with Glad and Sincere Hearts
Special Needs of Sudanese Girls
by Julia Aker Duany, PhD
Prepared for presentation to the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service, United States Catholic Conference in conjunction with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ACF/HHS) “Fostering Hope” The National Conference on Refugee Foster Care, May 31-June 2, 2001. Baltimore, MD.
When I arrived in the United States in 1984 as a young refugee woman, I hoped to regain many of the things I had lost: peace, happiness, and community. Instead I found myself torn apart. One part of me deeply mourned the loss of my home and my culture. Another part of me desperately struggled to find a place in this strange New World.
To the African, America is at once a dream of freedom and affluence and a nightmare of violence and poverty. Even under ideal conditions, immigration to the United States is stressful, but for the political refugee, it is also a process of profound loss. My own struggle to work through the pain of loss and the trauma of culture shock lasted for years. Even now, I sometimes dream at night of returning home. In some of these dreams, obstacles, such as a lost passport, prevent my return. In other dreams, I am back home in Sudan. But the dreams of home are troubling. In one of them I sat in the house of my sister and together we cried and cried and cried. The crying of my dreams is endless.
For most refugee women from Sudan, the sense of loss is intensified by the war-related trauma that she has experienced. Every Sudanese refugee woman has been affected in some way by violence. Perhaps her village was destroyed. Perhaps her loved ones murdered. Perhaps she, or someone she loves, has been imprisoned, or beaten, or raped.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss the special concerns of young female refugees from Sudan. Our girls. First, I will explain why so many Sudanese have become refugees. Second, I will talk about the culture and values that shape the experience and the identity of Sudanese women. Third, I'll show how to apply these insights in practical ways that can help Sudanese girls make a healthy adjustment to life in the United States. And finally, I will answer questions.
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People ask me, "Why are the Sudanese fighting?" To answer that question properly would take more time than I have today, for the history of Sudan's conflict goes back more than a hundred years.
Modern Sudan is a country of diverse peoples. More than 400 different languages and dialects are spoken among Sudan's 597 ethnic groups. The two major religious groupings are Islam in the North and Christianity in the South, but many Sudanese people also practice traditional African religions.
Before 1956, the British colonial administration ruled Sudan by dividing the country along cultural, religious, and ethnic lines. By creating separate administrative regions, the British institutionalized a tradition of identity politics and a Southern expectation for self-rule.
When Sudan became an independent republic in 1956, the Arab-dominated government set about to eradicate not only the influence of Western language, religion, and culture in the South, but also the African languages, religions, and culture. Their objective: to unify Sudan under one government, one language, one religion, and one culture.
The southern people recognized that only armed resistance would force recognition of their right to self-rule. The first civil war lasted until 1972, when the government agreed to establish regional self-rule in the south. But peace lasted only as long as it was useful to the government. By the early 1980s, the centralization of power and production had completely crippled Sudan's national economy. The government was hanging by a thread.
Development took off very fast in the South. We began to explore our natural resources. Then, vast mineral and petroleum reserves were discovered in the self-ruled regions of the South. The north did not like what was happening and wanted to be in control.
To rally support from the majority Islamic political parties for seizing the south's natural resources, the President of Sudan placed every Sudanese citizen under the jurisdiction of Muslim law. This law is called Sharia, and it denies equality to all non-Muslims and all women. And then the Government of Sudan dissolved the regional governments in the South. The country exploded into a second civil war, characterized by a religious necessity not evident in the first struggle.
Since 1983, this war has killed more than two million people, most of them civilians from the South. The fighting was primarily between the north and the south. But in 1991 the Sudan People's Liberation Army split into factions. Southerners turned on each other with shocking violence. In this war-within-a-war, boys are made to become child soldiers, food is a weapon, and the civilian population is a target. The refugees you see in the United States today are victims of this war, especially the young men, whom you call "The Lost Boys."
Today southern Sudan is still a battleground for control of agricultural and mineral resources. It is still a frontline in a struggle for cultural and religious freedom. Yet today the primary cause of instability in southern Sudan is not the war for self-rule. It is the violence involving southerner against southerner. The Government of Sudan has raised the level of destruction and bitterness to an appalling level by supplying some ethnic groups with arms, food, and medicine and denying those resources to others. This is a strategy of "divide and conquer."
The major lines of ethnic conflict in the south fall along the borders of the Dinka and Nuer peoples. SPLA, like the GOS, also uses clan divisions among the Nuer people control leadership.
Today Liberation Movement faction leaders operate as freelance warlords, enriching themselves at the expense of the starving population by controlling relief operations. Food aid has created a wealthy commander class, living in big houses in large cities, removed from the field of battle. Sudan's refugee problem is no longer considered temporary, but virtually out of control.
The challenge of rendering humanitarian aid to refugee populations in this environment has become politicized and militarized beyond recognition.
One consequence of the permanent nature of the refugee crisis is that NGOs have become a target of harassment and, sometimes, killing. Resentment on the part of refugees is generated by the belief that the NGOs are benefiting from the tragedy of the refugees. UNHCR field staff and members of other agencies, who until recent years had worked on the periphery of conflict and were respected by all as Good Samaritans, now find themselves working in impossible physical conditions. They are sometimes abused, or accused of spying, or forced to make life-or-death decisions. According a 1999 UN report, a total of 36 UNHCR staff members were killed, died, or reported missing during one crisis. I have seen, for example, in Uganda, the growing of insecurity of the UNHCR personal on the ground. Their offices have become fortresses, surrounded by barbed wire and heavily guarded. The workers are afraid to venture far from the compound. They have become hostages to their own system.
Refugees now are rarely welcomed as guests by their neighbors. Refugees themselves have become more sophisticated and even devious in finding places of refuge or obtaining emergency food rations and shelter. At the same time, the most vulnerable among them such as women and children, have become specific targets of predators.
As long as the Nuer people remain divided, and as long as the Dinka and the Nuer peoples keep fighting each other, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to end the south-south conflict in Sudan. But progress is being made. A significant grassroots peace movement began in 1994, providing a framework for reconciliation between ethnic communities. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the movement has been limited because of a lack of international support.
Because of time, I've skipped over many important details that explain why the Sudanese are fighting, but I think I've said enough to show that the cause of suffering and displacement that is bringing thousands of South Sudanese refugees to the United States is a progressive, man-made disaster.
The Sudanese refugees are coming to us because they simply have no place else to go. They are kept in camps by the African governments who have very little to offer to their won people. Many of these young Sudanese people were born or grew up in the refugee camps.
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The Nuer and Dinka peoples of southern Sudan are members of the general group known as Nilotic peoples. Culturally, these are pastoral people whose economic, aesthetic, and social lives focus on cattle. There are also a large number of farmers in the South.
The female child holds a special place in the Nilotic culture, particularly in terms of marriage and family. The point is that while individual achievement gives an American woman her identity, it is community life that gives an African woman her identity. Cultural insight can be key to making effective use of resources and services in dealing with the special concerns of the female child from Sudan.
Traditionally, Nilotic women are considered as a pipeline of human life and are protected and cared for, even by people who are not relatives. Many African societies consider marriage to be created by God. Politically, woman is considered a bridge-builder. Through inter-marriage she builds alliances for her family. Marriage is a political institution and not a function of romance or sexual desire. That is why it rare among the Sudanese for a marriage to break up.
The marriage of a daughter is also an economic event, linked to cattle through the Bride-wealth. The Bride-wealth consists of a number of cattle. There are no marriage documents, but the Bride-wealth gives the father a right to his children. Over time, the cattle change many hands and it is difficult to return them as they reproduce, multiply or are lost due to disease and cattle raiders.
A Sudanese girl is expected to learn life skills from other female members of the family. She learns to manage the household, to teach the children to respect the elders, and to be a good wife and mother. As a mother, a woman is considered the center of the family. Her opinion is valued when it comes to family or community affairs, such as marriage or conflict resolution.
Most Sudanese women are illiterate. Formal education is viewed as an investment in the family. Generally, this investment is reserved for the male children, because they are the ones to build up the family name. It is assumed that whatever learning a female child acquires will be lost when she marries into another family.
Women are not to be abused physically, because of their reproductive importance. It is considered a disgrace for a man to beat his wife. But of course in reality, domestic violence does occur, and sometimes a woman can provoke a fight. Yet in Nilotic communities, the involvement of the extended family and community elders is an effective support mechanism that encourages the husband and wife to work through problems in constructive ways.
Basic Nilotic values guide the elders, who everyone in the community looks to as the authority on the ways of life. People depend upon the elders to apply their intuitive understanding of these values in solving domestic and community problems. Generally, these values include trust, cooperation, putting the community first, gratitude, and respectfulness.
Certain values are based upon gender differences. A general division of labor is recognized in familial duties-- there is woman's work and there is man's work. These are norms and regulations similar to those that guide most social systems. Food preparation and caring for the young is woman's work; hunting and looking after the cattle is man's work. (e.g see the chart).
Adults are expected to care for the young and the young to care for the elderly.
The Sudanese refugee quickly sees the undermining effect that the American culture of rebellion has upon their children. And they are often helpless to counteract it. The young refugee boy or girl who comes to the United States without a parent has no one to help them sort through the complexities of American culture.
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What can be done to help the girl-child refugee adjust to her new life?
The younger the girl is, the easier it will be for her to cross the bridge from one culture to the other. She will pick up English quickly and become "Americanized" overnight. But there lies the danger. Without a strong connection to the stable values of the Sudanese community on the one side, and a strong connection to the stable values of the American community on the other, she will not cross that bridge safely. She will fall victim to the negative influences of American society.
I'll give examples from my own experience with refugee women to show how we can help the Sudanese girl-refugee make a healthy adjustment to life in the United States. But I can sum up the process in three words: educating, counseling, and organizing. You have to be prepared to do those three things, and to do them over and over and over again.
First, the refugees, especially the women, need a community of people who want to help them, and that community needs a clear understanding of how they can help.
When I came to the United States I had the university and the local church to plug-in to. That kept my family together and kept us going. But few refugees have organizations they can connect with. Sometimes the sponsoring organization is not really aware of what it means to be a sponsor. I don't blame the American people. They just don't understand what they're getting into. The understand that someone has to help the refugees get established, but they don't often realize what a tremendous time commitment this is-often far greater than the sponsor ever imagined.
In addition, the refugees may have unrealistic expectations of their sponsors. They are told in the refugee camp, "You have a sponsor," and they think the United States Government will give money to the sponsoring family. So when the refugees arrive in America and the sponsor doesn't hand over a sum of money, they begin to suspect that the money is being withheld.
Better education can solve these problems. We must educate the refugees to understand that the sponsors are just volunteers. And we must educate the sponsors to understand that helping refugees transition into the mainstream of American life is a collective action involving many community structures, including churches, schools, and social services.
Second, please note and underline that the orientation to life in the United States that the Sudanese receive in the refugee camps is not very helpful. They are told, for example, that in America if you have a problem, just call 911. After the family arrives in America, the husband may be working nights and sleeping during the day. His wife is with the children all the time and feels isolated and frustrated. Quarreling begins. It's a problem, so she calls 911. The police come and think this is an abuse situation. They remove the husband from the home and take him to jail.
That is not how we resolve family problems in Sudanese culture. There, when a wife sees that her husband is really angry, or she is afraid he might start beating, she goes to a relative. That relative or an elder of the village will take the wife back home and everyone will sit down to discuss the issues. A solution is worked out. No one breaks up the family or puts the husband in jail or takes away the child from the family.
I have tried to encourage the Sudanese refugees to organize under the leadership of local pastors. We've started this in California, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, New York, and Tennessee. Now when there are family problems, the Sudanese can call the pastor and not the police. There are still a few problems that have reached the stage of police intervention, but this strategy has minimized the severity of domestic problems.
Third, I spent time explaining the historical and cultural background of the Sudanese refugee because understanding the background of the Sudanese refugee girl will help you remember that she may hide deep psychological wounds. American Band-Aids will not help.
I'll use the issue of rape to show why this understanding is important.
Most of the studies about the long-term effects of rape concern Western women, in times of peace, who have suffered a single incidence of rape. These studies have limited value for helping us understand the experience of the refugee rape victim. In time of war, gang rape by soldiers becomes a strategic weapon. Widespread, systematic, and repeated raping damages the target civilian population in a way that bombs and chemicals cannot. A campaign of rape often includes torture, mass murder, and, for the women who live through it, the ultimate social consequence of rejection by family and community.
As with most rape victims, the refugee women are reluctant to talk about the experience. Many of them will not talk about it. The doctor may see physical evidence of sexual violence. The social worker may see behavioral evidence. But until a trust relationship is established, the refugee woman will never reveal the true source of her pain.
When and if she does, we must be careful that our response continues to earn her trust. Western counseling methods that require the rape victim to discuss the details of the assault can cause a woman from Sudan to experience even more psychological damage. Healing must take place in harmony with the rape victim's culture, not necessarily, in harmony with American culture. Being sensitive to cultural responses is essential to helping the Sudanese women make a healthy adjustment to life in America.
Remember what I said about a Sudanese woman's sense of identity. It comes from her participation in community life. For a girl or woman from the Sudan, healing from the violence of rape means restoring her sense of community. We should not put these women into therapy groups that focus on events of the past. Women from African cultures heal best when they are allowed to organize themselves into self-help support groups that focus on moving forward. This path to healing does not ignore the trauma, but rather allows the women to overcome its effects in their own way.
There is another issue specific to girls and women from the Sudan that I need to mention. It is the issue of female circumcision, or, as some call it, female genital mutilation. The very words shock the Western ear.
Health care providers in the United States are largely unaware of female circumcision, much less familiar with the physical problems it can cause. I won't go into detail here about how circumcision changes a woman's body. What is important for us to think about now is how we react to these girls and these women. Circumcised females need specialized care, yet the negative reaction that they receive from health care workers in the United States only adds to the shame and prejudice surrounding the whole issue.
Because it is so widely practiced among the Muslims in the Horn of Africa, people think female circumcision is a religious practice and thus feel intolerance toward Muslims. But female circumcision is in fact a social practice that many of the world's Muslims oppose.
If we are to earn the trust of circumcised refugee women, we must first respect this practice. I do not mean that we have to agree with female circumcision or approve of it. I mean that we must accept circumcised girls and women as they are. I mean that we must try to understand the circumcised woman's point of view. Only then can we, or can health care professionals, address the practice as a health issue and begin to educate the women, and their husbands, and their daughters toward a healthier way of life.
Fourth, another need the refugees have is for education. Many came straight from the village to the United States. The transition to this culture was very hard on them. Those with a little education, which usually includes study of the English language, adjusted more readily and found jobs. Generally this is the man of the family. The women are suffering because they don't leave their apartments and they don't speak English. Many are having children every year and that compounds the problem. At the very least, these women need to develop a functional literacy, so they can read bus schedules and the names of products and prices in the stores.
The girl refugees also have language difficulties. They have hard time coping with their schoolwork and may receive little or not encouragement from home. Their parents probably cannot help them even if they wanted to, because they have little or no ability to read and write English. Teachers must be made aware of the cultural barriers that exist in the home and find ways to encourage the parents to become involved in the cultural transition their daughters are making.
Fifth, family planning is a big concern for the women, but again, language is a barrier. They are embarrassed to discuss sexual matters with men, even with male doctors. When I'm among refugee women, they tell me the kinds of things they won't tell anybody else, because I am a woman and I speak their language. On a visit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota I met a woman who had just arrived from Ethiopia, a widow with four children. How will this woman, who barely speaks English, help her daughters face the overwhelming pressure toward promiscuity that American culture places upon its young people? She cannot do it alone.
Finally, encourage the girls and women to organize themselves into self-help support groups that focus on solving problems. I know young people have a lot of energy and they should be encouraged to join school activities such as sports, cultural, and academic associations.
This approach works because the support group provides the sense of connection and participation that anchors Sudanese women culturally. Involving the refugee girls and woman in designing solutions to their problems is a major step in the process of integrating them into the community at large. Within the context of the self-help support group, both the new and the more experienced refugee women can analyze their problems and work in coordination with existing social services to design solutions.
In establishing a support group, it is important to get the women to organize themselves. It must be their initiative and they must take ownership. The African male may be the head of the household, but the African woman is its center. She is the one who holds the family together, who spends the most time with the children, and who plays the most important role in the provision of family health. And it is the African woman refugee who is most likely to become isolated by American society. By encouraging the girls and women to organize themselves and to take initiative, we show our confidence in them, which, in turn, gives the new refugee the confidence and connection she need to make a healthy adjustment to life in the New World.
I'm not suggesting that by organizing the women into self-help support groups that they should held back from entering the mainstream of American society. On the contrary, the group provides a safe place from which to venture out. Most Americans have no idea that the majority of refugees coming from Africa are women and children and young men who have suffered violence and hard living conditions. Most Americans are very trusting. They have difficulty comprehending a world where it is dangerous to trust anybody. As we encourage African refugee girls and women to learn to trust other people in their new community, we should make an effort to sensitize people about the refugee culture. Again, the refugees can be part of the solution, since, when it comes to their own culture, they are the experts. They can help educate America.
The cultural adjustment that refugee girls and women face in the United States is but one aspect of the larger problems in the Sudanese refugee community. My experience in working with refugees has allowed me to see the interconnectedness and the global dimension of refugee problems. I know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the problems that face the Sudanese refugee in America. How easy it is to feel completely insignificant and defeated. It is precisely in those moments of self-doubt that we have to pull ourselves up to find our inner strength in the love of Christ and in the knowledge that this work is His work.
This gives me great confidence to be a part this effort - an effort that values the sanctity of human life. I hope that each one of you feels somehow connected to this life-affirming struggle.
When I arrived in the United States in 1984 as a young refugee woman, I hoped to regain many of the things I had lost: peace, happiness, and community. At first, I was disappointed. But through learning, making friends, and getting involved I found out that Peace, Happiness, and Community really do exist in the United States. I had to learn how to find them.
Your challenge is to show Sudanese refugees and their American friends the way to a new life through educating, counseling, and organizing. Did you notice something? Educating, counseling, and organizing are verbs. They are actions. And if you will do these things, and do them over and over and over again, together as believers with glad and sincere hearts, we can make a difference in these young people's lives to be good human beings.
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Duany, Julia 2000. African Refugee Crisis: Challenge of the 21st Century. Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. USA.
_________ 1998. Learning from the Survivors. The South Sudanese Lens, South Sudanese Friends International, Inc. (SSFI), Bloomington, Indiana. USA. Vol. 6, Issue 2.
Ember, Carol R. and Melvin Ember 1998. Cultural Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. USA.
Early, James Counts 1996. Culture (Wars) and the African Diaspora: Change and Opportunity for US Museums. ISSUE, A Journal of Opinion, African Studies Association, Vol. XXIV/2.
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