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 third in a four-part series about the strange new life that lies ahead.View Part One | View Part Two | View Part Four
Reach across the globe to help
Story by Pierrette J. Shields
Photos by Joshua Buck
The Daily Times-Call
BOULDER — For hundreds, her name has meant salvation.
“Our dear sister, don’t forget us. ...”
Whispered news of her deeds propelled children and teenagers to seek her out for food, shelter, education and protection from the grinding ravages of Sudanese genocide.
“Our dear mother, don’t forget us. ...”
Orphans of war, children forced to kill as tiny soldiers, and girls enslaved and raped walked countless miles with little water and no food to find her and her mission.
“We are the children of Sister Luise.”
Diminutive and attired in the customary clothing of the Dominican nuns, Sister Luise Radlmeier rocked as she told stories of the children of Sudan during a visit to Boulder in October.
She convened her talk in the living room of a local rabbi who hosted her short stay to visit six young women she helped to escape the dangers of Sudan and a Kenyan refugee camp to start anew in the United States.
In an unlikely series of events, the religious work of both women — the rabbi and the nun — reached across the globe and intertwined in a common cause to help the survivors of genocide.
Tales of atrocity, violence and abuse spilled from Radlmeier’s lips as she described the daily lives of toddlers, schoolchildren, teens — and the adults they become — left to live in the instability of a fragile peace in southern Sudan.
“Women are treated like property,” Radlmeier said of the conditions in Sudan, “especially orphan girls. Any Didinga man from the village could sell them.
At 69, she remains a relentless advocate of the children and used a short trip to the United States to tell their stories and seek funding for her mission.
Susan Nadai Moi, Margaret Ayaa Atiol, Grace Naboi Lokulang, Elizabeth Nakang Achulo, Susan Nakure Loricho and Stellah Nawi Lunyaramoi, all 18 or 19, in July made the trip from Kenya to Boulder after working for two years under Radlmeier’s tutelage to earn status as refugees.
The women’s journey started in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, which has a population rivaling Boulder’s, and required the financial and logistical alignment of Boulder’s Congregation Har HaShem; a grant from the Lois Pope HOPE Foundation; and help from refugee sponsor group Lutheran Family Services, Radlmeier and numerous international government agencies to achieve. After just months in the United States, the women are in school, working and beginning to establish their new lives in Boulder.
Radlmeier said the opportunity presented by the Har HaShem congregation was ideal for the young women, who immediately upon hearing of the chance agreed to go.
“Yes, yes,” she said, chuckling softly as she recalled gathering the six girls and making the offer. “They want to go to America.”
Radlmeier’s short visit was possible because she had been invited to attend a ceremony in Michigan, where she was awarded the 16th Raoul Wallenberg Medal from the University of Michigan for outstanding humanitarianism, which was highlighted by her work with the women now in Boulder. She was grateful for the award because it calls attention to the work she has yet to do. Much of that, she said, will be with the growing child soldiers who now want to put down their arms for good and pursue an education.
The local congregation, moved to help Sudanese refugees after Rabbi Deborah Bronstein gave a sermon on the continued genocide in Sudan, reached Radlmeier because Sudanese CU student Micklina Peter, 28, also benefited from the nun’s help. She arranged for congregation representatives to correspond with Radlmeier.
To these teenagers, Radlmeier is a savior. They consider her a mother and speak of her with reverence. While their journey to Boulder was long and a long path still stretches out before them, the steps that took them to the nun are perhaps the most compelling. Radlmeier said 18-year-old Susan Moi’s story mirrors that of her companions in Boulder and many others still in the camp.
A harrowing childhood
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Susan Moi. She has been featured on national television and in newspapers. As the first of the six women to arrive, she was the only focus for many journalists.
Allusions have been made to the women’s traumatic childhood, but even volunteers with the congregations who serve to usher the women through their new lives have avoided asking for specifics.
It is an uneasy topic.
Moi’s voice hardly rose above a whisper as she recounted the story of her life until she reached Boulder in July.
Moi clearly recalls being a 3-year-old toddler when she learned her first lessons about death.
“I saw my father laying in a pool of blood, and I thought he was sleeping,” she recalled.
She tried in vain to wake him.
Another villager in Chukudum, her home in southern Sudan, told her he was dead, told her to run.
“I ran with people I didn’t know,” Moi whispered.
She fled from Chukudum, where rebel soldiers ravaged the village as part of a war between Christians and animists in the south and the Islamic government in the north of the country. Children scattered as their families were slaughtered.
That her father is dead is certain. The fate of her two brothers, a sister and her mother is not as clear.
“My mother, I don’t know where she is,” Moi said.
She walked to Ethiopia, where she stayed for two years, and then moved on to Kakuma, where she lived with a foster family that used her to provide child care and household chores.
“She was mistreating me,” she said simply of her foster mother.
Moi said she was frequently kept from attending school so she could take care of the woman’s baby and work around the house. Her future was bleak. She could expect to be sold into marriage. The environment itself was constantly dangerous for a young woman.
That changed for Moi when Radlmeier entered her life and opened new doors for her.
Much work left to do
Radlmeier first met the young women who now live in Boulder about four years ago.
When word came from Boulder that the Har HaShem congregation would like to help, Radlmeier gathered 10 girls who might navigate the difficult refugee process to offer them the chance. They attended boarding school through her mission, worked on life stories and set out to move to America. Six of the original 10 made it to Boulder.
Radlmeier’s work has been profound for the young women. With them safely ensconced in Boulder, the night before her scheduled return to Africa, Radlmeier spoke to about 50 people at the Boulder Friends Meetinghouse about the work she still has left. Much of it surrounds educating AIDS orphans and the aging child soldiers who are now begging her to help them learn.
“As long as I can do this, I will do this,” Radlmeier said.
The crowd grew silent as she described the staggering scope of the work her mission does.
She explained the demands of schooling so many, arrangements made to use various buildings and the lengths to which the mission has gone to stretch funding. By American standards, one year of schooling for one student — including tuition, room, board and clothing — is cheap. For vocational school, the cost is $1,000. For secondary school, it is $750. For primary school, it is $400.
Radlmeier said she works with about 260 refugees, and her mission works to care for about 540 Kenyan AIDS orphans. She is the only nun working with the refugees.
“Somehow, word has spread 700 kilometers away that if you go to (me), you can go to school,” she said.
But success depends on funding, Radlmeier said. Non-governmental organizations that used to support her school have redirected funds inside of Sudan because of a peace agreement. However, she said, many Sudanese still live outside the country and cannot benefit from those funds.
As she spoke to the audience, anecdotes elicited gasps and tears. It was increasingly clear the nun would soon return to Africa to continue her work. For the young women to be left behind, the pain was great. They began to cry and sang for the crowd a song they wrote to send Radlmeier off.
Their voices conveyed love and pain, and Radlmeier wept as she listened to the lyrics of their devotion.
“Departure, departure is so painful ...”
The song declared that they are Radlmeier’s children and pleaded with her to remember them when she is far way.
“Our dear mother, don’t forget us.”
Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Joshua Buck can be reached at 303-684-5229, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.