A Success From Sudan
Abuk Masham's journey from a war zone to a new life
When Abuk Masham was 8 years old, she watched as her grandfather was shot to death in his small Sudanese village. She remembers the blood, him falling to the ground, and the frightened look on his face. Within the next three years, she had lost five brothers and three sisters to gunmen's bullets and disease as her nation ripped itself apart in a religious and political civil war that lasted more than two decades and left over two million dead.
By the time she was 13, Masham had seen so much hatred and death she no longer cried.
She had developed a steel wall around her heart and an ability to see everyone around her in pain without actually feeling any herself. She became numb to the negativity around her and resolved to one day leave her country.
Today, South Sudan is the world's youngest nation. It was established July 9, 2011, six years after the peace agreement between the Muslim north and the Christian south ended the killing. It still faces widespread poverty, disputes over oil, and the lingering animosity so much loss brings.
Masham, a student at UB, is one of the 10,000 Sudanese refugees, according to www.hopeofsudan.org, in Western New York trying to rebuild her life and reset her moral compass in Buffalo.
She's married and has seven children, and her goals here are basic: she wants to make something of herself. She wants to fulfill at least a fraction of the potential her family lost. She wants to be something for the people she loved.
"If I stayed there I could be dead right now," Masham said. "I wanted to come here, to succeed, to learn, to make something of myself, and help others in the future."
She is determined to be the first in her family to get a college education. She then wants to help those who need it, including refugees and those still struggling in Sudan. She also wants to make sure her children get into college.
When Masham walks around Buffalo, she doesn't see urban decay.
She sees beauty.
She sees freedom and she sees possibility - for herself and her family.
Growing Numb to Pain
Masham grew up with 53 siblings.
Even for normal families in the southern Sudan, that was a lot.
Her father, Deng, took 10 wives and served as a general chief in Southern Sudan. His position allowed him to make decisions about South Sudan's position in the war, and he made a lot of money. His high stature enabled him to support all of his wives and his children.
It also allowed him to break the rules.
As a Christian society, South Sudan does not officially allow polygamy. But men with money, like her father, did what they please with little repercussions, said Masham.
That includes abusing family members. Masham said Sudanese society does not protect its people the way American society does. People are allowed to physically, emotionally, and mentally harm their family members, friends, and strangers.
She said she remembers her father neglecting some of her siblings. By not supporting all of them all the time, and by giving out little amounts of love to his wives and children, he was abusing them. Masham said that her father showed her more love than the rest of her siblings, which led to her siblings getting angry with her and arguing with her because they felt more abused by their father than Masham did.
Masham vowed she would escape. She did not want to live or bring up a family where neglect and death were a common part of everyday life.
"[The whole family] lived in a big building, and every woman lived in a separate area with her children. My mom was his first wife," Masham said. "It's not normal [for a man to have so many wives], and it hurt me. I was in pain but there was nothing I could do about it. That's another reason I left the country. We [as children] didn't have freedom, especially when a man had money - he could do anything."
It was difficult having so many siblings, Masham said. Her father had little to do with his children, particularly after the war started.
Losing three of her 54 siblings was especially hard because of all the time she spent with them. Since they lived in one building, while their mothers were cooking for their children, and their father was out participating in the war, the only thing that got them through each day was each other.
She felt hopeless and knew there was nothing she could do; Masham said that was the hardest part of the pain. She continuously reminded herself that some day she would find a way to help others that felt a similar hopelessness.
When Masham was 13, her father was arrested for being a Northern sympathizer and her life changed.
She and her siblings and their mothers were forced to scratch out a living themselves. Often there was little to eat because there was no money being given to her mother or her father's other wives. They managed to eat small scraps of food when her mother randomly found something to cook for them.
Her father was released three years later and began to earn money for his family again.
Finding a New Life
According to Jerald Martone, director of humanitarian affairs for the International Rescue Committee, about 4.27 million Sudanese were displaced because of the war.
Masham was among them.
"I thought the country would find a solution to the hatred. I thought the racism would end, I thought the burning of the houses would end, I thought the killing would end, but it didn't," Masham said. "I was 21 and I had to leave."
She and her husband, Francis Akuey, gathered their little amount of belongings - they had no money - and were ready to finally leave Sudan. Masham was sad that she was leaving her family behind, but knew she was essentially escaping her death. She knew if she stayed in Sudan she may end up in the same place that her grandfather and eight siblings ended up, and so she was anxious to get out and form a new life for herself.
They pretended like they were coming to America for their honeymoon, and got past customs and security. They applied for their green cards and received them within a year. They stayed until they received their citizenship, four months ago, and no officials caught them while they were illegally here. They just could not leave America or they would be deported.
If they returned to Sudan they would be killed. Their families knew they were leaving, but the government only thought they were going for a honeymoon. They purchased a roundtrip ticket, but never returned back to Sudan.
Once Masham and her husband, Akuey, stepped off the airplane in America in 1999, their new life began.
The pair had met in elementary school and had married just after high school. His dreams were the same as hers, and he loved her so much that he agreed to leave his family behind as well.
Masham insisted on a church wedding, and she insisted Akuey not to take other wives.
Masham and Akuey found jobs in the restaurant business. They cleaned tables and bathrooms, and sometimes served food. They arrived with their 2-year-old daughter, and over the past 13 years, have had six more children.
"My mom is hardworking and she's very willing to sacrifice," said Aluk Akuey, Masham's 15-year-old and oldest daughter. "She is very willing to give up everything to care for us. She took care of us for many years before she went to school."
In 2006, the family had enough money for housing and food, so Masham went to Erie Community College in Buffalo, then transferred to D'Youville College, and three years ago her travels brought her to UB.
She and her husband both study here now, excited and willing to receive the education that was never available to them in Africa.
"I'm in health and human services, and when I leave here I want to take care of the poor," Masham said. "Not only in my country, but all around the world. I will go back to my country...I need to preach the Bible around the world."
Her husband has the same mentality and education goals as she does. He also studies health and human services at UB and hopes to do service in hospitals when he graduates.
Her mother inspires Aluk, because for a while she thought she'd be the only one in her family to obtain a college diploma. She said her mother is a good example and she looks up to her for having the ability to leave such a harsh world and to succeed so happily in a new one.
Akuey makes sure to spend time with his children so they receive the life that Masham never did - one including quality time with their father. Masham carries a Bible and prays every day, asking God to protect her family.
Masham and Akuey are finally figuring out what it means to be happy.
"I never had fun [as a child] - I was always sad," Masham said. "[Since] I left the country I've been happy. My life is changing. I go to school now, and one day I'm going to be a different person. My children are educated and they're growing. One day they're going to be [successful] - presidents, lawyers."
Family Back Home
Masham and Akuey have yet to return to Africa.
Up until July 2011 - when the post-war tensions ended - they feared being killed upon their arrival because of their illegal escape. However, the war is over and times are changing in South Sudan, so Masham's family constantly asks her to come back home.
"They say: 'come back, the country is good.' I say: 'I know but I need to do what I need to do. I need to learn English. I need to write perfectly. I need to talk well, so when I pray, I can pray to everyone,'" Masham said.
Masham and Akuey plan on returning to Africa one day so their children can see their home country, but they will not force them to stay. They want them to be able to make their own decisions and have freedom.
Aluk has made her decision already.
"I want to be a doctor. Instead of being a doctor here, I think I'll be a doctor in South Sudan and help my mom," Aluk said.
She knows that her life has been easy and she wants to return to her parents' homeland and help fix the post-war tensions and preach to others just like her mother. Her family's story inspires her each day to study hard so she can help others.
Aluk also looks forward to meeting Masham's siblings and parents. Seven of her siblings have also made the journey from Sudan to America after seeing the success and happiness that Masham has found here. They currently go to school and have part time jobs as well.
Masham continues to keep in touch with her mom, and has a calling card so she can call all 51 of her living siblings. Her father sends her luxurious articles of clothing, which he makes in Africa, to remind her that a part of home will always be with her. He looks forward to meeting her children and seeing her again.
"I will be different [when I go back to South Sudan]," Masham said. "I go to school here. This country is a country of opportunity. That alone makes me different. My ability now is not the same as before. I learn every day; I meet new people every day; I love people. It's easy for me to get to know people. I will never be smart like an American but [at least] I learn, and that has made me different."
On July 9, 2011, South Sudan officially became an independent state. There are no longer tensions between the North and South, and residents are finally free to live without fear of being shot or burned to death. The nation is a safe home and many refugees dispersed through out America are making their way back to their families and friends that they have not seen in many years.