By Nisha Bhakta and Alexsandra McMahan
On Sunday May 29, 2011 a consortium of students doing independent research on Africa as well as representatives from the South Sudanese Community Center and the East African Women’s Consortium came together and presented “Africa Today and Tomorrow” at the Great Hall. Their keynote speaker, the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the South Sudanese Community Center, John Kuek provided a brief overview of the conflicts in Sudan.
With the knowledge of its coming independence in 1956, North and South Sudan broke out into civil war in 1955. Various military coups followed until a peace agreement was signed in 1972, leading to ten years of peace in South Sudan after which various coups and tensions arose once again and a second civil war began. In 2002 a landmark peace deal and a renewable six-month ceasefire were signed, which led to the end of the nineteen-year civil war. However violence erupted in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003. Finally, in 2005 another peace agreement was signed by the PCA; however, this time the agreement stipulated a referendum for independence after six years (2011). Voting took place this year effectively making South Sudan its own independent country. As a result, the Sudanese people cast their vote this year in favor of creating a new nation – South Sudan.
As a refugee from Sudan who immigrated to the United States in 1995, Kuek also provided a firsthand perspective of life as a refugee. Kuek was born into a third class family whose livelihood was centered around farming and livestock. However the civil tensions that took place during his childhood caused his family to flee to refugee camps in Ethiopia where he remained for five years, after which he migrated to another camp in Kenya for two more years and then finally immigrated to the United States. In his discussion of South Sudan, Kuek mentioned that the peace agreement will create some infrastructure, but that there will still be a lack of common public services, including simple roads in some regions. Economic status and social tension in Sudan prevented Kuek from attaining an education; however, after coming to the United States, Kuek was able to go back to school and he completed his Masters program this year in marriage, family and child counseling. Life and the opportunities offered in the United States are very different, said Kuek, from the life he lived in Sudan and the refugee camps.
PROSPECT: In terms of resettlement, whether it is here or in other countries, what do you think seems to be the biggest hurdle for Southern Sudanese immigrants? You talked a lot about how it is a very difficult process. If you had to pick one thing, what do you think that might be that could be changed by other people?
KUEK: I think that the unemployment is a big thing. Anywhere you go, you have to resettle, and you have to have a home and you need money. You [need to] rent an apartment – that is the first obstacle. When people come here alone, they don’t know anyone and they’re very encouraged to come onto welfare, and welfare will only give them assistance for eight months. After eight months, they are on their own. They have to find a job, any job, and they are very difficult to find.
PROSPECT: Where do you see Southern Sudan five years from now? Are you a supporter of the referendum, and do you think that it will be in [the people’s] best interest? What do you think is going to change for them?
KUEK: It will change big time. As a refugee child, I grew up in refugee camps and I have seen – now, I’m old enough to say anything. The civil war started when I was a kid. We never had an opportunity to live a good life. What I mean by good life is being free to pray to God in any way you wanted, or to work with the government, or to provide assistance to our people — we’ve never had that. But this referendum, in which I took part – I supported it – and I was one of the activists here, in San Diego, in the USA, to make sure that the Southern Sudanese in the USA voted. Five years from now, our people will live a better life, a better life better than now in South Sudan. In terms of infrastructure, some of the infrastructure will be up and running. Like clean water, that project is under way now and healthcare is under way now. Doctors without Borders and other missionaries are there now, trying to help. Construction — roads — is there. Education is right there now. Five years from now, a lot of our children will be in school. Now women are giving birth like, this, [snaps fingers rapidly] and the kids are dying from disease. Immunizations will be there. Five years from now, our lives back home will change.
PROSPECT: With South Sudan, do you think that NGOs, such as Doctors without Borders, will have a bigger impact than the government on the people’s lives, or do you think they will both play a really big role in development?
KUEK: I think they both play a big role in helping. Doctors without Borders will only do a little bit, because the country is big, it’s a huge country, and they have limited resources – they depend on donation from us. Their reach is very limited. The economy may be stopped in some areas [because of] lack of water. The government there will provide the biggest help because the money of the country will be invested in infrastructure, with help from Non-Governmental Agencies, NGOs and the UN. Together, they will bring change.
PROSPECT: In regards to the UN, do you think they will continue to have an active presence in [Southern] Sudan, in the future, or do you think that presence will change now that Sudan is developing as its own nation? How do you think that will play out?
KUEK: It will change later. For now, there are UN peacekeeping forces in the area, it is not doing so much now. There’s UN agency, and other agencies are going through the UN, it’s like an umbrella agency. They are there, and they will be there for some time, ’cause the country will not fully be good with everything running in 10 years or 15 years. It needs 20, 30 years for everything to be up and running. The UN peacekeeping force might leave the country very soon, as soon as the new government is in place and security provides no threat between the South and the North Sudan at the border…but the UN humanitarian assistance will remain.
PROSPECT: Is there a specific nation that you remember when you were growing up that was really helpful? Some countries receive a lot of aid from France, or from Italy or from a specific area. Was there a country you remember hearing about, or was it just the organizations?
KUEK: UN is the United Nations, and they are from the United States, from Britain, from everywhere. The other non-governmental agency, such as MSF [Doctors without Borders] is from Holland, and MSF really helped a lot from Holland, I remember that.
PROSPECT: Is there anything else you’d really like to say about your experience, and what you’ve seen as a person in this really incredible life?
KUEK: Yes, I have lived a very rough life, and if I go back, refugee life is not easy because nobody is really taking care of you when you are living in the camps. The government is not – you are taking care of yourself…Sometimes you have a fight within the camp itself, and people get killed, just like that. And sometimes, the local people, the local people in whom you are settled in the middle of, will sometimes attack you, and the UN will not do anything. The UN is only there providing food. The UN will not do anything, and food is always, always not enough. You see people malnourished, you see bones walking, too skinny. Not dying because of disease – because they have not enough food. It was quite difficult, and so yeah, I still have memory of that. People who are still living that life right now, I know [that] they are living a really difficult life. There are Sudanese in refugee camps now in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and I think somewhere in Middle East. And those who are just displaced, days ago, now they’re living on the…they’re living…those are the memories that are still there with me, and they’re not really pleasant.
After the event Prospect was also able to sit down with Kate Murray, a postdoctoral fellow from UCSD who provided insight into the importance of healthcare for refugees.
PROSPECT: Kevin mentioned that you work within the community both at UCSD and SDSU.
MURRAY: Yes, it is a joint cancer center partnership. It’s basically a group of lots of faculty, I’m in post-doc currently. There are about five of us, post-doc, so it’s a training program to address cancer disparities [by] looking at ways we can do more work and research and outreach and general education around cancer specifically and then around health more broadly to address that disparity.
PROSPECT: What brought you into this event? Do you have a focus within Africa?
MURRAY: No, we don’t. When I came here, the partnership had largely worked with the Latino community, so part of my coming here was my past experience working with the East African community in Phoenix as well as overseas. So, coming here was kind of to help them to branch out to the African community. It’s a group they hadn’t really worked with much before. One of our staff at the partnership is a UCSD alum, and she graduated and came here, and told me about this group and said, “Oh, you should present!”
PROSPECT: Have you developed a connection to the African community here?
MURRAY: Yes, I am actually on the board of directors at the Southern Sudanese Community Center. And then I’ve been working quite a bit with the United Women’s East African support team, which is a group of lots of women who have kind of come together to try to pool their resources to address the different concerns they see in the community. They have done all sorts of wonderful things. The other speaker who was supposed to come tonight was part of that group.
PROSPECT: Do you know what kind of concerns they’re trying to address currently?
MURRAY: They’ve done all sorts of different things. One of their biggest programs is [for] maternal health, so looking at mother-child health concerns. They’ve done some nutrition classes, both for moms and daughters, and sort of learning how to cook nutritiously and how to cook with the foods that are available here, and sort of bridging that gap, because you know, the kids go to school, and see junk food… So, trying to work within the family to bridge that cultural gap too.
PROSPECT: Does any of their working get sent back to their communities in Africa, or is it mainly based in their local communities?
MURRAY: One of the things, I think, about all of the African community members here, is that all of them send money home regularly, so there is a very informal support that happens naturally within the communities. I know some folks within the different centers have done more local projects, targeting on certain things, so whether that’s clean water, or trying to support, certainly, Sudan around the election and referendum, there’s a lot to be done, so yes, that is happening. I think that is a high priority for all of them. Trying to organize to do that, to make that happen, is something.
PROSPECT: What do you think some of the most effective projects within what you’ve seen here, has really helped these refugees the most, both to assimilate here and to feel that connection back home?
MURRAY: I think there are a lot of really interesting things happening in San Diego. I was impressed, just moving here. There are a lot of different things that are going on that look at it more holistically…The IRC, the International Rescue Committee, just won a national award for some of the really innovative projects they’ve done…They have a community garden that Michelle Obama visited not too long ago, so they have a lot of really interesting projects…so you can grow your plants and crops from back home and change skills to cash. I think there are some really interesting things around justice that are happening, I think there’s a lot of interest around access to healthcare, and help people sort of aggregate the changes that have happened recently to healthcare legislation.
PROSPECT: Would you say that healthcare is probably the biggest issue that they encounter coming here?
MURRAY: It’s a problem, yeah. It’s definitely a challenge, just as far as being able to access the healthcare system. It’s part of the resettlement program: as soon as they arrive, they are helped to sort of enter the system. So they have healthcare benefits when they first come, and they have…to help them get on Medicare or other health insurance programs. But there’s always that challenge of doctors here not necessarily being trained in the conditions that they have, and certainly language and communication is certainly a huge issue; having interpreters and having just understanding between the doctors and patients. I think there’s so many levels to health and healthcare, and I think John alluded to it a little bit in his talk too, that their lifestyles change dramatically, right? So, it used to be you walked everywhere to get what you needed, and now, you see shifting health concerns.
PROSPECT: Did you visit East Africa?
MURRAY: No, I worked with an African community in Australia. I had done some work there to learn more about their settlement program, which is quite different.
PROSPECT: What about the differences?
MURRAY: The Australian program [is] touted as the most generous in the world. They provide services for up to five years, whereas here, it’s three to eight months of services that are provided. It’s a really different philosophy, I guess, for the program and certainly it’s culturally based. There, it’s a larger government and they have a lot of social services, so you see why those differences are there. Looking at ways that we could provide a little more support, and to really look at the different things available.
PROSPECT: Besides the amount of time they spend, is there any other specific benefit that they offer in Australia that could be implemented here?
MURRAY: Yeah, they have a huge education program. So often, they discourage people from finding a job until after they’ve taken English as a Second Language classes. So it’s a very different system – they want people to learn the language, they want the people to learn about Australian values.
PROSPECT: So it’s a lot more education based?
PROSPECT: That should set them up probably better than just a couple of months.
MURRAY: Yeah, you know, it’s really interesting and I could talk to you for hours about it, but I think there are really some pros and cons to both of the countries. I think, naturally, people want to help themselves and don’t want to be helped. So there are some real challenges to that too. Not being able to get a job for your first few years that you are there, when that’s really what people want to do…so, it’s a bit of a catch. I think all programs would benefit from making some changes.
PROSPECT: In the next few years, do you see this program growing? Is there an increase in immigration occurring from nations, or with the referendum in Southern Sudan, maybe less? How is this referendum, and how is the current atmosphere in Africa, influencing the work you’re doing here?
MURRAY: So, the resettlement program as a whole, I think, will stay the same in the US. I doubt that will change. There is a ceiling set each year for the number of people who can enter on a refugee visa. I think a lot of the people who have been coming more recently have been coming through family reunification. So, that could potentially change. John talked a little bit about the referendum, so i think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens. I think a lot of people do want to go back, and if you have citizenship here, there might be a lot of people going back and forth multiple times, making trips and really trying to support the country. I think there’s a lot of development that needs to happen [South Sudan]. There are very few paved roads, there are very few schools, there is a lot of infrastructure that needs to happen and I think there is a lot of interest and motivation in the community here to provide that support.
PROSPECT: Essentially, people [are] helping themselves?
Photo Courtesy of Reuters