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 first in a four-part series about the strange new life that lies ahead. View Part Two | View Part Three | View Part Four
to a new world,
a new home
Story by Pierrette J. Shields
Photos by Joshua Buck
The Daily Times-Call
Boulder - When they enter their two-bedroom Boulder apartment, the three teenagers are likely to click on the radio, dance a bit and sing along energetically with hip-hop lyrics while bopping their heads to the rhythm.
For good measure, one of the young women may turn on the television, too, causing the kind of cacophony not typically appreciated by older folks.
The scene is not unusual for Boulder, but the path the teens took to get there is vastly different from the one traveled by most young men and women to the college town. Their trek began when they were small, fleeing violence and murder in southern Sudan.
They walked — some through Ethiopia to Kenya, some directly to Kenya — to seek refuge from the war raging between the Islamic northern government and Christians and animists in the south. Their paths led to a refugee camp in Kenya’s Turkana district, where they lived for about a decade, and eventually a small religious school where they studied English in the hope of earning refugee status and clearing a path to the United States.
An alignment of sponsorships, funding, bureaucratic maneuvering and the willpower of a Boulder-based Jewish congregation blazed their trail.
For the three 18- and 19-year-old girls, and their three counterparts in a neighboring apartment, life in Boulder is full-on culture shock. Along with settling into the city’s pace and lifestyles, the women are learning their lives and bodies are no longer in constant peril, the food in their kitchen isn’t scarce, and there is no daily threat of rape or slavery.
Susan Nadai Moi, Margaret Ayaa Atiol, Grace Naboi Lokulang, Elizabeth Nakang Achulo, Susan Nakure Loricho and Stellah Nawi Lunyaramoi, all of the Dadinga tribe in southern Sudan, just one year ago were living in the Kenyan refugee camp Kakuma, whose population rivals Boulder’s.
They arrived in Boulder in mid-July, poised to live in the United States permanently like other Sudanese refugees who have sought to escape the constant grinding of conflict and death in their home country.
“We left many young women back in Sudan who are suffering,” Elizabeth said at a recent gathering. “Now it seems like light is shining upon our lives.”
The women’s apartment homecomings frequently top off days in which volunteers shuttle them from one task to the next — medical appointments, government registrations, ID acquisitions, bus tutoring sessions, English proficiency testing and, recently, registration for high school and college classes.
Now they are in their first months as refugees in Boulder, brought to the city and sponsored by the efforts of Congregation Har HaShem, a Jewish reform synagogue moved by Rabbi Deborah Bronstein’s powerful 2004 Rosh Hashanah sermon about the genocide in Sudan to make some sort of a change in the lives of those victimized.
Bronstein, in a recent service, recalled seeing Susan Moi, the first to arrive at DIA, for the first time.
“So tired and hungry and so dignified and so lovely,” she said, adding later and addressing the women directly, “All these people are so happy to see you. ... May you be blessed as you come here in God’s name.”
‘Never again’ drives congregation
Sudan has been immersed since 1983 in a complicated series of battles with government forces and inter-tribal conflict. Humanitarian groups tracking the ongoing bloodshed estimate that 2 million people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflicts.
In part, the congregation’s response to Bronstein’s sermon meant finding a way to directly help some of the girls languishing in the brutal aftermath of civil war attacks, left without real family ties and at the mercy of more powerful people in the refugee camp.
Girls and young women were endangered by the possibility of rape or being sold into marriage for dowries. The congregation was particularly driven by the Jewish saying “never again,” which grew in response to the Nazi extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.
Becky O’Brien, Sudan genocide response team coordinator for the congregation, said the first steps included working with Lutheran Family Services of Colorado and making contacts with a woman in Sudan who assisted in identifying and grooming 10 young women from the Kenyan Kakuma refugee camp for a potential move to the United States.
The work also inspired members of other religious groups to assist in Har HaShem’s efforts or to lay the groundwork to sponsor other refugees from Sudan.
The new Boulder residents are not originally from the Darfur region, which is most widely recognized in today’s world news for ongoing genocide. The women are from southern Sudan, where tribes about a decade ago suffered the same kinds of devastating attacks that Darfur faces now.
O’Brien said the congregation could not limit itself to helping those in Darfur, which is politically prohibitive, if not impossible, as the war there persists.
“Part of it was recognizing ... the parallels between the two conflicts,” O’Brien said. “What is happening in Darfur is what happened in southern Sudan.”
However, the congregation found a contact in Kakuma who proved to be the key to getting the teens out of the refugee camp.
Har HaShem initially started its Sudan response with a political action group that lobbies Colorado’s legislators. The plans expanded to refugee assistance.
“When we heard there was an opportunity to affect, impact a tangible number of real lives, we thought, we want that, too,” O’Brien said.
The congregation’s contact in Kenya, whom the Times-Call has agreed to keep anonymous because of the possibility of reprisals, at first selected 10 young women to apply for refugee status. Only six cleared all of the hurdles in the process, which culminated with an interview.
Now that the women are in Boulder, they have to meet a number of requirements to maintain their refugee status, including securing a job by their fourth month in the United States. For now, the congregation — with the assistance of a grant from the Lois Pope Life Foundation — is providing for them financially and serving as guides to their new community.
In part, their hosts from the congregation will lead them through the hurdles. Sudanese refugees who settled here before them also will lend support.
But mostly, the six have one another in Boulder, as they did in Kakuma.
Roads to explore, ways to travel
The RTD bus carried the young women from their apartments along Arapahoe Avenue to the Boulder County Department of Social Services near Iris Avenue and 30th Street in Boulder.
By this point, the women had been in the United States for about two weeks, and they and the volunteers assigned to work with them have been struggling to stay on top of needs.
They hadn’t, for instance, been on a grocery shopping trip in a week, and some of their American-style foods had proved befuddling.
The bus trip, though, was to lead to food stamps. Another grocery shopping trip was in the works.
Kate Beall, 19, was their host for the day. The agenda included cashing a government-issued check, setting up food stamps and learning the fine art of hopping buses to navigate Boulder.
Buses were to require additional lessons.
Grace often has served as the group’s spokeswoman. At the Boulder County Department of Social Services, she worked with a staffer set behind a window. Reasonably confident in her English, and outgoing, she said the group wants to learn its way around town on its own. It is difficult to learn to navigate a town through car windows, she said.
“What we require maybe is some bicycles so we can ride around and learn,” she said.
The hands-on lessons would be slower and more deliberate.
Along with more complicated tasks, like learning bus routes, early lessons included understanding the importance of refrigerating some kinds of food, answering a door when someone knocked, demystifying household appliances, and getting used to dozens of new people and a community with massive and ornate homes.
To be fair, Boulder is a community that many Americans take some time to get used to.
“I think they are doing great,” Beall said. “They are doing wonderful with so many new people and houses all the time.”
Their first six weeks included the first steps to learning U.S. culture and traditions. All of the young women have enrolled in school — four at Arapahoe Ridge High School in Boulder, and two at Front Range Community College in Longmont.
Education was among their primary goals coming to the United States. The culture of American schools will be a whole new challenge.
Welcome and thanks
Their voices carried lightly through the sanctuary of the synagogue on Aug. 18.
Several hundred gathered at Congregation Har HaShem to welcome the six young women for whom they had been waiting nearly two years.
The young women thanked their sponsors through song and ceremony.
Elizabeth offered quiet words of thanks and of her hopes. She worked to keep her nerves at bay and pored frequently over a sheet of notebook paper on which she had labored to write her speech in English.
“We are very eager to go to school to learn more,” she said.
Yet she didn’t forget their roots. She quietly remembered those still in the Kenyan refugee camp and those who never made it that far.
Elizabeth leapt from the stage, skipping the stairs and drawing some laughs for her unintended slapstick.
Grace mounted the stage next, carrying a hollowed gourd filled with water. Steeped in the gourd were a handful of branches that she used to shake droplets of water to anoint the congregation in a traditional ceremony intended to bless a journey.
Her path through the crowd was accompanied by the voices of the girls, rising together in a song that held the audience rapt.
With this, the women and the congregation formally greeted one another before breaking bread together in a small feast.
Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joshua Buck can be reached at 303-684-5229, or by e-mail at email@example.com.