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World Refugee Day: ‘No situation is permanent’

Malith Chan (left) and his brother, Makur Akot, on their final day at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2015 before leaving for the United States (photo courtesy of Malith Chan).
Monday, June 20, 2016
(Washington, D.C.) June 20, 2016 — Malith Chan will never forget that day in 2010 when soldiers stormed his village in southern Sudan and started their indiscriminating killing. Woman, children, anyone they could find was fair game – innocent victims of Sudan’s brutal civil war.

Lucky for Malith, 14 at the time, the attackers didn’t catch him or his younger brother, and the two were able to escape and flee across the border with Kenya to the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

“The soldiers just went to the village and beat everybody, shooting the children – kids even 2 years old – killing the old people,” he said.

Without parents or family, Malith was adrift in the massive camp for much of the next three years, fending for himself while looking after his brother, two years his junior. The United Nations run camp provided basic food rations, but it wasn’t enough.

“Some people are starving in the camp,” he said.

“People are just put there in the camp, whether they are from Somali or South Sudanese, Ethiopians, wherever, they are just put in one general community, and nobody cared about you,” he said. “Whether it’s food or whatever, you have to cook for your own.”

But eventually, Malith came in contact with Jesuit Refugee Service while at Kakuma, and his hope quickly restored.

“When JRS took me into protection, my life changed,” he said. “I was doing poorly in school when I was in the (general public) portion of the camp. But when I got into the protection area of JRS, I did primary school, and when I was done JRS offered me a scholarship to study at a Kenyan (secondary) school…So I got that opportunity with JRS.”

“I love JRS.”

Last November, Malith, now 19, and his brother resettled to Phoenix, where they live with an older cousin who already was in Arizona.   

Life in Phoenix required an adjustment. Getting around the sprawling city wasn’t easy without a car. And without a significant Sudanese population, making friends in Arizona took some time.

“I had no idea (about Phoenix). All I knew was that it was a place even hotter than Kakuma,” he said. “When I first came here, I couldn’t understand anything from these American people. I’d just nod my head but I didn’t get what they say.”

But he quickly found a job and soon had saved money for a car. And in May he started GED classes, with the hope of eventually going to college to study civil engineering.

Phoenix “is a good place… The weather is good, it’s not that bad,” he said.

Malith said two of his biggest passions are peace and equality – things that have eluded him much of his life. And while he loves his adopted country, he did experience an unsettling hostile situation soon after arriving in Arizona when a man threatened to shoot him, presumably just because he was an African immigrant.

“He said, ‘hey, where you from, Africa?’ I just got quiet, because maybe the guy’s got his own problems and he just wants to pull me into his problems,” Malith said. “And the guy told me, ‘I wish I could have a gun and I would shoot you,’ for no reason.

“In the United States people are not 100 percent perfect. The same in Africa – they are not 100 percent perfect. But (overall), people are good over here.”

Malith added that in Africa, you often don’t have to go far to find trouble.

“In Africa, if you make a little misstep and you’re in a different country, you are in trouble. You will be asked a lot of questions,” he said. “Even in the same country where you are born, there are a lot of problems… Like what’s happened in my country, it’s not really good for people just to be killed like a chicken and (the killers) don’t want to know or care about the people.”

Malith acknowledge that while the quality of life is better in the U.S. than in his native South Sudan, it’s not because Americans are inherently better people.

We are not still behind because we are so stupid. No. We don’t love each other,” he said. “If we just do things together, everything will be good. But we don’t do that. So that is a problem.”

“Nothing can stop me from going back to South Sudan if I know there’s peace in my country,” he said. “I can go back to help if I really continue with my education and God will protect me. If I see my country not getting better, let me go back to see if I can help my people.”

Malith implores his former Kakuma camp-mates not to give up hope and “keep praying for the best.”

“For my fellow brothers who are in Kakuma, this life is a game,” he said. “When we were in (South Sudan) we used to enjoy just getting old, but things changed, our country got independence and war started again.

“Let’s not give up on life. You might be mad and say, ‘oh, I don’t know really about my future.’ But God knows your future. No situation is permanent, so they should trust themselves. Nobody is a loser. You are not going to be a loser.”

Editor’s note: This is the first of three stories highlighting the accounts of young refugees who have resettled in the United States. The series runs this week in conjunction with World Refugee Day on Monday, June 20.