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 second in a four-part series about the strange new life that lies ahead.View Part One | View Part Three | View Part Four
Journey into a world of education
Story by Pierrette J. Shields
Photos by Joshua Buck
The Daily Times-Call
BOULDER — For about an hour on the afternoon of Sept. 19, there was no safe place to stand in or around the Bonai Shalom parking lot.
Six Sudanese young women, with no apparent fear and a dubious grasp of bicycle brakes, were test riding donated 10-speed and mountain bikes.
They pedaled through the empty lot — wobbly, at unreasonable speeds — shrieking with joy.
Grace Naboi Lokulang sat on a parking block and giggled impishly when her friend Stellah Nawi Lunyaramoi tilted precariously and toppled.
Margaret Ayaa Atiol, the group’s celebrated athlete, confident on two wheels, zoomed through the lot, belted out a far-too-late “excuse me,” and scattered a half-dozen people who had the misfortune of gathering in her path.
The evening’s lessons made their former home in the Kenyan refugee camp Kakuma seem a million miles away. Their decade-long journey — “safari,” in their native tongue of Swahili — to Boulder was momentarily forgotten as the volunteers from Boulder’s Congregation Har HaShem kept their minds on simply staying out of the women’s unpredictable paths.
Five of the women had reasonable bike skills, while Susan Nakure Loricho benefited from the help of lots of people who balanced her bike as she pedaled.
Grace looked on somewhat seriously.
“She’ll know very soon,” she said definitively.
Congregation Har HaShem helped bring the women, who are 18 and 19, to Colorado from the Kenyan refugee camp after Rabbi Deborah Bronstein two years ago delivered a sermon about the genocide in Sudan and the Jewish ethic, born of the Holocaust, to not stand by while others are killed. While the deaths continue to rack up in the western Sudan region of Darfur, the women are originally from southern Sudan, where similar conflicts played out when they were toddlers.
The young women, all from the Didinga tribe, had been separated from families and loved ones during brutal attacks. Like the Lost Boys of Sudan, they traveled on foot seeking refuge — some through Ethiopia, some through Sudan.
The congregation’s work with a contact in the Kakuma refuge camp allowed the women to apply for refugee status to the United States. Ten applied; six made it through.
Now they are in Boulder, settling into the American lifestyle and starting their education, formally in school and informally with volunteers from the congregation.
“We thought it would be good if we could get higher learning and get good jobs,” Elizabeth Nakang Achulo said.
Learning to ride bicycles on Boulder’s streets is one thing; negotiating the American educational system is an entirely different set of challenges.
In English, please
Elizabeth Nakang Achulo offered English speakers a handful of Swahili words and phrases that might be useful in Africa or when speaking with the women.
Habari yako: How are you?
Unire Maji: Give me some water.
School was at the top of the U.S. agenda for the young women. Susan Moi, Elizabeth, Stellah and Margaret are enrolled in ESL-focused classes at Arapahoe Ridge High School in Boulder, but because of enrollment age limits, Grace and Susan Nakure Loricho attend a GED class at Front Range Community College in Longmont and an ESL class in Boulder.
This early experience in American education is focused heavily on assessing the women’s education level and English skills, even if some of the academic meat may seem basic to them.
Hunkered over her mathematics homework after school on a recent afternoon, Margaret hardly puzzled over the multiplication, division and word problems. The television blared the musical movie “Grease,” which mostly drowned out the reggae on the stereo.
“They are not like in Africa,” Margaret said of her classes, pausing over the math homework, speaking only slightly above the volume of the song “Beauty School Dropout” on the television. “In Africa, classes are hard.”
Several of the women have echoed the sentiment.
For now, their classwork probably won’t reach the strenuous levels they were accustomed to in African classrooms, according to teachers and administrators at Arapahoe Ridge.
School officials are trying first to determine their English proficiencies because learning a language is mentally exhausting, and adding strenuous academic coursework on top of that could burn them out, according to principal Dave Krassowski.
“That is one of our biggest challenges, to know exactly what level they are at to make sure that we are providing them with a true education,” Krassowski said. “We don’t want them to be bored, and we don’t want to bring them to a frustration level where we go over their heads.”
During Back-To-School Night at Arapahoe Ridge, teachers met with the women and volunteers from the synagogue.
Donna Meiers, who teaches ESL world geography in a mobile classroom next to the main school building, explained that reading-comprehension tests in English have determined that among the four women at the school, the highest level ranks equivalent to a fifth-grader’s ninth month in school, while some dip into second-grade comprehension levels.
“Often, people will ask why aren’t they in a regular textbook,” Meiers said. “Well, there is your explanation.”
As part of the class, the students are reading a book called “The Music of Dolphins,” the story of a young girl raised by dolphins. Her English skills, shown in diary entries, are basic at first and get more complex as the book progresses.
“So far, they have learned so much,” Meiers said.
And their grades have been stellar. Susan Moi and Margaret flipped through their binders, which were loaded with papers with A’s on them.
Jode Brexa, an ESL teacher at the school, said the women are thriving and are class leaders among other students, most of whom are learning English from a Spanish base. She said her class represents six different cultures.
“Initially, the room had the Sudanese students on one side and the Hispanic boys and girls on the other side,” Brexa said, noting that she mixed the groups to help force everyone to speak in their common language, English.
Higher education and good jobs
Most of the women would have completed the equivalent of their high school education in Kenya this year. Elizabeth explained that in each year of high school, students take 12 or 13 individual subjects. National tests determine whether they will be allowed to pursue a college or university education.
The women are all interested in pursuing college in the United States, some with more focus than others. Susan Moi has repeatedly expressed an interest in becoming a medical doctor, as has Grace. However, their refugee status requires they be employed and self-sufficient by their fourth month in the United States. That means that while they pursue school, they also must find work.
Elizabeth said she is worried about working a full-time job while going to school full time.
The four who attend Arapahoe Ridge, which works in tandem with the Boulder Technical Education Center, also can pursue technical classes that will make them immediately employable. Options include computer technologies, drafting, veterinary assistance and other fields. Some of the class credit can be transferred to community colleges. However, it isn’t clear how a student like Susan Moi will be able to make the transition from Arapahoe Ridge’s programs to a university that would prepare her for medical school.
Krassowski said they may be able to transfer or take classes at other high schools, likely Boulder High School. They also may advance to standard classes at Arapahoe Ridge as soon as the next semester.
“We are not a college preparatory school in terms of a four-year university, and we don’t purport to do that,” he said.
If and when the women graduate from Arapahoe Ridge, they will have high school diplomas and some college credit.
The pressure of finding employment, though, is starting to bear down on the women. Soon, they will be juggling classes and jobs in order to maintain their refugee status.
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.