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Sudanese Refugee Family - 2002-03-10

English Feature #7-34880 Broadcast May 28, 2001

About one thousand Sudanese live in the Washington, D. C. area. Most are refugees from the civil war that has wracked the country for the past 18 years. Agar Mayen and her husband fled southern Sudan ten years ago. After five years in Egypt, in 1996 they obtained refugee status to come to the United States, and settled in northern Virginia. Today on New American Voices Agar Mayen talks about her family's life in their new country.

Agar Mayen is a striking woman in her mid-thirties -- tall, with ebony skin, dressed in a turban and colorful Sudanese dress of patterned green cotton. Mrs. Mayen has six children, aged twelve to one-and-a-half years old, and she works full-time as a caseworker for one of the Washington area's refugee resettlement agencies. She also attends classes at a local community college.

"My goal, I want to have a degree here in nursing. And I'm struggling going to school so that I can achieve that. I don't know when I will do it, but that is my intent, and I must do it, even though I'm busy. I have a large family, and I work eight hours, and plus going to school is not easy, but I must do it."

Mrs. Mayen's mother helps with the children, but that is all the help she has. She sees nothing remarkable in the busy, multi-faceted life she leads.

"I can do it. We in Africa are hard workers. We do a lot of difficult things in Sudan. Even in the house, when you cook you don't have a stove, and we have to start a fire, and you go far, like two miles, to get water. So, you know, I can do it, because I used to do hard things."

When the family arrived in the United States five years ago, Agar Mayen's husband, Ruben Benjamin, who has a degree in psychiatry, took any job he could find to support his family.

"My husband started work as a maintenance [man], and he did that job for two years, and then he start going to school, and now he got a good job, he works as a psychiatric technician in Dominion Hospital."

While Mr. Benjamin knew English, the rest of the family spoke only Dinka, the language of southern Sudan. Despite this, Agar Mayen says that when the three oldest children were enrolled in school they adjusted quite easily.

"Really, they didn't have any problem. You know, the kids can learn very fast. When they go to school they like school because no one beat kids here in school, which is opposite in Africa. So they like the way here. When they came here they didn't know any English, so they were put in a special class. In three months they just catch up everything and are really doing great now, they are at the top of their school, they speak perfect English like Americans, and they have no problem."

At home, however, the family continues to speak Dinka and to maintain the traditions of their Sudanese homeland.

"We told them that outside they can speak English, but at home they speak Dinka all the time, because we don't want them to lose the Dinka language and we don't want them to lose our culture, because our hope is - we want to go back sometime in future, if there is any peace in our country. We don't want to stay here forever."

The hope of one day returning to Sudan also underlies the plans that Agar Mayen and her husband have for their children.

"I want them to have a very high education. I want each of them to be somebody here in America. I want my kids here to do something also for my country, not for me only. I want them to have knowledge, and when they have a good education they go back home and help people. I want two or three of them to be doctors, that's what I told them, and they like my idea (laughs)."

In the meantime, the family is in the process of buying a house - the one that they currently rent is very expensive, says Agar Mayen, costing them over a thousand dollars a month. In their five years here they have developed a circle of friends, many of them Sudanese, but many also from their Episcopal church. Mrs. Mayen is a little surprised that her circle doesn't include African-Americans.

"It really is something strange. Since I came here I don't have any African-American friends. All my friends are white. I don't know how it happened, but I never had a chance to start any friendships with African-Americans."

Next week on New American Voices you'll meet a Polish lawyer transplanted to Brooklyn, New York. In the meantime we invite you to visit our website. It's .