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Already, they have lived a lifetime. What now for six young women delivered from war-ravaged southern Sudan to Boulder this summer? This is the fourth in a four-part series about the strange new life that lies ahead. View Part One | View Part Two | View Part Three

Working, studying, living
Refugees from a war-torn country, these women make it work

Six months ago, six young Sudanese women waited in Kenya with their futures hanging on approval of their applications to become refugees.

Five months ago, one by one, the young women arrived in Boulder to begin new lives, using a new language among strangers.

Three months ago, they enrolled in school and began taking classes with American teenagers.

Now, they are all working after-school jobs, fulfilling a requirement that they must become self-sufficient to remain in the United States.

This month, they started paying their bills with money earned at their jobs at a Boulder Safeway store.

Susan Nadai Moi, Margaret Ayaa Atiol, Grace Naboi Lokulang, Elizabeth Nakang Achulo, Susan Nakure Loricho and Stellah Nawi Lunyaramoi, all 18 or 19, made the trip from Kenya to Boulder in July, capping about a decade of living in a refugee camp where they had struggled for education, worked for “foster” families and lived in fear of rape.

The women were separated as toddlers from their families when raids on their villages, similar to the ravages now gripping Darfur, played out in southern Sudan.

As teenagers, their lives took an unpredictable turn when the coordinated efforts of a Boulder-based Jewish congregation, nonprofit refugee organizations, a Dominican nun and numerous government agencies paved their way from Kenya to Boulder. Now they are building new futures, with a little help from a host of new friends and supporters.

Congregation Har HaShem was moved to action two years ago by Rabbi Deborah Bronstein’s sermon on the genocide in

Darfur, Sudan, in which she invoked images of the Holocaust and the Jewish “never again” stance.

The congregation then began to try to find ways to help the women affected by the genocide, given that the plight of the “Lost Boys” of the conflict had been well-publicized, while the women had less apparent help.

Contacts led them to identify 10 women in the Kenyan Kakuma camp, where, as orphans, the women were assigned to families, who used them for labor. Sexual assaults were an ever-present threat.

Six made the trip to Boulder, and, as refugees in the United States, the young women are now committed to futures that might allow them to someday return to Africa to help — as diplomats, doctors, journalists, each according to her own will and aspirations.

Those career aspirations  started in the breakroom at the Safeway store at Iris Avenue and 28th Street in Boulder, where the women were granted positions as courtesy clerks through a Lutheran Family Services relationship with Safeway Corp.

Each completed computer training, employee orientation and a rundown of the dress code. Their presence, accompanied by company managers, generated plenty of interest among staffers at the store, who seemed to make any excuse to cruise into the breakroom to try to assess the fuss.

There they found their future co-workers, tired from a day at school.

Jaime Koehler, lead employment specialist for Lutheran Family Services, said the women are thriving in Boulder and that an endless fountain of assistance from the congregation and other volunteers has smoothed the way.

Lutheran Family Services serves as the women’s official refugee sponsor, but Congregation Har HaShem does much of resettlement work through its Sudan program.

“The goal of the program is  self-sufficiency,” Koehler said of the Lutheran nonprofit’s refugee-resettlement program. “They are doing fairly well. They definitely did things quickly.”

 Through the coordination of local organizations, all six of the  women first interviewed with Safeway representatives at the Congregation Bonai Shalom synagogue, where they fielded questions about what they would like to do with their careers, identified their strengths and weaknesses, and submitted to oral drug tests.

Lutheran Family Services works with companies like Safeway to match refugees with work that suits their needs.

“We’re constantly doing outreach, so we’re always  looking for new employers,” Koehler said.

Elsie Walker, a Safeway employment specialist, said the company is enthusiastic about helping the women along as they adjust. She ushered them through the interview and orientation process and helped get all six women placed in a single Boulder Safeway after working with managers. The initial plan was to separate the women, but transportation logistics and scheduling were too cumbersome for that.

During orientation at the store a few weeks later, Walker did much of the talking as the women listened and shuffled through an intimidating stack of papers.

“What we’re going to do is have you be courtesy clerks,” Walker told the women. “It is a great position so you can get to know the store.”

And so they are.

The women now bring home paychecks that help support the two households they occupy. It is a world of difference from Kenya, from their war-ravaged histories.

Har HaShem’s work has inspired another Jewish congregation and a local Quaker group to sponsor additional refugees from the camp.

More women are scheduled to arrive soon, though timing is always a little bit fluid with such complicated arrangements.

They, too, will endure the shock of adjusting to life in Boulder — grappling with English and school, finding work and, of course, the shock of American cuisine.

But they will have experienced mentors in Susan M., Susan L., Margaret, Stellah, Grace and Elizabeth.

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