Before entering my final core curriculum class at Millsaps College, I did not know the true meaning of the word “endure.” Endurance is a word that is used very lightly in American culture. I play women’s lacrosse, and our coach always puts us through conditioning exercises in order to increase our endurance. Because of this and other examples, I always associated endurance with exercising and focused on the physical aspect of it rather than the mental. It wasn’t until I met a Dinka refugee, Rebecca, through the service learning component of our class that I truly began to fully comprehend the meaning of the word “endure.”
The history of the violence between Northern and Southern Sudan is extremely complex. There is not one, but many factors that contribute to the conflict between Northern and Southern Sudan. In 1983, during the Cold War, the North abused the weapons given to them by the U.S.A. by using them on the citizens of Southern Sudan. Bombers, machine guns, and more were used by the government to attack, dislocate, and kill their own people (Johnson 57). Motives for these attacks were based on racial and religious differences, presence of oil in the South, and other reasons. Since 1983, the Dinka, Nuer, and other Sudanese tribes were forced to flee thousands of miles to refugee camps in other countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. Millions of people died from the attacks, from the journey to neighboring countries, from malnutrition, and disease. Even in the refugee camps they were not safe. Locals attacked the refugee camps, there was hardly enough food to go around, and the Sudanese had to face discrimination from other Africans who were in the refugee camps.
The fact that Rebecca is one of these refugees astounds me. When I met her, the first thing I noticed was her bright smile, easy ability to laugh, and her cheerful laugh. She had only been in the U.S. for three months, so her English skills were somewhat limited. It became my contribution to help develop her conversation skills, reading skills, and to help her understand more deeply the English language. We began with reading simple children’s books such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Rebecca seemed to enjoy the silliness of the children’s books, and she also read the book to her 2-year-old daughter, Ayak.
The first day of our reading, Rebecca was nervous, and so was I. I didn’t know her reading level until Sarah, another Sudanese refugee, told me that she could read. Rebecca could read most words and would stop and shrug at the ones that she didn’t know. I remembered how my mom would make me sound out the word when I was younger to help teach me how to read. I used this technique with Rebecca and encouraged her to try pronouncing the word before giving up. This proved to be successful. After our first session, Rebecca began to try words on her own instead of waiting on me to tell her.
Week after week, Rebecca’s shyness decreased and she wanted to do more than read. I noticed that there were certain words that Rebecca did not understand so I would form sentences on the blackboard using the unknown word. Sometimes, I would ask Sarah to translate the word for Rebecca in Dinka, and this worked too. I drew many pictures on the blackboard to further Rebecca’s understanding. I wrote questions on the board for Rebecca to answer in complete sentences. Rebecca was very hesitant about this, but we continued the exercise and she would relax and it became easier for her each time. Rebecca progressed week to week without slowing down. We also so noticed how Rebecca opened up to us and interacted with my classmates, teacher, and the other refugees such as Sarah, Apajok, and the baby, Abiei. The refugees here form a community here in Jackson despite coming from different parts of Sudan. Apajok was raised in Northern Sudan, while Sarah and Rebecca lived in Southern Sudan. However, this does not change their relationship at all. Their camaraderie is apparent and inviting. Dr. Miller always discussed how in Southern Sudan the communities were very open and they would convene with everyone in the village all day. It was different coming to America because people are more closed and wary of each other. They really appreciated gathering at the English House on campus. I would hang out with them after out tutoring session was over just to congregate with them. I enjoyed learning from them just as much as I did tutoring them.
It amazes me when I think about all that Rebecca must have experienced in Southern Sudan. After the civil war broke out in Southern Sudan, Rebecca traveled to Uganda where she lived for eleven years in the refugee camp with her friend, Sarah. She attended school, where she learned science, English, math, and social studies. Rebecca says the land and life was good in Sudan before the civil war. She describes the Sudanese lifestyle as pleasant, prosperous, and says that everyone was happy before the fighting started. Sarah told me that when Rebecca was younger she would lash out against the other refugees who insulted the Sudanese people and culture. I was surprised at this.
Rebecca has come a long way not just in distance, but as a person. She has endured conditions and obstacles in her life that have been outside of her control. This mental endurance is something I think all people should develop. The Sudanese have a bottomless endurance that allows them to work past horrors that they have experienced in Sudan, and to live their lives to the fullest here in America. I’m glad to have met Rebecca and experienced her journey.