On January 9, Southern Sudanese will vote on in a referendum to determine whether Southern Sudanese wish to secede from the North and create an independent nation. It is expected to easily pass. It is obvious why the Southern Sudanese wish to secede from Bashir and the North. After a civil war and years of being second class citizens in a country that they didn’t create, they are ready to determine their own way forward. I am thrilled for my Southern Sudanese friends, and praying that the vote and its aftermath are free of violence. President Bashir is now claiming that he will welcome a peaceful transition to independence for Southern Sudan. I hope that this indicted war criminal can be trusted on this, but recent signs seem positive (I do trust Jeffrey Gettleman’s assessment, as he is a journalist whose work I believe is highly trustworthy).
Why do I care so much? I was lucky enough to do work for the Southern Sudanese Community of Washington when I lived in Seattle. I helped Sudanese refugees who were resettled in Washington State with things like filing for permanent residency or citizenship. I helped a few with negotiating social services in the United States. Through these rather inconsequential actions on my part, I was able to meet people who profoundly changed my life and caused me to want to be a better person. I met people who daily sacrificed to get an education and worked hard to support their family and their community (whom they also considered to be a part of their extended family). It is hard for me to explain why these experiences were so substantial to me and not sound like some sort of overly idealistic, young naif. But I will try.
(Word of advice, read What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng; or if you want something more substantial and historical, then I have some other books I can recommend.)
I can put it best by explaining the impact that my friend Thichiot Banguot had on my life. Thichiot’s background was similar to most of the other Sudanese refugees with whom I worked. He had lost his family during the Civil War in Southern Sudan while he was tending the herds out in the fields and Arab militiamen raided his village and sent his family fleeing (his father was killed). Thichiot fled too with other village boys and was shuffled between refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, based on the political conditions of the time. Many of the boys because soldiers for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Some, like Thichiot, were ultimately accepted as refugees in the US. I met Thichiot after additional misfortune met him in our country. While working a twelve-hour shift in a refridgerator on a fishing boat in Alaska, his fingers developed frostbite. No work gloves had been provided to him, because the ship did not have gloves that would fit his long hands, so he had worked the shift with no hand protection. Unsure of what to do after finishing his shift, he took a warm shower and burned the flesh of his hands. Ultimately, his injuries were such that it necessitated the amputation of parts of several of his fingers. I met Thichiot as I was told that a member of the community needed rides to Seattle to his doctor’s office from his home in Auburn, Washington. As I shuffled Thichiot to and from appointments, worked with him and his attorney in filing a claim against the fishing company that had not provided Thichiot with protective work gear, and helping him with his permanent residency application, I made a very good friend. In fact, of all of the people who I met in Seattle, Thichiot is probably the person that I miss the most. I can’t explain it adequately. Thichiot had seen more tragedy than any other person that I knew, and yet, he was also positive and happy. When his case finally settled and he had enough money to pay for him to go to school (his greatest desire), and help his family (that he found out were alive and living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia), he wanted to use his money to take David and I to dinner. I have never in my life known someone who was that unselfish with everything that he did.
Yet, this country too doesn’t seem to always appreciate Thichiot and the hard work of his fellow Sudanese refugees. They labored in box factories, worked graveyards shifts as security guards in casinos, spent long shifts in dangerous and unattractive jobs in meat and fish factories doing the work that most Americans consider beneath them. They do this so that they can support and build up their community in the U.S. and back in Sudan. They did this so that they could earn money to obtain an education, which was the desire of every Sudanese person that I have met. Some people do not treat them kindly and exploit them. It makes me angry, because if they realized the amount of integrity and kindness that Thichiot and his fellow Sudanese possessed, then perhaps they wouldn’t treat them that way. At a time in my life when I wanted to wallow in my own misfortunes, the thought of Thichiot and the others kept me from self-destructing in my own selfishness.
So when I think about Thichiot and the other Sudanese friends that I have made and their return trips to Sudan to vote in the referendum, I pray for their peace and happiness. They deserve it. They deserve a free nation that they can build up. They have waited so long for this opportunity and after all of the hardships they have faced as a people, the deserve peace.