This is American Profiles, VOA's weekly spotlight on notable Americans who are having a positive impact on the world. Alyssa Zamora introduces us to Sharon Svihel, who has made it her life's work to help Sudanese refugees adjust to American society.
Sharon Svihel became interested in Africa in 1997 when she fostered a teenage Lost Boy from Sudan. Chol Ajang is now a proud college graduate and inspirational public speaker, and Svihel is still involved with Sudanese refugees.
Now known as Momma Chol, the spirited grandmother of 11 has helped hundreds of those who fled genocide and political unrest in Sudan.
Momma Chol spends most mornings visiting a handful of Sudanese families in Jacksonville, Florida. This region - with its warm climate and network of community support - has become one of the major resettlement areas for refugees from Africa as well as from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
On a recent day, Momma Chol arrives at Anthony Akech's apartment with a bag full of presents for his two young daughters.
For more than a decade, Momma Chol has done whatever she can to make it easier for Sudanese refugees to find a home, make a living, learn English and get an education. She grew up in a strict religious family, and after college, she took a job in business. But a seed planted by one relative pulled her away from that traditional career into a life of service.
A Prophetic Vision Fulfilled
She says her Aunt Theophane, a lifelong missionary in Hong Kong, made a lasting impression on her as a child.
"She would say to me, 'I just really believe God is going to make you a missionary someday, and out of everyone in the family, I think God has chosen you,'" Momma Chol recalls. "It wasn't until adopting my daughter from Korea that I thought maybe someday I'll be going over there [to Asia]."
"Little did I know that God had a different plan, and he was directing me to Africa," she adds.
Momma Chol has traveled to Africa on behalf of various resettlement agencies, including World Relief and Lutheran Social Services. She also was instrumental in starting Jacksonville's Aid Sudan Foundation in 2004. Momma Chol's faith in God and drive to help others eventually paved the way for Bridges to Sudan.
She co-founded the nonprofit group last year with former social worker Tina Jaeckle, now a social and behavioral sciences professor at a local college. Bridges to Sudan offers classes on relationships, parenting, cooking, time management and American social norms.
Momma Chol says she has found her purpose in life.
"Being able to watch a child smile or see a family be together and be able to make a living for themselves without having to feel like they have to ask for help," she says.
But, she stresses, "We know they need help."
Bridges to Sudan fills the service gaps that Momma Chol says government programs fail to consider.
"It's just horrible to watch someone that is struggling so much," she says. "But because services are not in place, they wouldn't have a chance, and we need to give them that."
She points out that Sudanese refugees have left behind a horrific experience. In addition to surviving war and torture, they were living with no water, no sanitation and no electricity.
"And coming here, to a modern area that has everything," she says, "it's very unrealistic for anyone to … expect that they're going to learn English and expect them - in two or three months - to get everything they need."
She says adapting to the American way of life does not take months, but years.
An Everyday Hero
For Anthony Akech, who came to the United States in 2001, a good life in America was perhaps beyond his reach before he met Momma Chol. He says it was difficult to keep a job and support himself. His wife was still in Sudan at the time. But he says Momma Chol gave his family hope for a better life.
"She cooked for us, and that time I don't have bed to sleep, so she send people to buy bed, blanket and bring them to my apartment," he says. "She helped me a lot. She helped me pay bill for my doctor. I don't have insurance at time. I don't have anything. I can't pay it. And she find a way."
Akech is now a U.S. citizen, studying for his associate's degree at a local college and working at a stable, full-time job. He says he is most grateful to Momma Chol for always treating him like family.
After he was shot in the leg during a carjacking, he says she was the only person who came to his bedside.
"She stayed with me for all day and all night every day. I was having severe pain in my leg," he recalls. "If you need help, then she can be a hero for you."
But the humble Momma Chol says she is the lucky one for having the opportunity to meet people like Anthony Akech, who are survivors, who can teach Americans a lesson about the value of life.