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Two Sudanese Refugees, Two Years Later - 2003-09-10

Recently, the rolling green farmland of the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland was the setting for a reunion of young Sudanese men and women who had come to the United States as refugees two years ago. Today on New American Voices two of these young people talk about their life in America.

The reunion was a chance to meet old friends, make new ones, and exchange experiences gleaned over two years of adjusting to life in a new environment. Twenty-three-year-old Philip Atem had not seen his niece, Rebecca Deng, since 2001, when he was resettled to Phoenix, Arizona in the Southwest, while she was sent to live in Richmond, Virginia on the East Coast. For Mr. Atem the adjustment to Phoenix was not easy, but he says he took it in stride.

“When I got there, to Arizona, I encountered some things that might discourage you sometimes, you know. You came here as a foreigner and most of the people they understand, but some, they don’t, and sometimes there’s something kind of like discrimination. The first time I experienced it, I’m, like, ‘How am I going to live?” But if there are some bad people, there are a lot of nice people, too. So that’s how I took it, and I really got over it, and it doesn’t bother me no more.”

Philip Atem lives with two other young men from Sudan in a three-bedroom apartment. He attends college, and works full-time as an office assistant in a law firm.

“I do, like, mailing, copying, faxing, helping lawyers handle and order documents, that’s all I do. A lot of friends in the office, like all the lawyers, they encourage me to become a lawyer, but I don’t want to be a lawyer. I’m trying to take general business study right now, but I’m not sure about it. But I might figure out in the next year what I want to do.”

Whatever he finally decides to select as his career, Philip Atem says he has no doubt that he will be able to achieve his goals. The only obstacles might be financial, he says – it might be difficult for him to find the money to finish his education. But he is willing to work and study for as long as it takes to realize what for him is the American dream.

“To me right now, kind of foreseeing the life I wan], good life, you know, live in a nice… it doesn’t have to be, you know, a nice house, but a house you can afford, to live, you know, like other middle class [folks]. If I finish school, then I need such a life that can be nice, a happy life, like what humans want, you know.” Mr. Atem’s twenty-year-old niece, Rebecca Deng, lives in a Richmond, Virginia, apartment with three other young women from Sudan. Like the Sudanese young men, Rebecca Deng is tall and slender, with an ebony skin and a ready smile revealing brilliant while teeth. She is finishing high school and working part-time as a cashier in a department store. She says she is very happy with her life here.

“Oh, this country is a free country, we have freedom. In the United States you do everything you want, we go to school and then we work, we have work, opportunities, a job.”

When she came to the United States two years ago, Miss Deng knew only a few words of English. She had never seen snow. She says she considers learning English, and learning to like cold weather, to be her two big accomplishments so far. Another one has been making new friends.

“Oh, I got a lot of people, especially in my workplace and in my school, I have a lot of friends, I’m famous. Because everybody knows me. A lot of people, especially my teachers and the students, and in my workplace, I know everybody and everybody knows me, they all call me by name, yeah.”

Rebecca Deng says that after graduating from high school she plans to go to college to study to be a nurse. She clearly relishes the freedom of choice women have in this country.

“I like the way they do everything. That is the way maybe I can do everything, too. To control my hours or to work hard to make money to pay for my apartment or anytime if I get rich I will buy a house. Then with my roommates we will live together, then we will go to school. Because in my country the ladies don’t have the opportunities, but in the United States the ladies are free, that is the way I like it. America is the land of freedom for the ladies, for us, yeah.”

Rebecca Deng and Philip Atem fled the civil war in Sudan along with thousands of other parentless children. Seeking peace and refuge they trekked through hundreds of kilometers of African wilderness to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan, and finally to Kenya, where they spent their growing-up years in the huge Kakuma refugee camp. From there, some three and a half thousand of these so-called called “Lost Boys – and girls - of Sudan” were resettled in the United States. Two hundred of them, including some 20 young women, came to the reunion in Maryland.

English Feature Broadcast September 22, 2003

VOA Photos by Rachel Birtha Eitches