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Sudanese refugees find home, struggle in Kansas City

By Matt Hackworth

KANSAS CITY – This community is home to a growing African refugee population, including Sudanese people who fled their home country in the shadow of civil war. Once here, the threat of imminent danger naturally passed but new struggles began. As part of the Network KC partnership project, K-C-U-R's Matt Hackworth profiles Sudanese refugees trying to start a new life in Kansas City.

Like most Sudanese refugees, Aluel Agoth tells a story of war. She says the Sudanese government in Khartoum had just accused her husband of spying when one night, explosions woke her.

People came to attack us at home. When the attack came, they were attacking the whole area, not just my house. They thought my husband was dealing with the rebels. The governemt came and attacked the village. One of the people who ran with us found out my husband was caught and put in jail (skip to 04:57) I feel like my life and my children's lives were in danger.

Agoth still doesn't know what happened to her husband, and she's now a single mother to seven children. Civil war between Sudan's authoritarian Muslim regime in the north and Christian rebels in the south has claimed more than 3 million lives so far. As war claims more and more husbands in Sudan, single mothers like Agoth flee and find themselves in new countries with new jobs. Groups like Jewish Vocational Services help Sudanese families re-locate to Kansas City. Catholic Charities in Kansas City, Kansas sponsored Agoth's family, and helped them settle into a small duplex in Olathe. Agoth says she's grateful but still worried:

I'm not worried about the government coming to pick me up like they do in Sudan. But at the same time, I have difficulty maintaing the house here, to pay the rent I'm making $7.55 an hour. It's very difficult for me. I struggle because that doesn't cover the utilities and the rent.

[sound of kitchen]

Aluel Agoth works at The Forum retirement community in Overland Park. Workers sling pots and pans, nimbly dodging each other in the hot, institutional kitchen. A heavy sweet smell pours from racks of dirty dishes where Agoth and two other Sudanese women wash for eight hours a day. Steve Weitkamp runs Catholic Charities' refugee program here and says well paying jobs are hard to come by for most refugees.

So maybe you had a good job, in the country you had to flee. Maybe you were even professional class but those professional credentials don't translate to America, and you don't speak enough English even if they did. So you're working a job that you would have scorned in your home country.

Weitkamp says Sudanese people make up for a lack of training and language barriers with a strong work ethic. The Forum in Overland Park is one in Catholic Charity's network of employers who commonly place Sudanese refugees in jobs. Food and Beverage manager Chris Storm says washing the mountain of dirty dishes is a job most people don't want but it's one the Sudanese happily do every day.

They're just a kind, generous and very helping people. They look for things to do. It's probably one of the things they have to do to learn, they observe and they look and they see what has to be done and before you know it, they're doing it for you.

One Sudanese refugee often serves as a translator for others on a shift who only speak their native Dinka, and no English. Language and cultural practices naturally bind Kansas City's Sudanese, even though their native land is half a world away.

[sound of singing in Dinka]

This Sudanese group sings for a multi-cultural Christian worship service. It's hard for many Sudanese to worship easily in parts of Sudan dominated by the country's Muslim government. But here, there are enough refugee families to support the Sudanese Community Church in northeast Kansas City. Peter Biet is the church's administrator and says he was punished in Sudan because he refused to accept the faith of an extremist government.

When you are accused of that you are thrown into the jail. You suffer the consequences of being a Christian. So, in Kansas here, we are getting these benefits these special benefits from the Churches.

Around 100 Sudanese regularly attend the church, and many more Sudanese worship in other, more mainstream churches across Kansas City. Refugee workers say it's hard to know how many Sudanese are here because some may move here after relocating to other U-S cities. They hear about Kansas City's comfortable suburbs and schools, and move here to be near family.

[fade in sound of kids ]

A cousin lives with Aluel Agoth, and helps care for the family's youngest children while Aluel works washing dishes until 9 at night. The kids rush to the refrigerator after school for a snack. Several of the children are very young, possibly young enough that they may forget the horrific war that took their father and forced them to flee in the dark of night. Agoth says she's glad the journey brought her family to America.

I am grateful that they will have opportunity to get education here. In Sudan there is no opportunity like what you have here in America.

For that chance, Agoth says trying to stay afloat on her $7.55 an hour may be worth the struggle.

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