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A New Beginning: Sudanese Refugees Make Home in Cleveland

Monday, April 16, 2001 at 4:28 PM

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It's a journey that started in 1983 when 25,000 children had to run from the civil war taking over their homes in the Sudan. The children, mostly boys, walked thousands of miles before finally finding safety at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. By that time the trip, covering an area half the size of Western Europe, had killed more than 20,000. Now the survivors face a different challenge -- to begin a new life in the United States. Nearly 3,800 Sudanese refugees are being resettled in the U.S. and 40 will make a home in Cleveland. 90.3's Renita Jablonski introduces us to this special group.

Renita Jablonski- Today, the first seven refugees to have arrived are laughing and making jokes in their new home in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood. Just weeks ago their environment was very different—Ohio was as much a foreign word, as it was a foreign state.

Mayak Mayen- When I heard the name “Ohio” first as the state, I wonder, because back in my home country, I had not heard of “Ohio.”

RJ- Mayak Mayen, like the other Sudanese refugees here, doesn’t talk much about the horrors he’s seen and the life in the camp he’s left behind—but rather, of new found hope.

MM- When I was in the camp, I was in my high school last year, 2000. And then my vision, I was thinking, praying to God, now if I complete my high school there’s no where to go unless I go back to Sudan to fight, that’s only solution.

RJ- But thanks to a decision from the U.S. State Department, Mayak and the other young men would not have to face war again.

Marjean Perhot- Crossing a river full of crocodiles, or full of bodies that are floating down the river that you can’t even get through and some do manage. There’s 3,800 that managed to get through.

RJ- Marjean Perhot is Director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of Cleveland, the organization helping resettle the boys in northeast Ohio.

MP- This group is special also because they’ve been living in a refugee camp since they were kids, so when they finally reached safety, which was in 91 and 92, they had grown up to about ten, eight years old some of them, and they spent the rest of their life in the refugee camp until they were thankfully allowed to have resettlement here in the United States.

RJ- In this session with a social worker, the seven are urged to discuss stress management. Bol Akum Deng points out that the stress of coming to the United States is nothing compared to what the refugees have already been through.

Bol Akum Deng- I believe each and every one of us here has left home since long time ago. Some have not even seen their mothers and fathers for the last 14 to 15 years.

RJ- During the session the newest arrival meets his roommates, dressed like a typical American teen in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers.

MP- Often times we only see refugees in their late forties or fifties and in a way, you can make an impact, but you make more of an impact with their children, you know these people are, unfortunately will never be able to progress and be the physicist or the doctor that they were in their home country but with these boys we really have a chance, you know, we have such a chance.

RJ- Something each of the boys has given much consideration.

BAD- Out of here we shall be doing a lot of things like in the course of the week, we shall be going to school and think about the reason why one has to be here, in a state, why not back at home. Should not be only a matter of only eating and sleeping during the course of day, you have to add some material in yourself to make yourself an individual in the society. That’s what we are all thinking about.

MP- They kind of just start to need us less and less. So our plan is usually that we work with a refugee quite intensively for about eight months and then the refugee’s usually very much on his own, self-sufficient, and independent. However, a lot of refugees are on their own within four months and they’re not calling us anymore, they don’t need us anymore.

RJ- The Sudanese refugees have been dubbed, “The Lost Boys,” but both Bol and Mayak say now that they have a future, the Lost Boys title isn’t valid anymore.

BAD- When they come to United States, where their dreams will come true, this is the time that they will no longer be called Lost Boys because they have found a home.

MM- We are not supposed to be called “Lost Boys” now. Because we were lost when we were in the bush, like back in Sudan and anywhere in Africa where we ran of but now we found home in United States so to me, I feel that I should not be called Lost Boys again in United States.

RJ- And Mayak says it wasn’t cell phones, TV, or computers that surprised them most when they arrived.

MM- Soon as I came I was welcomed warmly. We were welcomed in the airports in the way that we do not expect to be like that. People are lovely to us and we are so great.

RJ- And perhaps the most important difference they see…

This country is a peaceful country.
We are very happy to be in a peaceful country.

In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3, 90.3

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