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South Sudanese in US Face Culture Gap

  • Kelly Jean Kelly

June is a big month for graduations in the US, where many South Sudanese are pursuing education -- but not necessarily families
Rose Lokwang was one student who proudly accepted a degree in biology and anthropology from Colorado University at Boulder this spring. Now she’s thinking about going to medical school.

In the meantime, she is staying in the western United States and sharing a house with a female friend. She says if she had remained in South Sudan, her life would probably look more like her peers' lives -- married with kids.

“One of the things I heard back from going to medical school is that, I’m 26 now, how many more years am I going to go? Am I going to have a family, or get married?"

Lokwang says she frankly doesn’t know how to answer those questions. She says relations between men and women are different when a woman has an education. On the one hand, she says she likes being able to say more to men than “yes” and “I’m sorry.”

“Now I can defend my own opinion. If I know something is wrong. I can say it’s wrong because of 1-2-3. Not arguing or fighting, but at least trying to say what you feel.”

But on the other hand, she says some men worry that educated women don’t need them.

“They think men are always supposed to provide for everything. But once they see a woman who is educated, they think they can kick [a man] out of the house at any time. They are scared,” Lokwang says.

What Lokwang hopes for is respect. She wants to go back to South Sudan and help pregnant women deliver their babies safely. Her education, she says, might make people listen to her advice.

Mario Bol, for one, thinks Lokwang’s independence is a positive. Bol is a 37-year-old graduate student who’s been living in the United States for over a decade. He’s not married either. He says at home, women are seen as property.

“Once they get married you will have to pay dowry, so that makes it very difficult for the girls to exercise their independence. But in the United States, they’re free to do anything they want. If you want to get married, that’s fine. But compared to the ones at home, the ones in the U.S. are free.”

But Benjamin Macar, who is also a single graduate student living in Washington, D.C., cautions against thinking there are no rules here. He points out that laws and society limit people’s freedom, even in the United States, and that there are strengths and weaknesses in every culture.

“Family is very important [in South Sudan]. And there are things when we are here, we do not like them. Especially the divorce rate.”

Macar says broken families are one of the biggest concerns of the South Sudanese community in the United States. And he points out that preserving one’s family—even while pursuing an education and adapting to life in a new country—is an issue for both women and men.