USA (MNN) — For World Refugee Day, MNN’s Lyndsey Gammage talked to Emmanuel Atem, a Sudanese refugee who came to America through Bethany Christian Services with his three younger siblings in the fall of 2000. Emmanuel and his siblings were taken in by two related families. This is Emmanuel’s personal story.
Lyndsey: Maybe just start off by explaining how you came from Sudan to America and just the process of being a refugee, especially since World Refugee Day is coming up.
Emmanuel: I started out in Sudan, born in Sudan. Our country has been in civil war for many years right now. So when the war broke out, all the refugees in the area I was in, we fled to Kenya…in 1992 right by the border. We lived there for a couple of months, and then we got moved to Kakuma where we stayed for eight years as refugees. We lived in Kenya for eight years, and life was not easy. It was tough. So when the United States decided to bring us over, everybody was excited and we went through the paperwork, and that’s how I ended up here.
Lyndsey: That first day, your village was attacked wasn’t it?
Emmanuel: Yeah, the village was attacked. And before we came to Kenya, we went to different villages. If the war breaks out in this one little village, then we’d walk miles and miles to the next village in another city. We’d stay there for a couple of days, and later on the enemy would still catch up with us and attack us again, and the whole village would start running again in a different direction until we made it to Kenya.
Lyndsey: You’re the oldest, and you have three younger siblings. Could you talk about that experience of having to kind of be the one stepping up? Where were your parents at the time?
Emmanuel: That time was really, really difficult…. At that time, my dad was in the army of Sudan, and my mom was somehow in the second village when the war broke out. We kind of lost her from there. I just ended up with my three siblings and my uncle who was around at that time. Isaac was really little (my younger brother), so sometimes I had to carry him on my shoulders and try to carry food and water at the same time, and it was not really easy….
Lyndsey: So then you were traveling around, you made it to the refugee camp; what was it like at the refugee camp?
Emmanuel: It was just like going to the woods. You know some people go take a walk in the woods? That’s how it was…. There was no house, there’s no water system, nothing. So we had to start from there. It was just like almost starting from the beginning…. We’d sleep under the shade [and] the trees, then wake up tomorrow and try to find water.
Lyndsey: So how did you eventually hear about the possibility of leaving the camps and making it to the United States?
Emmanuel: …We had a refugee camp leader that had communication with the United Nations and the Kenyan government. So whenever they had a meeting and the American government would tell them something, they would come and announce it…on a microphone to make it loud.
Lyndsey: So you got registered, came over to the United States, and then how did life for you change?
Emmanuel: Life was really shocking because just coming from where we came from where you don’t live under authority or house rules, it was really difficult. We came here and got put into families that already had their family structure. For us it was extremely difficult because first of all you have to build trust and be able to trust that person. Once you get the trust down, you start to obey a little bit more and listen to them a little bit closer than you would to other people. That was a long process, but after we got it down, it became easy. But going to school was hard, too, because the American kids would kind of make fun of you either in the class or in the basketball gym. So it was a lot of things that we went through.
Lyndsey: Did you see the Church step in and help you at this time?
Emmanuel: I think what really helped us out most, I would truly say, that going to the Sudanese church at the time and still maintaining our culture, read our Bible language, and sing in our own worship songs. It was really helpful in many ways. Even though we go to American churches, we go there for the family part and try to listen to it, but at that time our English was not that good, so it was really not easy to get all the words that the Bible was saying. But church is a big part of us becoming who we are right now. Even back in Africa or here, the church was a lot of help.
Lyndsey: And you were also really connected with Bethany Christian Services?
Emmanuel: Bethany really helped us a lot because when we came here, we were used to living in a group and able to visit people…. But when Bethany stepped in and gave us a place that we celebrate…things like that kind of bring us together, and Bethany did a wonderful job with that.
Lyndsey: Now you mentioned that you guys were separated from your mom back in Sudan. What were the circumstances behind finding her again?
Emmanuel: Finding her was not easy since we didn’t have any skills to do research. We just knew that she was alive because nobody told us she was dead. We just knew she was alive somewhere, but we just didn’t know where. Having family, you get to talk to them in Africa and they will tell you, “Oh I heard she was here and there.” But when we came to America, it was kind of difficult because being here, there’s no way you can really do research and try to find your person.
But God helped. When Janelle [the woman who was housing my sisters] went on a trip, she ended up in Australia. She met a Sudanese girl that she thought looked like my sister. She introduced herself and they talked. When [Janelle told] that girl, “I have Sudanese daughters, too,” and told her their names, the girl recognized the names and said, “They’re my cousins! Their mom lives here!” When I heard that, I didn’t believe it until Janelle gave me a phone number to call. When I called my mom, I talked to her on the phone, but I still had doubts because I didn’t know it was her until she started calling me with my little kid name–the name that she would call me when I was angry or not happy just to make me happy. When she said that name, I said, “That’s my mom.” …Without God, all this would not be possible.
Lyndsey: For families who are listening to this who are interested in possibly [providing foster care for] someone who’s been through the refugee situation, how would you encourage them to get involved?
Emmanuel: I would say it’s a great way to get involved. First, it’s not just for a person. It’s doing it for our God…. Most of the time, God will help through people, and if God touches your heart and you have an opportunity to get a kid from refugee, I would say go for it. You will learn a lot from them, and they will learn a lot from you. And most important, you are helping God’s people, too.
Lyndsey: And even just trying to understand the mindset of these kids coming from refugee situations, a lot of times it’s because of things like war. What kind of mindset do kids usually have when they’re coming from that situation?
Emmanuel: For my example, I would say when they’re coming from that situation it’s not just a really easy change. But if you’re able to get a kid from refugee, you have to be patient most of the time. First, English is not their language. There are a lot of English words that they might take wrong. For example, when I first came here and somebody tell me, “Please, go and get this,” I would not do it because back home in my country if you say, “Somebody, please,” it’s almost like ordering somebody to do something. So a lot of little things like that in English sound different.
Second, just really try to get to know them. If they’re willing to talk, listen to them. The thing that will be difficult with the family and that kid is trusting them right off the bat because they don’t know you. They might look different, you look different, but at the end of the day they start trusting you and you trust them, and all of the sudden you become one big family.
Lyndsey: Do you think you could take a minute and pray on air for refugees around the world?
Emmanuel: Right now?
Lyndsey: Sure, go ahead.
Emmanuel: Dear God, I just want to say thank You for this day. Thank you for the opportunity that You gave me to speak to the refugees today and other people that are listening. I just want to say thank You, God, and please help those that need help. Whatever the situation might be, Lord, You always know things that we don’t know. Coming from the refugee camp to places like America and many other places, it’s not easy. There are a lot of things that we give to You at once, but with Your help and Your power, Lord, everything is possible. I pray that You will give families that have feelings and hearts trying to adopt or help the refugees, please help them and give them the courage to do that because it’s not only that they’re helping the kids, but God, they’re showing Your Word. All that I pray in Your name, Amen.