Michael's uncle.  In the Dinka tradition, the mother's brother has a special tie to the mother's son.  The best English equivalent I can find to describe this relationship is godfather, but I think this relationship is even more powerful.  Think of the horse's head scene in Godfather I and you'll get my drift.  Just a little sideline here to introduce Ellen. Ellen is an Australian student whom I met while she was studying film at Drexel this past term.  It turns out that Drexel's study abroad program for film students is in--of all places--Australia!  Talk about coincidences. So, when I was looking for a videographer to document Michael's reunion, Tom Quigly, one of my students majoring in film, told me about Drexel's exchange with Swinburne
 University in Melbourne.  Then Dani Ascarrelli of Study Abroad sent out an email to all the Swinburne students on exchange in Philadelphia and within five minutes Ellen responded. Within ten minutes, Ellen and  I were lunching together at the Creese Cafe and she was accepting my invitation to come along.  Ellen lives in Melbourne (she was planning to return home at the end of that week) and she flew from Melbourne to Sydney and met our plane when it arrived on the 28th at 6 AM to document the trip. She's making a short film that will be ready later this month that we'll upload here when it is done.  Anway, she and I wanted to go back to Michael's family's house on Moggill Road to meet Michael's uncle and videotape him for the film.  We thought it would be less intrusive if we went without Teddi, Rick, and Josh, so I hope they get to meet Michael's uncle when we go back to Brisbane at the end of our trip.

Michael's uncle came to Brisbane about 8 years ago and it is he who sponsored Adior and her family's resettlement here.  Without his support they would not have been able to immigrate to Australia. During the interview he filled  us in on the events in Michael's village after Michael and his brothers, Isaiah (who was four-years-old at the time)  and David (who was three-years old), vanished.  He told us how the military had armed Arab Baggara (cattle herders who live in Southwestern Sudan) to destroy their village and what it was like to live in constant fear of being attacked again.  The village was bombed, torched, and attacked by Baggara on horseback who rounded up the adults and raped and abducted the women and girls.  He said that after the attack it eventually became much too dangerous to continue living in Bor and he and his wife, Elizabeth, started their own thousand mile trek through the desert to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.  In addition to the threat of attack, the famine of 1988 compounded the situation making it impossible to stay in Southern Sudan.

When I first met Michael, I was overwhelmed hearing his journey of trekking through the desert.  He walked barefoot and dressed in rags, if wearing any clothing at all, with thousands of other boys through a war zone constantly threatened by wild animals and without water or food.  I didn't know then that average people also were subject to this situation.  Michael's mother, father, stepmothers, uncles, aunts, and even grandmother all survived this journey to Kenya.  
I have read that on the average 1 in 4 people died on this journey.  When I first met Michael's mother, she said to me, "Your family is blessed and my family is blessed."  Survival on such a grand scale is not something to be taken for granted.

As Michael tells me, survival is a combination of "good choices, good luck and good blessings." It's interesting to me that Michael's attitude resembles very much the attitudes of successful immigrants I've met in the US, particularly a Vietnamese immigrant who runs a house painting company on the Main Line and does awesome work, Ta Dieu, and what I remember of my grandmother.  I used to smile and wonder why Yetta and her two sisters, Annie and Rosie, were always thanking God, when one of us children would say something negative.  Instead of berating us, they would say, "God Bless America." Thankfulness and a childlike almost blissful state that I used to consider naive, but now see as the consequence of great wisdom, was their day to day state of being.  When it comes to survival, the mind has a larger role to play than any of us can imagine.  Despite evil portents and actual life threatening situations, the Dinka who survived their walk to Kenya and their years in refugee camps were able to do so with their positive thinking.

Michael's Uncle, Achieu,  reiterated all these ideas during our interview of him.  He told us about the Bor Massacre in 1992 when there was a split between the rebel forces, which resulted in revengeful attacks on the Dinka.  The book to read about the Bor Massacre is Emma's War, which I highly recommend.  The book is written by Deborah Scroggins, who through another freak coincidence associated with our journey, is a dear friend of our brother-in-law, Mark Gloger and Ellen Epstein.  Those in Michael's village who survived the 1988 attack which forced many of the Lost Boys on their trek across Sudan, did not survive the brutal Bor Massacre. 

It was hard to listen to Achieu while imagining all he endured.  In spite of this, Achieu's sweetness emanated from his face as he spoke.  Fluent in English and a father of eight children, he is presently in seminary school training to become a minister.  Michael attended a special sermon that Acheiu gave at a church in Brisbane last Sunday.  I'm sure he mentioned Michael in his sermon and that it was moving and inspiring.  Achieu's story is representative of social upheaval characteristic of the modern day Dinka.  The Dinka have been in contact with other civilizations for centuries, but living in the West presents the particular challenge of retaining values based on a way of life that favors the community over the individual.  When the coverage of the Harriton High School Hunger Banquet appeared on the NBC10 website and Philadelphians were able to post comments, some people wrote in that they didn't understand why Michael couldn't raise the money to reunite with his family in Australia without our help. Frankly I was appalled by these comments and embarrassed by the ignorance of my neighbors. Since Michael's arrival in the US when he was 15 years old and still a high school student,  he has been working two jobs in addition to fulfilling the obligations of his soccer scholarship while a student at Chestnut Hill College and supporting himself solely on his own and sending money home to his extended family in Africa. Once Michael learned that his mother and siblings were alive and living in Kakuma, he sent monthly checks to them there.  Don't think Michael is unique in this.  As many of you know, Africans and other immigrants typically send money home.  People living in refugee camps subsist on a half a cup of runny porridge a day. With Michael's support they were able to buy a little more food--maybe a small piece of gristly meat every so often.   Americans have many lessons to learn about survival from cooperative societies.  Without the support  of our parents, friends, coaches or teachers, how far would each of us ever get?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

En Route to Syndey

Our plane from Brisbane to Sydney has been delayed, so I thought I'd start writing some about the past two days with Michael's family and begin to organize my thoughts.

When we first arrived, we were impressed by the sheer size of the house.  So it seems like Australia is a good choice for the family to be resettled in after all.  I doubt whether they would be placed in such pleasant surroundings in the States.You enter the house through a wood fence that is about 100 yards from the front door and to get to the front door you have to walk through a yard and down a path.   It's more like a compound than a single family house and Michael said that it's a good house for the family because it has grass and places to play and is removed back from the road.  The birds here are tropical.  We saw a couple of magpies around the house--they are big black birds something like ravens--and some other birds that are white and red with crested tufts.  Brisbane is like a big outdoor bird sanctuary.  You can see these red parakeet birds and white cockatoos just flying around.  After the emotional explosion of Michael seeing his family for the first time, we dragged our bags to the entrance and walked inside and sat down.  The inside of the house is large with many rooms and almost a separate little guest house through a door attached to the main house that was set up for Michael to stay in, with its own bedroom and kitchen.  

Michael's mother, Adior, or Maman Majok (the Dinka call their mothers by the name of the their first born child, and in this case, it is Michael) had gone to a lot of trouble to make Michael comfortable.  In the center of the room was a big double bed with a yellow sheet on it embroidered with flowers and the same matching patterns on the pillows and chair cushions. It was simple and beautiful and clearly adorned with much anticipation and love.  The room, as is the rest of the house, was stark and clean and fresh.  Noticeably, there was nothing extraneous around, no nicknacks or children's toys or pictures, a shocking reminder that Adior and her family had lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp for the past decade and had just come to Brisbane in January.

Even as we entered the house, Adior was still weeping.  Michael had been sitting down next to her but then he got up for a moment and she looked utterly forlorn as if she had lost him all over again. I sat down beside her then and took her arm and hugged her and asked her what she was thinking.  Even before she answered, I knew what she was going to say.  Afterward, I checked with Teddi and Ellen and Josh and Rick and they knew too.  It was one of those moments when the air was so electrified that her words just hung there before she said them and hearing them was verification.  She said, ''The years, the years," meaning that she would not be able to recapture all those years from the time Michael was five years old until now, notwithstanding Michael's brother, David, who was only three years old when their village was razed and with whom Adior has not yet had the opportunity to reunite.

Despite the tragic amplifications of Michael's life, his mother's life is the ultimate tragedy. Michael's future lies ahead of him, but for his mother, all is lost.  And don't forget that her tragedy gets multiplied by the thousands.  The devastation that occurred was systematic, village by village.  Michael's mother's father had been a chief and Adior grew up as the first daughter of a powerful man.  Nyankurdit, Adior's mother, and one of the wives of that chief, sadly still lives in Kakuma.

It was going to become intrusive for us to stay at the house, so after we were served tea and cookies, we started to bring out all the gifts we had brought for the family. This was a magical moment. The first gift I presented were the scarves my thirteen year old neice, Emma Phillips, knitted for Dut and Riak.   The scarves are very colorful and the children loved them. Aweil grabbed one and wrapped it around her neck.  We have some pictures of the children playing with the scarves, which they proceeded to do for the rest of the time we stayed in the house.  In the pictures, the children are so gorgeous that they look like models in a GAP ad, which gives you a clue about our culture.  When Michael gave his mother the gold Fossil watch and the earrings she was clearly moved. She just kept staring down at the gifts on her lap.  Then I gave Adior a bag of Ahava products we bought for her and explained how each of them get used.  We also brought a goodie bag for Aweil filled with hair products and lip balms.

Then we took a group picture together and hugged goodbye for the time being to leave Michael in private with his family and for us to go check in to our hotel.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tedra's Testimonial

In a checkerboard pattern, the Kuch family and our own dragged our luggage up the brick path to their new yellow-tan Australian home.  The house was very open and looked as if they had just moved in.  The only thing that was missing were cardboard boxes full of their possessions.  Then I realized that coming from a refugee camp, what sort of possessions could they even have?  Barely any.  The mother urged us to sit down on the blue couches decorated with printed doilies and pillows.  The shy brothers stood around us and Awiel perched herself on the other side of the room.  After we were settled, Michael went to retrieve the huge bag recently purchased from an army surplus store.  My mother sat next to Michael's mother, who was silently crying, and started rubbing her arm, whispering things like "You have raised such an amazing son," wondering if his mother's nods meant she could actually understand what my mother was saying.  When Michael came back in and sat down, she immediately threw her arms around him in a heap.  She then collected herself by going into the other room and wiping away her tears with the gigantic shaw she wore, one of the several layers she was sporting.  Tea and cookies were served, and the family was able to produce laughs and smiles.  There was definitely some awkwardness, as their Dinka and our English were not easily traded.  We were surprised, however, about the amount of English the younger children knew.  After taking a family picture of the Kuch's, the first complete family picture they have ever had, we did another round of hugs and they watched as our taxi took off, leaving Michael to stand with his family for the first time.

Measureless Magnitude

Before we knew it, we were standing at the fence before the house at 597 Moggill Road waiting for Michael's mother to come out.  We heard someone on the other side fiddling with the latch, then the side of her face, then her whole face wet with tears rushing toward Michael to embrace him.  She hid her face from us, too shy for us to witness her tears.  She buried her face in his face. She would not let go.  We watched.  We stood there.  We imagined another person beside her--Michael's father, then his image faded, and it was Michael and his mother again, finally together.Then Michael's sister, Aweil,  came out and Michael's mother made room for her to embrace Michael. Then Awiel let go of Michael and made room for her mother again. Then Awiel approached each one of us--Rick, Tedra, Josh, Ellen and me--and embraced each one of us tenderly.  Then Biar, Michael's seventeen year old brother came out, red-eyed, weeping and ran toward Michael, then Michael's youngest brothers, Dut, aged 7, and Riak, Aged 11--all born in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Then the brothers made room for the mother again and each of them came toward us and embraced us, sweetfully, thankfully.


Rick and I arrived in LA on the 28th. Tedra was already here--she'd been living with Rick's nephew and niece, Glenn and Jen for the month--and Josh arrived from his Summer Discovery program in Ann Arbor the next day with Michael.  Jen was so kind to drive me to Michael's hotel early the next morning and we picked him up and took him back to their house.  After we readjusted everyone's suitcases trying to make them lighter for the very stringent airline requirements, under 50 pounds, we took Michael to see Hollywood.  This was mainly a car trip because of his knee injury.  We drove to the this mall where you can get a direct view of the Hollywood sign and we stood on the street with clumps of other tourists taking pictures of all of  us standing in front of it, including Jen's children, Olivia and Aidan.  It was especially poignant to watch Michael and Aidan interact in lieu of Michael's reunion journey because Aidan is only six years old--close to the age Michael was the last time he saw his mother. Although as Michael pointed out, his cultural upbringing was so different than an American's upbringing that although he was only five years old when he began his 1200 mile trek he was much more prepared and mature.  As a Dinka, he walked miles every day to follow his uncles to the cattle camp outside their village.  He was already an apprentice learning how to hunt and to use a spear. Try as I might I can't imagine little Aidan even carrying a spear without hurting himself-- or someone else!

After we took those pictures in front of the Hollywood sign we walked down to the Chinese Theater and stepped in the footprints of the stars.  That was fun and also daunting to find out that the icons I grew up, such as John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe are already losing their glimmer.  Neither Michael nor Josh knew who John Wayne was and I think the only reason Josh knew who Shirley Temple was is because my Dad used to subject him to endless marathons and to Little Rascals.

But the more important reason for driving out to Hollywood was to go the Army/Navy store on Century Blvd. to buy Michael a new suitcase.  Anastasia had taken him suitcase shopping before he left, and although the big nylon bag with wheels that she helped him find fit the magnificence of gifts for his family and extended family, when Josh picked it up to move closer to the door in preparation for our taxi ride to the airport it tore in half.  Panicked, we thought we'd have to spring for another large bag, when Jen had the great idea of buying a cloth duffle at a Army/Navy store.  It turned out that the closest one was in Hollywood, so while Michael, Rick, Teddi, Olivia, and Aiden waited for us on the Sidewalk of the Stars, Jen and I rushed the four blocks down Century to buy the bag.  We saw exactly what we needed--a big kahki regulation duffle for only $20.00.  It fit all of Michael's gifts with room to go!  And it even fell within the airline's baggage requirement and Michael wasn't charged any extra money for it as he was on the way to CA.

Teddi's Michigan friends who live in LA--Lara and Brett--came for dinner at Jen and Glenn's and gave us a send off, with one freak misfortune:  Lara hit the brick wall of Jen and Glenn's neighbor pulling out.  Her car wasn't even scratched and she was fine, but the wall did get pretty damaged--that and the news the day before about the Quantas explosion on a plane en route from London to Australia, made us only slightly a little bit jittery.

Friday, July 25, 2008

This night is crazy because we're leaving tomorrow.  How is it possible to pack for winter in Australia when it is over ninety degrees outside?  I had to rifle through my closet for my winter coat, which is not something I wanted to be doing in August.  The wool is super itchy.  I didn't have the heart to look for my scarf and gloves.  

Besides the cruelty of traveling into Winter, something else happened.  Michael hurt his knee playing soccer and will probably need to get an operation when we return.  I just emailed Qantas Airlines to order him a wheelchair.  We had debated whether his uncle should pick us up at the airport or if we should go to Michael's family in a taxi.  It would be great to get picked up at the airport, but if Michael's mother is tempted to go along, then the first sight she would get of Michael would be in a wheelchair.  That's how we made the decision to go to them by taxi.  Michael bought a carved wood cane to help him walk, which would be a little better for him to use than the wheelchair.  Either way, it is a pity that this happened right before our visit.
Fortunately, Michael's mother knows that he has been playing soccer on a Sudanese team in Philadelphia and on his college team and that he was even awarded MVP in 2006 when Chestnut Hill College won their league championship.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Two weeks to go!

July 16, 2008 
I'm getting so excited about the trip that I can't sleep. I lie awake until 3 AM with my heart beating fast or skipping beats. I've had this problem ever since I was a child.  When I get really excited about something I either stop being able to sleep or come down with a fever. I haven't gotten a fever yet, but I will if I can't manage to get enough sleep!

Yesterday Michael and I went shopping for him to pick out some gifts for his mother and sister. We met at the handbag counter at Macy's because I thought we would buy his mother a beautiful Lucky bag.  The problem was that they were all too expensive--$175.00 and up.  So we looked at some jewelry instead.  Michael picked out a beautiful pair of dangling gold earrings with little flowers on them for his mother.  Then we bought her a gold Fossil watch.  Jewelry seemed like a better gift anyway.  Michael did buy a Lucky shoulder book bag for his sister.  It is canvas and leather with colorful flowers on it.  His sister, who is 15 years old, should really love it!

After we finished shopping, I drove Michael to his car and we got to talk some.  I've been reading a book on the Dinka, with the old-fashioned title: Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan, by C.G. Seligman that was published in 1930 and I wanted to ask Michael about one of the Dinka beliefs Seligman discusses.  The belief is that certain clans speak of animals as their ancestors, not in a Darwinian sense, but in the sense of actually being a member of their family, kind of a half-human, half-animal relation.  You see this in a lot of the Dinka folk tales.  Characters in the tales collected by Francis Deng in his book, Dinka Folktales, often have half-animal parents or siblings. 
Seligman reports that each clan has a special relationship with an animal and says that it is customary for them to avoid eating their totem animal and instead to show it reverence.  I asked Michael if this is true and he told me that his clan, Juet, holds a snake as their totem animal. He said that when he was a child, snakes were free to crawl around in his hut and onto people, up their arms and onto their shoulders and around their necks, and they never bite anyone.  He said it used to really freak him out and that he was afraid of snakes, but that these snakes never harmed anyone in his family.  They might harm people outside his clan.  

Seligman talks about a Dinka man sprinkling dust on a snake's back in the forest for fear that the snake might think he is unfriendly and try to bite him.  If the snake did get angry, then the man himself would die before thinking of killing the snake.  He writes that "this man's children show the same reverence for the snake as their father." (Seligman 143).

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


By Michael Kuch with Harriet Levin Millan

This first-person account tells the story of refugee Michael Kuch’s journey as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Harriet Levin Millan Director of The Drexel University Writing Program and the author of The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) interviewed Kuch and pieced his answers together in fluid prose.

These scars on my forehead? These are not my initiation scars. They are not the scars a boy gets when he goes into the forest to become a man. I did not live in my village and with my family long enough. Initiation happens to boys when they are somewhere around 10 years old. I was much younger when I was forced to seek a home elsewhere. These are razor blade scars. When I was about 5 years old I had some problems with my eyes — maybe just some dirt in my eyes — I don’t know how serious it was, and my grandmother cut my forehead with a razor blade to improve my health. I still remember the pain. The blood. I didn’t like my grandmother after that. Her name was Nyankuerdit. The “it” at the end of her name means “big,” a sign of respect like you would say in English, my esteemed Grandmother Nyankuerdit.

The government systematically planned to destabilize my village, Bor, in southern Sudan, because it was the home of John Garang, the man who started the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and began the rebel uprising. My village was attacked at night. Planes bombarded it with bombs and set it afire. My family was scattered. I joined a crowd of people and walked with them. When I first started walking I wore shoes, but this walk went on for three months and most of it I did barefoot.

There are two seasons in the Sudan, the dry season and the rainy season. This happened during the dry season, which is hot, windy and humid. We walked at night to avoid the hot sun and the winds, and because we’d be less thirsty. The problem with walking at night is that there are wild animals, which attack people. I saw lions and hyenas attack and kill people in my group. Another reason we walked at night was because we were walking though a war zone.

Even though I was so young, I was conditioned for the walk because I had spent many days with my siblings in the forest learning how to hunt animals. I was already skilled at learning how to survive. We walked days without food. Some of the walkers ate wild plants and others ate mud, which attached to their insides and killed them. It took me a long time after I moved to America to get accustomed to eating meals. For a year or so I only ate once a day, and still, I don’t eat a meal the way you do.

After three months of walking, I arrived at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. It was 1991 and Ethiopia was undergoing its own troubles with Eritrea. A civil war was breaking out and almost as soon as I had arrived, I had to leave abruptly in the middle of the night. This time it was the rainy season and the Nile, which runs through all of eastern Africa, was flooded. Not many of us knew how to swim. There are tribes who have always lived by the Nile. In fact, they are called Nilotes. These people knew how to make dug-out boats from trees. I was lucky enough to get a spot in one of the boats, but other people were pulled across the river with rope attached to the boats. I saw many people drown in that river. I also saw crocodiles in that river attack people.

I couldn’t make it back to Bor because it was so far away. Instead, I stopped at an Internal Displaced Persons Camp called Pachalla where food and medical attention were provided. But again, just as I was settling in, more violence broke out. Planes bombarded the camp day and night and it became unsafe to stay. It took me one month to walk to another refugee camp, Kakuma, in Kenya. I stayed at Kakuma for eight years, all that time learning how to survive in the camp, which meant learning how to live in a very small space with tension — clashes over food and water, and avoiding the Turkana, the tribe who lived nearby and often attacked refugees outside the camp.

In 2000, I got an offer from the U.S. state department to come to the U.S. I struggled with this decision, which meant leaving Africa, perhaps forever. I still didn’t know if my family, particularly my mother, was alive. Just about that time, I was united with three of my brothers and sisters, who it turned out had also come to Kakuma. Then, all of us were given the chance to immigrate to Philadelphia.

I always feel called to go back to Sudan. The whole American experience, the chance to get my B.A. here, and now, applying to graduate school, is an opportunity, but I will always want to go back and do more.


An interview with Sudanese refugee and UPenn student Ahmed Elmardi
By Lea T. Burns, Drexel University Student

They either kill you, or you leave the country,” says Ahmed Elmardi, speaking about the National Islamic Front (NIF) that took over the government of Sudan in 1989, shortly before he came to the United States.

Now a resident of Philadelphia, Elmardi was once an artist and university professor in Khartoum, Sudan. Although he had plans to leave Khartoum with a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and an acceptance into its MFA program in painting, the NIF interfered.

“They changed the laws so that the government could hire and fire as they pleased,” he says. “They prepared a long list of people to fire from universities. I was one of those people.”

Elmardi says the regime targeted the universities first because there was potential power in the student movement. At one time, students were able to change the government through strikes and demonstrations. Elmardi remembers the October Revolution in 1964, when students from the University of Khartoum banded together with the trade unions and successfully overthrew Ibrahim Abboud’s military dictatorship in Sudan. Since then, governmental changes in how universities are run prevent anything like that from happening now.

“They deliberately worked to deprive the country from its soul,” he says. “Artists, musicians and poets were all forced or encouraged to leave the country one way or the other.”

Along with many of his colleagues and other community intellectuals, Elmardi was arrested and imprisoned without reason. Calmly, he recounts his time spent in the detainment center. He explains that in order to maintain a sense of fear and minimize any resistance in the Sudanese people, the prisoners were tortured — or worse. Elmardi specifically remembers one of his fellow detainees, a pilot, taken from his cell and hanged.

“At that time they were very harsh,” says Elmardi. “They didn’t even care if you were related to one of them.”

After a month in the detainment center, Elmardi was released. As to why, he cannot say. He assumes that they let him go because they knew he was accepted into the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think I was lucky,” says Elmardi. “Especially because if I stayed there I don’t know what would have happened to me. I remember walking to the plane and looking behind me to see if anyone was following.”

Life as an immigrant in the United States has been far from easy. “I found myself without a Social Security number,” he says. “I thought, so what can I do now? I tried to drive a cab but I didn’t last more than one week. That wasn’t me.”

Elmardi says the immigrant people’s ability to bounce back is remarkable. Even the ATM machines posed serious problems for the Sudanese who came to the United States in the 1990s because they never had to use one before. So many years later, Elmardi believes that the Sudanese community has gained its footing.

“They have built their lives,” he says. “By now many have their own houses. It is very interesting to see how people have all this resilience.”

After completing his MFA in painting from Penn and starting his own graphic design company, Elmardi is surprised at how long he has been in Philadelphia. “In the beginning I thought, I am here only for a short time,” he says. “And now this is really half of my adult life — 18 years.”

With his wife, Iman, and 9-year-old son, Monier, in Philadelphia, Elmardi says it is too late for him to return to Sudan, despite his love and attachment to the country.

“A lot of my friends are not there anymore,” he says. “It is just too much to deal with. I have my son doing quite well in school. So to take him back there, to start again — the threat is still there. It would not be good for him and it would not be good for me, either.”

Asked to compare Khartoum and Philadelphia, Elmardi speaks in visual terms. He mentions that Khartoum suffers a lot from sandstorms, making the city look brown. He also says that shadows are much stronger in the cities in Sudan because the light is more intense. Still, continents apart, Elmardi can draw similarities between his native city and his new home. He sees shapes, shadows and lines that bring back memories of his life in Khartoum.

“Sometimes I am driving and I think I am home,” he says with a smile.

Currently, Elmardi is focusing on his art, which includes sculpture, mixed media and animation. With his wife, he started a Web site for contemporary Sudanese artists around the world. He says the site is an important tool because it educates viewers on contemporary art from Africa’s largest country and exposes Sudanese artists to an international audience.


An interview with Darfur refugee Fatima Haroun
By Sarah Mason, Drexel University Student

Fatima Haroun’s delicate handshake reveals nothing of her tormented life back in Darfur. Today she is a social worker for the City of Philadelphia, a mother, and the vice president of the Darfur Alert Coalition, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia.

Darfur is under the rule of “dictators who discriminate,” she says.

“Those who are not favored are marginalized,” says Haroun. “People like me don’t find many chances in our country for work and education.”

Survival, however, was the primary reason for Haroun and her family to come to the United States.

“The government [of Darfur] is racist,” she says, “killing the darker-skinned people first because there is hate and jealousy. Darfur is the second darkest region. They see the natural resources in these areas and want them, and use the Christian religion as a cover, saying they are killing them in a ‘holy war.’”

The villages surrounding Nirtity, her birth village, were systematically destroyed.

“The people came and attacked the village and set fire to everything,” she says. “Because of the noise, people came running, and they shot right at them. The elderly were burned, just like that,” she says, flicking her hand.

“They wanted to kill boys because they wanted to make the tribes weaker. They would take valuables before burning the villages, and they took my father’s mill and some corrugated metal and destroyed and hid them, because they wanted to destroy people economically.”

Haroun does not see the situation in her homeland changing anytime soon, pointing out that the president of Sudan recently appointed a suspected Janjaweed leader as his new adviser. “Janjaweed” translates to “devils on horseback.”

Haroun plans to get her master’s degree in the U.S., most likely in social work, and then return to Sudan to pursue her dream of running for parliament.

“I will work for stability,” she says, “and return when there is finally a peace that I agree with.”

Haroun believes that the international community has not done enough to stop the atrocities in Darfur.

“They announce this is genocide, but still didn’t take the right action,” she says. Haroun believes that the U.S. government has proven reluctant to help because of a past relationship with Sudan involving Osama bin Laden. As a result, she says, only non-governmental organizations are sending relief.

She urges all Americans to contact their congressional representatives and to spread the word.

“People need to put more pressure on the government to help, because political help is a necessity,” she says.

Much of Haroun’s family is still in Africa, including her brother, whose dream, she says, is to come to the U.S. and marry a woman here. Haroun also desperately wants to bring her father here, but cannot because she needs documented proof he held a presence in her childhood.

“I don’t know how to prove it,” she says with frustration. “It hurt me when they told me that.” She pauses. “I will bring him.”

She says the Sudanese community throughout the U.S. is committed and conflicted.

“We are trying to place ourselves and participate and contribute, and at the same time, trying to keep our culture to have our children learn,” she says. “We want to establish a community and build and organization to benefit and enable us to teach our children our language and culture.”

Haroun hopes that the City of Philadelphia can help the Sudanese community here “to build and fulfill our dreams in the new land.”

More information on the Darfur Alert Coalition: Sarah Mason is a senior at Drexel University.


The story of Sudanese refugee Nyoun Yok Gargik
By Titus Codjoe and Brett Haymaker, Drexel University Students

The following was adapted as a first-person narrative by Brett Haymaker and Titus Codjoe.

My name is Nyoun Yok Gargik. My mother gave me my first name and I inherited my last name from my father. It is a strong name, strong because my mother gave it to me and because it refers to a building material composed of cement and grass that we use in Sudan. I do not know the year of my birth.

One memory I have is drinking fresh milk we collected from the cows at our cattle camp with some other boys — a far cry from the Ph.D. I am now pursuing at Drexel University to become an electrical engineer.

I remember the day my mother came with a policeman to the cattle camp holding a telegram message from my father. My father had been in Kosti, north of Leir, working as a businessman along the White Nile River, and he wanted us to move there. I was too young to realize the telegram concerned the fighting. I was excited about the prospect of travel.

It was not until years later, after many nights staying up with my father listening to Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) news reports, when I would come to know of Islamic government soldiers burning villages and bombing cattle camps in the south. Leir, my home region, became a battleground. I was lucky. I never saw any rebels.

I moved to Rufah to attend boarding school in 1993. I remember a man at the school who spoke speculatively about Islam and often made religious jokes — something you just did not do. Word spread. Islamists climbed the walls and cut the power so nobody could be seen. They broke into his room and slit his throat with a knife because he spoke badly about Islam. His blood was on the walls.

In 1996, I graduated from school in Rufah and gained admittance into Khartoum University, located in North Sudan. Although I was admitted, I could not begin my studies for another year and a half. There were no students. They all joined to fight for the government, burning crops, bombing cattle camps and tearing down homes built of the material from which I’m named.

North Sudan is dominated by Islam. I am Christian. I am the minority. In Khartoum, I was the enemy.

After some time at the university, I led a bible study group. I received threats often, but there were others that shared my faith, and I was not alone. We knew of the unwritten law to not “reach out” to Muslims, but we organized a “Bible exhibition” anyway so we could demonstrate our faith to others.

A few Egyptian men who were part of our group did not show up the day of the exhibition. They had seen the written warning from Islamists posted the day before, threatening violent demonstration. Even professors from the university signed the warning. We propped up our tent and laid bibles out on tables. There were 15 of us, so when the 300 Islamic students showed up with sticks, throwing rocks and wielding knives, we ran for our lives.

Rocks flew into the tent striking peoples’ heads. A group of men cornered a friend named Peter, which is the English equivalent of his Arabic name. Peter was light-skinned, and did not look southern. They yelled at him, hitting him with sticks saying, “You are not from the South, why are you Christian?” Some protesters did not know what to do because he looked innocent, but Peter was trapped in a corner. A man knifed Peter’s side. He fell to the ground. Blood stained the walls built of cement and grass. All the Bibles burned.

This clash happened on a Saturday. The next day, Sunday, students from Juba University — a southern Sudan School — stormed Khartoum, climbing over the fences. Juba brought many people to chase the few Islamic students and faculty into nearby mosques, threatening to burn down the buildings with the people still inside. I heard people say these things, but I did not support this. I did not want to waste more human life. Luckily, nobody went through with it and the mosques remained.

I pursued legal action against the demonstrators. My lawyer was Arab and Muslim. Because I was a Christian, he did not do anything. The case never went anywhere. He even cursed me out when I questioned him about it.

A few of the demonstrators were connected with Sudanese Security, an organization similar to the Secret Service in the United States. My case against them made me a target, like the man killed at my school for talking badly about Islam. In Sudan, it is very common for people to be taken in the night. Many pastors of churches disappeared this way.

My nights became sleepless. I feared for my life and knew I could not stay. I applied for a U.S. student visa and was granted political asylum. I moved to Columbia, S.C., to live with a Sudanese man I knew from childhood. From there I moved to Indianapolis, Ind. I was not working and had little money. It was in Indianapolis where I learned of the “Lost Boys” community in Philadelphia. An American family in Jenkintown, who were members of the New Life Presbyterian Church, took me in. I’ve been in Philadelphia ever since.

One day I will help in building a stronger Sudan — one whose boundaries do not reflect the composition of the North or the composition of the South but of one united, composed Sudan.


Interview with Darfurian refugee Amira Tibin
By Shazia Mehmood, Drexel University Student

Unable to hold back her tears, Amira Tibin speaks of the recent government-backed attacks in Darfur that killed her uncle and left 200 people dead.

Tibin, 39, was born and raised in Al-Fashir, the capital of Darfur. In 1985, when Tibin was 15, fighting erupted.

“The government was not trying to find a solution,” Tibin explained. “The government was part of the problem. When the fighting started, they gave weapons to the tribes to fight against one another.”

The standing government has received international accusations for oppressing non-Arabs and supplying the Arabs with ammunitions. Although the two groups have historically coexisted in Sudan, Tibin discussed the cause of the current conflict:

“Colonization was part of it, but the government in Sudan widened the conflict. By giving weapons to the Arab tribes, racism resulted.” In a country full of rioting, Tibin explained, the government did not fulfill its duty to establish justice.

Tibin’s husband, Ibrahim, brought her near the people in power. Omar Al-Bashir, the current leader of Sudan, was raised in the same village as Ibrahim. Although they were close as children, their beliefs became polar opposites. When the rioting started, Ibrahim realized the government’s role in the conflict, and called a meeting with Al-Bashir. In doing so, he put his life on the line to speak out against the injustice.

Eventually Ibrahim escaped to Yemen with Tibin and their daughter, Emtithal. In Yemen, Tibin bore another daughter, Afaq. Tibin could not imagine leaving Africa, as her extended family was still in Sudan. However, she felt like an outsider living in Yemen, so she entered the lottery for immigration to the U.S.

“I did want my children to get a good education in America. But how could I be happy leaving my people in Sudan, when there is still so much suffering?” Tibin said.

After she was settled in the United States, Tibin and her family knew that they had to go back to Sudan to help others. They stayed in Sudan for six months in 2000.

“At that time,” Tibin recalled, “there were protests on the streets. Schools were closed because the government wasn’t paying teachers anymore. I saw people dying in front of my eyes. People were not only shot in the middle of the streets, but also in their houses. The Janjaweed could come any time and kill you, even during the day.”

“Janjaweed” translates as “the devil on the horse” — soldiers who rode into the cities with guns and bombs, attacking innocent civilians.

“While we were in Sudan, my daughters were very close to my younger brother, Saif, who was only 17 years old,” Tibin said.

Saif had plans to attend college, but the government forced men to join the national defense military.

“I told him not to go. But he had no choice. They would come into his house and take him if he didn’t go then,” Tibin said.

Tibin visited Sudan again in 2005. Saif was nowhere to be found. Tibin paused before discussing these deeply entrenched memories:

“We looked everywhere, called everyone, and traveled throughout Sudan. To this day, he is still missing.” Tears began to flow slowly from Tibin’s eyes, as she spoke of him.

Another one of Tibin’s brothers, Abdul, also served in the military, and his experiences have left him scarred. After serving his time, he was traveling back home, when bombing broke out. His closest friends were killed right in front of him. He survived by finding shelter under a bridge. The resulting psychological effects turned him into a quiet, reserved man, hopeless about the situation in Darfur.

Along with her two daughters, Tibin now has two sons, Imam, 5, and Abdullah, 7 months. When asked if she was happy, Tibin responded by saying, “No, I am not happy. I do like that my children are receiving an education, but I will never be able to forget about my people in Sudan. We receive calls frequently with news of another family member’s death. Just yesterday … the rioting. The problem has not been solved in Darfur, and until then, I cannot be happy.”

Despite the losses Tibin has faced, her desire to work toward peace in Sudan has grown even stronger. She is currently actively involved in a local grassroots organization, Darfur Alert Coalition (, to respond to the ongoing aggression in Darfur.

Tibin says that her great-grandparents’ stories of the beautiful city of Al-Fashir, filled with nomads, farmers, and businessmen working together peacefully have remained in her heart.

Shazia Mehmood, a senior at Drexel University, is a pre-medical student, majoring in history and political science.

War in Darfur

War in Darfur
by Emtithal Mahmoud (Tibin’s daughter)

The merciless soldier,
With a heart that’s a boulder,
Blinded by fear,
Desperate cries for help, he’ll never hear.
Roaming the streets with a charred black soul,
No one is safe, not woman not man, not young and not old.
Knowledge is forcibly pushed aside,
Because power has now taken the stride.
What was once a sanctuary, a haven for all,
Is now no haven, but a place where innocent lives did fall.
What’s going on is a senseless, cold hearted war;
Bad against good, strong against weak, all in Darfur.
Possessions are gone, everything is wrong.
People aren’t happy, and homeless and hungry,
Worst of all is that no one is free.
Families are shattered, in this big bloody battle.
Good people loose jobs
And are replaced by slobs.
No female is safe,
Because she is a subject to rape.
People are murdered throughout the nation,
Because of this, mostly orphans make up the population.
There is no respect and there is no pride,
The only thing there is, is GENOCIDE.
I believe it’s time to put this to an end,
For there are lives to defend.
Take action, or sit in grief? If you still don’t know
which side to choose,
Ask yourself one question, “What did the children do?”


An interview with Sudanese refugee James Lual
By Monica Singh and Amy Brammell, Drexel University Students

As young boy living in Ajueny — a Dinka village of 5,000 in southern Sudan — James Lual and other children would work together from nine to six each day, tending the goats and cows in cattle camps on the outskirts of the village. Isolated, Ajueny did not immediately receive news of the war in Sudan, and village elders were unable to explain the drastic changes that Lual would soon experience.

He watched while older boys left the village to fight the government. “I didn’t know why my cousins were leaving. It wasn’t until I saw a plane go and drop bombs that I knew what was happening.” When government soldiers set fire to Lual’s village, he was forced at gunpoint from his home.

Wearing a hand-me-down school uniform and a pair of bedroom slippers cut from rubber tires, Lual walked with a growing number of boys to Ethiopia, 500 miles away. On the emotionally painful and physically dangerous journey across the desert, the boys were plagued by starvation, thirst and wild animal attacks. Lual carried only a water container.

“It was so painful to carry above my head or by my side, but I couldn’t throw it away,” Lual says. After nearly three months of walking, Lual reached Pinyudo, the first of three refugee camps he’d call home over a period of 10 years. There was little food at the camp and the boys relied on fishing and foraging in the jungle for food. Six months later the United Nations became involved, providing food, clothing and shelter. They sent adults to help care for and teach the displaced children, now deemed “unaccompanied minors.” (Lual’s father had been killed; his mother was lost to him somewhere in southern Sudan.)

It was here that the importance of education took root for Lual. “Our first school was under the trees. We would sit on stones and use the dirt as notebooks. We learned our ABCs and 123s,” he says. Each day, boys were recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). “I was so excited about the SPLA recruiting kids. I wanted to join the army. Either you could go and kill or be killed, or die in the camp. Because of my size, I was turned down,” he says. Lual remained behind in Pinyudo for four years, continuing to learn, until another civil war broke out, this time in Ethiopia and the camp was no longer a safe place to stay.

In a struggle to survive, Lual and the other boys began another trek, this time across the flooded Gila River back to Sudan as shots were fired. “There was blood in the water. People would hold onto you until you were both dead. I was lucky that I learned to swim in Ethiopia,” says Lual. When he arrived in Pachala, a camp on the border between Ethiopia and Sudan, it took time for the United Nations to find a way to provide sufficient aid.

“A cup of beans would be rationed for seven people and would have to last five days,” Lual says. Soon the Sudanese government discovered Pachala, and boys were forced to dig holes in the ground to try to protect themselves from the bombing that ensued. Pachala was invaded by ground troops, and Lual was once again forced to move, walking along the border to Kenya.

“The 15-and-unders were taken on the UN convoy trucks. It was so crowded that people stood on top of each other, but I felt lucky to get a ride,” Lual says.

Eventually he reached Kakuma, the final destination for most refugees — a hot, dry desert region with no river. The camp here was very crowded. The UN provided a water tank for the refugees three times a day. People woke up at four each morning to get in line. The Sudanese refugees were often attacked by local tribes who had too little food themselves.

Life became more permanent, and shelters and schools made of mud and thatch were erected. Kenyan teachers were hired and paid to teach the boys, though many were understandably more concerned with getting up early to stand in the water line and to obtain their daily food rations. Lual did not miss the opportunity for education. Living without his parents, “Education was the only opportunity for me. I didn’t take it simple like the other boys who dropped out,” he says.

In 1997, the United States developed a program to relocate the “unaccompanied minors.” Immigrating to the United States was a dream still very far in the distance. He had learned not to get his hopes up over the long year of interviews with U.S. officials. Lual’s perseverance paid off when he received a letter from the United Nations, offering him the opportunity to live to the United States.

In 2001, Lual arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City around 9 p.m. A short flight to Philadelphia delivered him to Janet, a member of Lutheran Children’s Services (LCS) helping Sudanese refugees get settled. On his way to Quakertown, Lual went to his first McDonald’s, and learned how to pronounce “water.” At 20 years of age, Lual’s life in the United States had just begun. Quakertown church members working with LCS volunteered their time to taking care of him and getting him prepared for the GED and then enrolled at Bucks County Community College.

Even as life changed dramatically for Lual, a “Lost Boy” far from his native land, education remained critical in shaping his future. Today, Lual is a Chestnut Hill College graduate with a degree in political science. For the past six years, he has lived with his “mother,” Doris Brown, and recently with another helpful woman, Martha Fisher. Now 27, Lual works with Global Education Motivators as a public speaker at schools, libraries, and humanitarian organizations to tell his story and to make people aware of the suffering in Sudan and Darfur. He’s in the process of applying to graduate school with hopes of someday working for the United Nations.

Amy Brammell and Monica Singh are students at Drexel University.


A moment with Darfur activist Dr. Abdelgabr Adam
By Gilbert Flores and Marisa McStravick, Drexel University Students

Dr. Abdelgabr Adam, trained in the Sudan as a gastrointestinal doctor, was born in Nyala, Darfur, 54 years before political strife plagued his homeland. Today, Darfur is the home of an ongoing military conflict. In April 2005, the Coalition for International Justice estimated 400,000 deaths since conflict arose in Darfur — the land Adam fights so hard for today.

“No one knows exactly how many were killed. It was like flying over an open cemetery. You could only see bones. No one will tell you how many died,” says Adam, describing what he saw during a flight in a small plane over a ravaged village.

In all, some 4,700 villages were struck by the genocide, each one’s 100-200 inhabitants dying from drinking water from poisoned wells, gunfire or starvation. “People are in a hurry. Mothers are forced to tie their small children to donkeys’ backs and let them go. They know they must choose between their own survival or death for the entire family,” says Adam.

The genocide in Darfur began in the early 1980s, but according to Adam, political oppression has existed for a long time. While in his 30s, he held the role of a special envoy, a position he compares to that of a political ambassador. He communicated with foreign countries, explaining Sudan’s horrifying situation and the ongoing oppression. It was a dangerous job, and when Islamic extremists took power in 1989, Adam was forced to flee Africa. He found political asylum in the United States.

During his first several years in the U.S., Adam traveled continuously until settling in Philadelphia in 2001. He became actively involved as a Darfur activist, speaking at rallies at colleges and universities. “It was not easy to convey the message because the international communities were not involved,” Adam recalls.

He was elected president of the Sudanese Association of the Greater Philadelphia in 2001-02, and helped to form the Western Sudan Association of Philadelphia. These days he’s president of the The Darfur Human Rights Organization, which he founded.

Spreading awareness is the key, he says. “Let what happened in Darfur be known.” He urges Americans to donate clothes, shoes, school supplies and relief items to people living in refugee camps. According to Adam, everyone can be a Darfur activist by urging people to make donations and participate in rallies. Above all, he asks Americans to donate their time to educating themselves about genocide.

To donate clothing, money or school supplies directly to Darfurians living in refugee camps, contact Dr. Abdelgabr Adam and the Darfur Human Rights Organization at


A Darfurian refugee raises awareness and expectations for the people left behind
By Garelnabi Abusikin with Deborah Yarchun, Drexel University Students

Deborah Yarchun, a Drexel University screenwriting and playwriting student, sat down with Darfurian survivor Garelnabi Abusikin and interpreter Dr. Abdel Gabar Adam. These are the words Abusikin asked her to share.


I have a basement in my home. It is filled with people’s shirts and shoes, 22 large sacks of clothes, 400 pounds of jeans, 12,000 pairs of flip-flops and about 40 Eagles hats. If you give me a shirt, I have a big basement. Everything that goes there is used. There is never enough. There are 420,000 refugees. Everything I get — I will take back.

I come from Darfur.

I was born in 1982 and when I was 5 years old, I listened to my mom and dad say, “Today, the Sudan government killed people.” My father was a chief of the Zaghawa tribe and a leader in Karnoi. Growing up as the son of a chief, on a daily basis we heard of people being killed. I’m 12 and the Janjaweed comes I hide inside with my family and when we emerge two days later, I find my uncle slaughtered, his throat slit ear to ear.

In 1999, I helped bury the bodies of 92 men killed while digging clean wells to provide water for the people. I’m 18 and bombs fall on our village, destroying Karnoi. I see the People’s Defense Force, the Janjaweed and the Sudanese army kill my uncles, my cousins, my brothers-in-law and about 100 of my friends. I run with my mother and sisters with no plans and no directions. Those who go north go straight into desert. The ones who go south run into more Janjaweed. We were lucky to go west and cross into El Fasher.

I have some photographs to show you. See this? This is my childhood friend, Shariff. In 2003 after escaping Karnoi, Shariff and I went to Al Neelain University in Khartoum. When we arrived, it was as if we are crazy and nothing happened. New skyscrapers are being developed and the people are happy. We heard nothing on the radio or in the newspapers about the murders. Nobody was speaking about it, because most did not know. The people in the U.S. know more about the genocide than the people in Khartoum. After witnessing the systematic murder of our people, Shariff spoke up. He led demonstrations in front of government buildings. “Stop poisoning the wells. Stop genocide in Darfur,” [he said]. At 10 a.m., I was having breakfast with him when an officer came in and shot him dead at close range in front of the students. I fled to Egypt and applied for refugee status with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

In the U.S., I spoke about Darfur. I testified for the Judgment on Genocide mock court held at the United Nations Church Centre in New York in November 2006. When the government in Sudan found out, they arrested my mother and sister. They beat my mother and shaved my sister’s head bald. They told my mother to tell me to be silent. My mother told me, “Don’t worry about us. We are like dead bodies who will never feel the skinning.” She told me to keep talking. To never stop talking. The more people talk about it, the fewer people die.

See this? This is my mother. This is my family. My little sisters. My baby brother. My aunt. They are now in a refugee camp in eastern Chad. My father is not there, because he stayed in Karnoi and was killed in another Janjaweed attack in 2005.

From Sept. 23 to Oct. 23, 2007, I went with the Darfur Human Rights Organization with the help of Amnesty International to the refugee camps. I saw my mother. I had not seen her in five years. She had changed so much, I could not recognize her.

In the refugee camps, the security consists of men, mothers and sisters and children with guns. The people are bone-thin. There is a riverbed, but it is dry. A few green containers with water dredged from the ground sustain the village. The people are not even waiting, they are enduring. Our roofless huts are of mud and sticks and sheets and the children huddle for shade against the sides. Each day is about existing.

There are many children, mostly orphans. My mother takes care of 17 of them. Sixty-five percent in each camp are children who never saw a father, but many times saw their mothers and sisters being raped. They are lucky to be alive, because when the villages were bombed, they ran and ran across the border to stay alive. They have no schools. They hardly have shelter or food to eat. Many will become soldiers and will be killed. They are hopeless, helpless. They have no future that they can see.

That is why I am going back.

In March, I will go back to the camps through the Darfur Human Rights Organization with president and co-founder Dr. Abdel Gabar Adam and other volunteers. We will bring clothes, food and medical supplies. We hope to continue our mission every three months with the goal of reaching the people four times a year. We are still looking for donations and money to purchase a water pump, which is needed desperately. One machine can supply clean water for 4,000 people daily.

When I return to the U.S., I will continue to drive a taxi, gather clothes and learn English so that I speak about my story.

I will not stop speaking until what is happening in Darfur stops. We need you to listen.

To contribute relief donations to the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad, or have a representative from Darfur Human Rights Organization make a public presentation, call 267-784-7073.


An interview with Sudanese refugee Eltigani Abualgasim.
By B. Davin Stengel

Recently recognized as one of the best cab drivers in Philadelphia — nominated by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association — Eltigani Abualgasim used to be in a very different kind of transportation business, helping to deliver Red Cross messages across Sudan and reconnecting families torn apart by war.

“One of our main programs was for unaccompanied minors, who are called ‘Lost Boys’ here,” says Abualgasim. “We did a lot of missions to trace the relatives of these minors — in the mountains, in southern Sudan, through war zones … it was very difficult.”

A graduate of the University of Khartoum with a bachelor’s degree in geography and a diploma in economics and development, Abualgasim spent the 1990s working for the tracing department of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, where he led a team charged with helping concerned family members locate missing loved ones displaced by violence. In 2000 he traveled to Saudi Arabia where he lived for three and a half years before securing a visa to come to the United States, settling in Philadelphia in 2004.

“I left Sudan … before the war in Darfur started,” he says. “I was forced. The policy of the government is to drain the country of opposition.”

While Abualgasim has some extended family in the Philadelphia area, he is the only one of his siblings currently living in the United States, and the crisis in Sudan continues to affect his brothers and sisters directly. In 2006 his older brother, Abualgasim Ahmed Abualgasim — a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia and an opponent of the Sudanese government — was arrested by Saudi Arabian authorities and sent to Sudan, where he remained incarcerated for six months without ever being charged with a crime.

“He gave a talk at the Sudanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia, and the next day he was deported,” says Abualgasim. “When they brought him to Sudan, they tried to assimilate him by offering him an appointment as a minister. He refused.”

Abualgasim’s brother was released this past March, thanks in large part to the advocacy efforts of Amnesty International and other collaborative organizations. One of Abualgasim’s sisters was less fortunate. She resided in the Kuttum area of northern Darfur — where Abualgasim’s family is originally from — and died recently after being unable to seek medical treatment for a heart condition.

Here in Philadelphia, the situation in Darfur is never far from Abualgasim’s mind. He is active in a number of organizations — including the Sudanese National Rally, whose primary goal is to raise awareness among Sudanese living in the U.S. about ongoing human-rights violations in Sudan — and serves as volunteer director for Darfur Alert Coalition, a Philadelphia-area coalition of Sudanese and Americans offering educational programs and coordinating advocacy initiatives on behalf of the oppressed in Darfur.

Abualgasim clearly takes pride in his job, but he knows he won’t be driving a cab forever. “I want to go back to school to start my master’s degree,” he says. When asked what he plans to study, he says matter-of-factly, “Peace and conflict resolution.”


Interview with Isaiah Kuch, of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
By Patrick Rapa

In a way, it’s remarkable Isaiah Kuch still feels a connection to Sudan.

He was only 6 when civil war forced him and thousands of others out of their villages in the southern part of the country. After that, he spent about four years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and another eight in a camp in Kenya. In 2000, he and the other Lost Boys were relocated to the United States in search of education and safety. Kuch has lived in Philadelphia since then, studying and working.

Now, armed with U.S. citizenship and a degree in economics, it would seem like an easy choice to stick around and move on with his life.

Not Kuch.

“I will always believe one day I will go back to Sudan and make it my home again,” he says soberly. That’s a common sentiment among his fellow refugees. They want to return to the site of their most difficult times, where they lost their parents and siblings, to help the place build and develop.

When he wasn’t studying at La Salle University, Kuch was working several jobs and sending money back to his half sister and half brothers in Kenya. So far, he’s been able to make enough to get his siblings out of the Kakuma refugee camp and into school.

That was the place he called home the longest. It’s an immense camp set up by the United Nations to house refugees from Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. Only compared to Pinyudo — the initial makeshift settlement Kuch fled to in Ethiopia — does Kakuma look livable. “There was food, but not enough. Water, but not enough. Schools, but not enough qualified teachers,” recalls Kuch. Skipping meals was commonplace and education stopped at grade 12 (after that, you could be enlisted as a teacher yourself).

Kakuma was also the place the Lost Boys were finally old enough to understand their situation, as much as it can be understood. “When all that in Sudan started, nobody knew,” he explains. “You just think it’s a fight, you go and hide, it’s going to be alright. In the refugee camp you start going to school, you start asking the question why.”

When faced with the opportunity of being relocated to the U.S., he took it, though not without reservations. “You have to also keep in back of your mind: Is this taking me farther away from home? Most of us thought it couldn’t be worse than what we went through.”

So on a freezing cold day in November of 2000, Kuch’s plane touched down in Philadelphia. It was quite a shock to the system. He remembers back in hot, dusty Kakuma seeing a picture of Alaska and thinking he’d like to live in a place like that. “Alaska looks really beautiful in pictures,” he laughs. “We didn’t understand all that snow means cold.”

This year he’s gonna skip as much of the Philly winter as he can while visiting family in Kenya, Uganda and, if possible, Sudan. Kenya, once considered the most stable country in eastern Africa, is currently embroiled in social unrest surrounding its recent elections. Kuch isn’t scared. As long as the flights are still allowed in and out, he’ll be going.

And right now, the war in Sudan is quieted thanks to a peace agreement — though the situation in Darfur remains dire and some are skeptical about the government’s willingness to adhere to the concessions it’s made. While waiting to see how that plays out, Kuch is applying to grad schools.

“There is hope,” he says. “You can’t lose that. Once you lose that, you don’t have anything left. You got to have some hope or otherwise life is meaningless. That never goes away. However I do not cheat myself by believing that this hope is going to come easily. I do believe it’s going to be as complicated as my past. But one day, one time, it will come.”