The balancing act: Northern Virginia’s South Sudanese grapple with dual responsibilities
| By Mandy McLaren and Sara Wise |
The worshippers arrived in their Sunday best. Bibles were readied, children were shushed, and, with the beat of an African drum, Easter services began.
The congregation alternated easily between bowed prayer and risen song, as the sounds of Dinka – the language of South Sudan’s largest ethnic tribe – resonated in the eaves of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where prayers had echoed in English just hours before.
The more than two-dozen South Sudanese seated among the church pews hold this time together sacred. They gather weekly at St. Paul’s in Alexandria. There, they reconnect to a place their hearts never left.
Just six years ago, South Sudan gained its independence. Many refugees here and across the U.S. believed a long-awaited return home was finally in reach.
“When you get that country you’ve been waiting for for years, it’s an unimaginable feeling,” said Chol Isaac Achuil, 36, one of the nearly 4,000 South Sudanese refugees resettled across the U.S. in the early 2000s. Known internationally as the “lost boys of Sudan,” many earned college degrees at American universities, intent on one day rebuilding their country.
But for many among the diaspora, the path back home has been complicated by a renewed civil war. That conflict, which began in 2013, has displaced 1.7 million South Sudanese from their homes, according to a 2017 congressional report. And in February, a famine affecting 100,000 people was declared by the United Nations.
Still, for South Sudanese resettled in the U.S., life goes on and obligations continue.
Lost boys are now grown men, saddled with responsibilities on two continents and caught in a constant balancing act — repaying their own student loan debt while financing a niece’s education, meeting their monthly rent while covering a sister’s medical expenses. And as the conflict in South Sudan intensifies, the financial burden abroad has only grown heavier, local community members say.
“Everyone back home depends on us,” said Nathaniel Nyok, a former lost boy and one of several local South Sudanese driving for Uber or other ridesharing services as a second job.
Nyok, who lives in Alexandria with his wife, drives up to 60 hours per week for the national ride-share company. Part of those earnings go toward the $1,400 in school tuition he pays every semester for two nephews back in Africa.
“It’s demanding,” he said, “but you don’t have a choice.”
Politics and prayers
For Nyok, Sunday afternoons are the only time to rest and recharge after a grueling workweek. And for this small but tight-knit community, St. Paul’s has become a respite from life’s compounding pressures.
Nestled in the heart of Old Town, the church shares it space with the local South Sudanese community for free, according to Rev. Thon M. Chol.
Rev. Chol leads services in Dinka, the native language of his nearly 40 congregants, while a church in nearby Annandale serves the area’s Arabic-speaking South Sudanese community.
Chol’s congregants come from across the D.C. Metro area, from Rockville, Md., to Fredericksburg, Va. On Easter, one man traveled all the way from Baltimore.
According to Chol, the reverend who has led services at St. Paul’s since 2008, many come to church for more than worship. They come for support.
And as conflict in South Sudan drags on, that support has become crucial – especially for those who have experienced the trauma of war themselves, Chol said.
“The current crisis has triggered a lot of old memories,” he said. “A lot of people are not in a good mental health state.”
According to the State Department, 110 South Sudanese refugees were resettled in the U.S. during the first half of fiscal year 2016 – a figure 40 percent higher than the total number resettled during the entire previous fiscal year.
For South Sudanese in the D.C. area anxious about their country’s fate – and the fates of relatives still living there — church is a chance to focus on their own needs.
“It’s like individual therapy. They share their pain and they comfort each other,” Rev. Chol said.
But for some South Sudanese communities in the U.S., this sanctuary is being threatened. Tribal divisions have begun to overspill South Sudan’s borders via social media, leading some pastors to mix politics with prayer, according to Chol. He is now joining with other community leaders to combat the problem.
Still, the Alexandria and Annandale congregations are separated by more than linguistics. Each church serves a different South Sudanese tribal group, a reflection of emerging divisions in diaspora communities nationwide.
“We are all victims here,” said John Leek, of Alexandria, who resettled in the U.S. as a teenager. “This idea of you choosing whether you are with the government or with the rebels, is not serving us.”
At 36, Leek is now an American citizen. A financial auditor by day and Uber driver come weekend, he is also the elected leader of the local South Sudanese community.
“If anything happened to me — for god’s sake — tomorrow, it’s not who I’m supporting in South Sudan who would help me,” Leek said. “It’s who I’m living with here that will support me.”
Crossing tribal lines
On Easter, there was no sign of politics at St. Paul’s.
Beyond its role as a place of worship, the church acts as an ad-hoc community center. On this day, families lingered for hours after services to celebrate the first birthday of a family’s twins.
Children scampered about, giggling beneath colorful birthday hats. Their fathers – some former lost boys, others current embassy officials — sat together over a meal of traditional South Sudanese food, scooping up spinach stewed in peanut butter with spongy corn flatbread.
For Nyok, 37, the value of finding civility among differences is a lesson he still dreams of bringing back home.
“We came here with one goal, and one goal only, and that was to acquire knowledge, to give back to our community,” he said.
When he’s not driving for Uber, Nyok devotes his time to founding a school near where he grew up. Forced from his home by war as an 8-year-old boy, he returned to South Sudan for the first time in 2009.
While there, Nyok saw a community eager to send its kids to school, but lacking the infrastructure and resources to do so. Classes, held under trees, were often canceled due to weather conditions, he said.
“When we were the lost boys, we came to know that education was the only way out of our suffering,” said Nyok, who earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree after being resettled in the U.S. at 22.
To Nyok, South Sudan’s worsening conflict – which displaced his own mother from her home three years ago – is added motivation to turn his dreams for a school into a reality.
“Without education, I cannot dialogue with my brothers in a peaceful way. I would always want to fight to get my interests,” Nyok said.
There are 64 different tribes in South Sudan, and, according to Nyok, the country’s civil strife can be traced back to its citizens prioritizing their tribal identity over a national one. His school, he said, will create an environment for students to form friendships across tribal lines, and to – eventually — transcend political divides.
“I just want them to succeed. I want them to give it all. I want them to know that it is not easy,” Nyok said. “I want them to be able to use that chance to change their families, change their lives and change the life of South Sudan.”