Seme Anoka, secretary of Salt Lake City’s Christ for Nations Church, has collected stories of Southern Sudanese refugees living in Salt Lake City. The stories, along with music, customs and food, will be shared at the free event Their Stories, Their Way, part of Utah Refugee Month, on June 23 from noon to 2 p.m., at The Old School House (859 S. 800 East, Salt Lake City). Anoka spoke with City Weekly to share his own story.
Do you see similarities between the stories you collected?
One common thing among the refugee stories is they went through a lot of hardship before they came here. There was a huge influx of displaced persons from South Sudan to Khartoum. And their life in Khartoum was not easy. Most of them lived in the outskirts of the capital, and under very difficult conditions. There was a lot of suffering. Those who were in Khartoum, most came to Egypt, where they sought protection and eventually got resettled to the United States or Australia or Canada. Others went directly from Juba in South Sudan to neighboring East African countries—Kenya, Uganda. There are those who chose not to become refugees. And those who were lucky got opportunities to continue school in Europe. And there was another group who decided to go to the refugee camps, and there they suffered for at least two years.
Why did you leave Sudan?
There were some security issues. In Sudan, I worked as a teacher at a school for displaced persons. I had some issues with the security forces. The school where I was teaching was run by the Catholic Church, so from time to time I would be harassed by the security forces. It got pretty bad. I had a friend—he was a student, a medical student at the university—who was very vocal against the university, and his life was threatened and he decided to escape through East Sudan. But he never made it. We never heard from him again. After a while, we heard that he had been captured and, I think, killed. There are many sad stories. So I decided to seek refuge in Egypt.
Trying to leave sounds dangerous—how did you decide to take the risk?
I could have stayed, and probably nothing would have happened to me, but I didn’t want to take the chance. I worked for the church, and the government was cracking down on church schools and churches. Some churches were even being burned down. I just didn’t want to take a chance.
You’ve lived here 12 years—do you still face struggles as a refugee?
My struggles have been going on for 12 years. I have a degree in mechanical engineering; when I got here, I tried to go back to school. So I was working, going to school at the same time. I was able to finish my second degree in electrical engineering, but I haven’t been able to get an engineering job, so now I am pursuing graduate studies to improve my chances. Until May of last year, I was working for an electronics packaging company. Then I got laid off. I went back to Sudan after that, from June to December. Currently, I’m driving a cab to make ends meet.
What was it like going back to Sudan after 12 years away?
It was very exciting. I got to see my family after years of separation—my siblings in Sudan, my mother and other relatives. Things have changed a lot. I went and attended the independence celebrations. The good change is the war stopped. People are getting back to normal life, working, doing business. People are getting their lives together after the devastation of the war. The problem is the transition. We don’t have good governors; there is a lot of corruption in the government. There is still insecurity in some areas of South Sudan—skirmishes between rebel factions. We’ve had former SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] officers who’ve decided to defect because they didn’t get their share of government; they lost elections or were dissatisfied in some way and decided to also rebel against the government of South Sudan. It doesn’t make sense—they just came out of a very bloody war and then to decide to go back and fight again; people are tired of fighting.
Things don’t look too good. They probably got worse after I came back. There is fighting still between North and South over oil revenues and other economic issues that haven’t been settled with. With the independence of South Sudan, Sudan—North Sudan—stands to lose a lot, economically. There are still mediations going on, mediations from western countries, especially the United States. There are still outstanding issues; I think it will be a while before things settle down.
Is it difficult to be here in the states and just read about what’s going on?
It is difficult, because the best you can do is just second-guess our leaders and the decisions they’ve made. There are things that are very clear, mistakes they are making, that are very stark. All we can do is talk, express our opinions through the Internet or through some other media. But that’s not going to have much effect on the decision-making.
As refugees are here for a while, does it get easier or harder?
Socially, people are used to the system here, but then other challenges crop up. The main challenge I see is raising children. There is a woman whose story is very sad. She had two of her elder kids taken by child protection and put into foster care. She still has her other kids, but two of her other kids are in foster care. That’s one of the saddest stories I’ve heard. There’s a clash of cultures. You want to raise your kids according to your norms and traditions, but you also have to adjust. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s very challenging. I’m sure there’s no refugee family who will tell you there are no challenges.
And couples who separate after they get here—that’s another thing. They get here, and all the freedom that is here—freedom is good, but not always. The woman decides, “OK, I’ll do what I think is right,” and when they adopt the culture here, they clash with the husband. If there is no compromise, it ends up in separation, and that affects the children.
The Sudanese Community of Utah is trying to organize, in partnership with the University Neighborhood Partners, they have two grad students who are going to visit us and organize workshops to help families. I’m going to introduce them to some families here in the coming weeks. They want to understand the problems and then try to help with referrals, or training, provide some resources.
What do you hope that people will take away from the event?
I hope to consolidate the refugee stories that are already out there—the refugees have been here for a while, and many have told their stories, so ours add to what has already been told. And to expose us as a church to the refugee service providers to know us as a church, and hopefully we become partners in helping alleviate some of the problems that refugees face. As a church, our message is, of course, hope, and we have an outreach program that tries to help individuals and families that are part of the community we come from, the Sudanese community. We have many friends, and are still making new friends, and I’m sure we’ll continue to grow as a church and hopefully be a blessing to many families in the community. I think people are getting to know us. My hope is that this event will help expose us even more.
It seems the Sudanese living in SLC have a pretty strong sense of community—what contributes to that?
As a church, we’re very grateful to, first of all, our two pastors who have kept us together as a group—Youssef Alement and Margaret Duku. They are both refugees themselves and have had their own shares of challenges before and after they came to the United States. But even through the challenges they have been able to lead us to start the church. People don’t see what they do privately, but as leaders, members of the congregation can call them on their private time to help them resolve issues. They’re also involved in counseling individuals. We have a partnership with the Vine Institute—they’ve really been helping us over the past two or three years. And other churches like Miracle Rock, First Christian Reformed Church.