The Invisible People 

Hundreds of Sudanese refugees call Memphis home, but does anyone know they're here?

Joseph Atem is a survivor. When he was 3 years old, a civil war broke out in his home country of Sudan. He fled for his life, and he's been struggling to survive against staggering odds ever since. He's seen friends and family die. He's known starvation. He's been forced to flee on foot through miles of scorching desert and rugged wilderness with no food for days at a time. He's lived in desolate refugee camps with poor security, little medical attention, and not enough food.

Atem, now 25, is one of the "lost boys" of Sudan, a group of about 26,000 boys from Southern Sudan who were forced to leave their families in the late 1980s, when government troops from Northern Sudan raided their villages. Girls and women were raped or taken into slavery; boys and men were killed.

"They said the boys would grow up and cause another war. That is the main reason they were killing boys," says Atem, whose forehead bears his native tribal scars.

Eventually, the females were also forced to flee but not until after most of their sons and brothers were long gone. About half of the boys died. Others survived but were never reunited with their families. As more of Southern Sudan was raided, the survivors were forced into refugee camps.

In the late 1990s, the United States began taking in a number of selected refugees who had applied with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Atem was one of those chosen. In 2001, he arrived in Memphis, expecting paradise. He'd no longer spend each day wondering whether he'd live or die. There would be plenty of food in America. He'd have a house, electricity, and a warm bed to sleep in each night.

But Atem soon found that life in Memphis was no paradise.

"You cannot get a job if you cannot reference people who know you or jobs you've done before," says Atem. "Without working, you can get food stamps. But you still cannot pay rent or utilities. You will be homeless."

Associated Catholic Charities, Inc. (ACC), a national charity charged with resettling refugees, helps for up to 18 months, but for some, more assistance is needed in securing jobs, mastering English, and adjusting socially.

Carolyn Tisdale, director of Catholic Charities Inc., the family service arm of ACC, estimates there are about 200 Sudanese refugee families living in Memphis. Each family typically has five or six children.

ACC does all it can given the funds it's allotted for each family, but some refugees here wish that other faith-based groups or willing individuals would step in and help. They worry that most Memphians don't even know they exist.

And they would be right.

Coming to America


"When I got out at the airport, I was really shocked," says Gabriel Nylowayak, a refugee who arrived here in 1997. "I expected tall buildings with 20 and 30 floors. When I saw buildings just like the ones in Sudan, I was thinking, Is this really America, or did they just drop me somewhere?"

The ACC placed Nylowayak in a Midtown apartment on Jefferson Avenue, where another Sudanese refugee was already living.

But it wasn't just the buildings that didn't match Nylowayak's expectations of America. He quickly learned that Memphis wasn't quite as peaceful as he had envisioned.

"I did not have a sense of security at first. It's hard being in a strange place and seeing somebody shot on TV," he explains. "The guy from Catholic Charities told me to keep my door locked all the time, and that scared me too. They said don't walk at night."

It might seem surprising that television violence and the occasional homicide story on the news would frighten refugees from a war-town country, but most expected America to be peaceful. Instead, many encountered violence here, often the result of petty disputes or robberies.

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Besides security fears, many refugees have problems adjusting to American culture. Many don't know English, and those who do often have difficulty understanding Southern accents and idioms.

"I was walking down the street one day, and somebody from Memphis pulled over to ask me for directions," says Nylowayak, who speaks with an almost-British lilt. "He said what sounded like 'blah blah blah' and I said, 'What?' I couldn't understand him. This happened like three times, and the guy left mad. I felt bad because I thought maybe I really don't know English."

Problems mastering English often have more serious implications. Rachel Boulden, a Rhodes student majoring in international studies, works with refugees. She tells of a Sudanese woman who could not read English and didn't know what to do with her utility bill.

"Her kids came home one day from school to find her and her two youngest kids just sitting on the couch in the dark," says Boulden. "She's crying, so her oldest kid called the social worker [from ACC] but he'd gone home for the weekend. It was a Friday afternoon, so no one could help until Monday."

Boulden also tells of a woman who missed her child's kindergarten graduation because she couldn't read the invitation.

Having limited English skills also hurts refugees' chances of landing a job. So do a nonexistent job history and a lack of transportation.

"Most of the jobs I found required transportation, and it was hard for me to catch a bus," says Moses Kute, a 38-year-old refugee with a wife and three sons. "I was always scared I'd miss the stop or get dropped off at the wrong stop."

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When refugees do find work, it's usually menial labor, which doesn't provide enough income to care for a family.

"The majority [of Sudanese refugees] are now living in Binghamton. That's where the government housing is," explains Atem. "It's a bad neighborhood. When you are given responsibility for yourself and you do not have a job, you will go where the government places you."

Another issue is affordable child care. Lately, ACC has seen an influx of single mothers with several children. In Sudan, it's not as common for young girls to receive schooling, so refugee women are frequently illiterate, making it especially difficult for them to find work. When they do find jobs, they often cannot afford to pay for childcare.

Atem says the answer is better adult education.

"That is the main concern. In America, if you are homeless and you tell someone you are hungry, they will get you food. In an American community, you are not expecting to get bombed," says Atem. "But [the refugees] are not enjoying life. They are struggling with a job, and some women are working two or three jobs to take care of their kids."

Getting on Their Feet

Most of the refugees the ACC resettles in Memphis come from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Which refugees end up here is determined by ACC's parent organization, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

"We're responsible for providing housing, and we also connect them with various agencies, like the Department of Human Services and Social Security," says Efua Coleman, director of Refugee and Immigration Services for ACC. "We enroll the kids in school and make sure they get their shots. We buy them school uniforms and supplies."

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ACC also offers employment, social-adjustment services, and English as a Second Language programs. But it can only afford to pay for housing for about three months. Other services are usually cut off at about 18 months.

According to Tisdale, ACC gets a one-time donation of $425 from USCCB for each member of a refugee family. "We try to manage that for three to six months or however long," says Tisdale. "If the rent is $400 a month, then we try to budget so we can pay for three months' rent and utilities."

ACC locates an affordable apartment and signs a lease for six months to a year. Once a refugee secures a job, the lease is signed over and he or she becomes responsible for paying rent. When a refugee has problems finding a job, or only secures a temporary job, ACC offers employment services, but the organization's resources are limited.

Refugees are assigned an ACC case manager to assist with resettlement. It's not uncommon for one case manager to handle 25 to 50 families.

"You just can't meet all of their needs, so we need to find people to volunteer to be family friends or find churches to co-sponsor families," says Tisdale.

"They need someone to volunteer to assist them with things like driving to the doctor or going into their homes and teaching them how to do things," adds Coleman.

Tisdale worries that most Americans ignore refugees, writing them off as a drain on resources.

"People think refugees come in and take our resources and our jobs, but these people came to begin a new life," says Tisdale. "The only way our government lets them come in is if they can verify that their lives would be in jeopardy if they stayed in their country. It's not like we're just throwing our borders open."

Father Bert Ebben, a priest at St. Peter's Catholic Church downtown, has spent six months out of every year since 1999 doing relief work in Africa. He has a different outlook on the refugee situation.

"I would prefer they be educated in neighboring [African] countries rather than bringing them here into a culture where they don't have a strong sense of community," says Ebben. "They don't have their people. The language is different. The food is different, and much of their energy has to go to adjusting to a whole new situation."

Ebben says America's consumer-driven, materialistic culture tends to spoil refugees, and if their country ever does see peace, many of them will not want to go back.

"Once they get here, I don't blame them," he says. "But it would be healthier for their own countries if they were able to be helped there rather than here."

Sudan is Bleeding

"In the villages, life was happy," says Atem, referring to the brief time of peace he remembers before the 1983 civil war. "People had cows and goats, and they harvested crops. They had food, and they were not worried about anything. They did not pay for electricity or land. The land was theirs, and they would just build a house with wood from the forest or grass from the savannah."

Until 1953, the British governed the Muslim-dominated northern half of Sudan separately from the predominantly Christian Southern half. When the British granted Sudan its independence, tensions between the two regions grew.

It was agreed that the south and north would be autonomous. However, Northern Sudan leaders began to back away from the commitment, and the first civil war broke out in 1955.

A peace treaty was reached in 1972, but soon Northern Sudan began pushing Sharia law, the religious laws of Islam, on the Christians in the South, and a second civil war erupted in 1983.

"Sharia laws are like the Arab version of the Ten Commandments," explains Atem. "It would be like if the president of the United States announced today that the whole U.S. is going to be governed by the Ten Commandments."

Natural resources were another factor in the second war. Southern Sudan is home to numerous oil fields, and oil revenues make up about 70 percent of the country's export earnings. Southern Sudan is also situated near tributaries of the Nile River, so the land is much more fertile than the desert region in the north.

It was then that Northern troops, known as the People's Defense Forces, began attacking villages in the South -- killing young boys, raping women and girls, and taking some into slavery. Southerners fled for surrounding African countries or joined the south's army, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

"All I remember is we had to walk," says Janet Benga, a refugee who fled with her mother when her village was attacked. "We left Daddy. He had to run out of the house. My mom led us to Uganda, and we stayed there. Dad never showed up. We don't know where he is."

Like many Sudanese, Benga wound up in Camp Kakuma, a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya and one of the largest refugee camps in the world.

"[At the camp], they would give us maize and beans. It was supposed to last us from the beginning of the month to the end," says Benga. "But it wasn't enough for 10 days. And you do not have a good diet because you eat the same thing over and over."

Atem also stayed at Camp Kakuma, and he says the U.N. provided each person with only two cups of beans, five kilograms of corn, and a small bit of oil for 14 days. He says they had to pool food together in groups of about 10 to make it last, and the food only provided for one small meal a day.

"There was never enough food," agrees Kute. "It was beans and rice and corn. Sometimes you had to smash the corn until it became a froth so there was enough to go around."

On his yearly missions to Africa, Ebben works to help children in Camp Kakuma get an education. "The conditions are not human," says Ebben. "It's very flat, dry land with scant vegetation. The last count I know of, there were 79,000 people in the camp.

"They live in simple little buildings with a tin roof," he says. "They use whatever they can find -- plastic, branches, whatever. There are no streets through the camp, and when it rains, it's a quagmire."

In 2005, another peace treaty was signed between the North and South, and there was a glimpse of hope for refugees. However, the Darfur conflict, a separate dispute between two groups of Muslims, began raging in the western portion of Sudan. Refugees from that region are still pouring into camps.

"This is a more vicious, horrible situation even than the one in the South," explains Ebben. "It's ongoing and no one seems to be responding. Africa is bleeding, but Darfur is bleeding more."

Help Wanted

At the United Methodist Neighborhood Center on Walnut Grove, Rachelle Pichardo, a volunteer from Rhodes College, lines up about 20 refugee children, ranging in age from 5 to 19. They're preparing to board an elevator to the third floor, where they'll be split into groups of girls and boys for an after-school tutoring session.

Tutors pair up with individual kids and begin going over their homework assignments. As they work, more and more kids pile out of the elevator and into the rooms.

Ruth Lomo, 36, came to Memphis in 2001 with her own five children and six kids she inherited after her sister died in a refugee camp. (Benga is one of her sister's children.) A year after her arrival, Lomo started a tutoring program for school-age refugee children.

"When they came here, most of the children were placed in grades according to their age," says Lomo. "They have a hard time, and they do not have parent support because many of their parents are uneducated."

Lomo is viewed as a sort of mother figure in the local Sudanese community. She attended a vocational school in Sudan, where she studied carpentry. Her skills made finding a job in Memphis easier, and once she was on her feet, she began helping other refugees adjust.

In late 2002, she started the International Community for Refugee Women and Children, which addresses problems faced by single refugee women. The group recently started an English as a second language program for women. It meets at the United Methodist Neighborhood Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays and needs volunteers.

"We are trying to get some grants so we can offer skills training to women," says Lomo. "These women are getting here with their six or seven children and no penny in the bank. What happens is they end up living paycheck to paycheck, so nothing is left to save."

Lomo's is one of the few groups in Memphis offering grassroots services to refugees. Boulden and a couple of other Rhodes students also help through their group, United Action. Besides raising money to help Lomo's efforts, they spend time with refugee children, playing ball or giving them rides to tutoring or home from school.

"We're like their lifeline, their family," says Boulden. "There's a really small community that's willing to help with refugees. Some women from the churches [we've asked for help] are scared to drive into [Binghamton]. There's always some excuse."

Boulden and several other students recently organized a mock refugee camp at Rhodes in hopes of raising awareness of the situation. Many of the local refugees helped the students recreate Camp Kakuma. Volunteers offered the public small servings of bland corn and beans, the staple diet at the real camp in Kenya.

"Only about 150 to 200 people showed up," says Boulden. "The refugees set up family tents like they had in Kenya. Those who did come learned a lot."

Boulden would like to see more Memphians volunteering to help. "We have to get people to pay attention and realize the refugees are here," she says. "They really are like the invisible people. No one knows they're here -- or they just don't care."

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