March 25-31, 2004
A Dwelling Place
Brothers Makour (left) and Nai Mayen take a break during the celebration and blessing of the new Sudanese Community Center on Feb. 28
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers SUN photo(s) Friar Phil Kelly, OFM, Conv. The Sudanese Community Association of Central New York began searching three years ago for a place they could call their own. With a lot of help from the Franciscan friars, the association’s vision of a gathering place for the Sudanese community of Central New York has become a reality. The friars have allotted the Sudanese refugee community the second floor of the Assisi Center, located at 800 N. Salina St. in Syracuse. A celebration and blessing of the new Sudanese Community Center, which will house the executive office of the Sudanese Community Association of Central New York, in addition to a learning center and a nursery, was held on Sunday, Feb. 29. Pending some final touches, the center’s door will open within the next month.
“We still need new baby furniture, but we are almost ready,” said Petero Afet, treasurer of the association. “When I think about it, I can’t believe that we’ve reached the point where we are at now.” It has been a little over three years since the Sudanese refugees began arriving in Syracuse, but the oppression that led them to flee their native land has been going on for decades. The Sudanese war is Africa’s longest-running civil war. Sudan’s Islamic rulers in Khartoum have embarked on a campaign to drive out Christian and other non-Muslim people in Southern Sudan. Millions of Southern Sudanese have been forced out of their homes and have fled to neighboring countries, or have been enslaved. As many as two million people have been killed in fighting and war related famine since insurgents took up arms in 1983.
Afet, a husband and father of five, came to Syracuse with one of the first waves of Sudanese refugees in August of 2000. Afet, a Christian, fled Khartoum after the government accused him of conspiring with the rebels. “I worked fixing electronics. They said that I was fixing TV’s for the rebels,” he said. “I was accused because I was a Christian.” Afet was imprisoned and tortured, but the government was unable to prove the allegations against him and he was released. He escaped to Egypt and was accepted by the United Nations office to come to the U.S. as a refugee, but was forced to leave his family in Khartoum. Afet –– and the approximately 300 other members of the Sudanese refugee community in Central New York who have similar stories –– now call the snowy city of Syracuse home. They have been given a chance to start anew. “It is great here,” said Afet, who was eventually able to locate his wife and children and bring them to the U.S. “There are more opportunities than in Africa.”
But starting over isn’t easy. Friar Phil Kelly, OFM, Conv., project director for the Franciscans in Syracuse, said it is hard for some to imagine the hardships the Sudanese refugees have faced. “These people left a very violent war. Some of the Lost Boys saw their parents killed,” said Friar Phil, referring to the 80 Lost Boys of Sudan who have settled in Syracuse over the past two years. “They ran through the bushes and across the desert to escape. They knew what not to eat by watching their companions die.” Many of the Sudanese refugees have settled on Syracuse’s north side, an area where the Franciscan community maintains a large presence. Through the Franciscans in Collaborative Ministry, Franciscan friars and sisters have reached out to the disadvantaged through a variety of ministerial and community service programs, including the Northside Ministries. Projects under the umbrella of the Northside Ministries, located just down the street from the Assisi Center, consist of the Poverello Health Center, free legal advice and various Scripture and social groups.
Sister Dolores Bush, OSF, is the director of the Northside Ministries. She said the working poor constitutes a large group of people in need of the Northside Ministries. These are individuals, like the Sudanese, who are doing everything within their reach to get ahead, but still need some help. “They have jobs, but maybe they are low-skill or low-paying,” said Sister Delores. “They don’t have enough money to cover the insurance premiums.” While the Sudanese have become valued employees at places such as St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, they are frequently forced to accept entry-level jobs. But at the same time, they are putting themselves through Onondaga Community College (OCC), Le Moyne College and Syracuse University. Afet balances his work schedule at United Radio in East Syracuse with a full course load OCC. He dreams of owning a home where he and his wife can make new memories for their children, which will replace the ones of their war-torn and ravaged homeland. Resettlement of new immigrants in the community is one emerging initiative that is of great interest to the Franciscans in Collaborative Ministry. “Refugees come here on less than 24 hours notice,” said Friar Phil. “They are driving around the neighborhood looking for a place to live. We, and other organizations, are challenged to find them good landlords who want to provide good housing.”
According to Friar Phil, the Sudanese are encouraged to become homeowners. Antoni Makuor, president of the Sudanese Community Association of Central New York, said this is difficult due to limited finances. “Most of the Sudanese are settled in apartments, but they would like to be homeowners,” he said. “Sometimes there is not enough money to buy a house.” The Sudanese build better lives for themselves in spite of challenges like these. It remains a daily struggle for them to adjust to a new society while at the same time maintaining their own culture and traditions. Friar Phil believes the Sudanese are an inspiration to the larger community. “The Sudanese serve as a catalyst for more people to invest in housing and home ownership on the north side,” he said. “They settle here when not many people want to. They take entry-level jobs that not many people want to take.” Friar Phil witnessed the determination of the Sudanese community as plans for the community center began to take shape. Bishop Thomas Costello first suggested that the Franciscans allow the Sudanese community to use the space at the Assisi Center. Members of the Sudanese Community Association of Central New York met with Friar Phil and representatives from Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program late last year to discuss the possibility.
“The Sudanese knew exactly what they wanted,” recalled Friar Phil. “They wanted space for their offices, a learning center and a nursery.” Because of strict daycare regulations, Friar Phil was unsure if the Franciscans would be able to accommodate the Sudanese center. But members of the Sudanese Community Association of Central New York, Afet included, knew the spot was perfect. They worked hard to make it their own. “There is no stopping Petero,” Friar Phil said. “He came back again and again. He wanted the space.” Afet explained the importance of the nursery. “Mothers will come to the community center for language classes. It is necessary for our babies to be with their mothers all the time,” he said. “It is necessary for the mothers to nurse their babies every two hours. They cannot be separated from them, and they can do that as they are learning in the classroom.” Afet is optimistic about the prospects the center will offer the Sudanese community. The center, which is funded solely through donations, will be a place where they can take English classes and participate in other educational programs. Afet is also in the process of acquiring a few used computers to help them develop business skills. He is pleased that both Sudanese men and women will have an opportunity to come to the center and learn. “Women don’t have educational opportunities like this in Africa,” he said. “They are excited.”
Prior to attaining the new community center, the Sudanese would gather to learn and socialize wherever they could find space, including in each other’s apartments and at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Syracuse. They have been welcomed by the greater community, but now family and friends finally have their own gathering place. “Since many of us live in apartments, it is hard to visit with each other. The rooms are very small,” said Makuor. “At the community center we can meet, talk and discuss our problems together.” Afet agreed. “A sense of family is very important to us. We needed a place where we could come together as a group of people,” he said. Pinyoun, volunteer coordinator for refugee services at Catholic Charities, said that the acquisition of a “home” is important to the development of the Sudanese refugee community. “A sense of community is a natural quality of who the Sudanese are as a people. As a community, they needed to designate a home,” he said “Churches like St. Vincent’s have been great to them, but it’s not like having their own place. Now, they have the keys.”
Like the Franciscan community, which follows in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Clare, the Sudanese are carrying on their tradition in Syracuse. They have fled their native country and are working to be assimilated into a new culture, but vow to remain true to their unique heritage and traditions. “The Sudanese came here with no clothes and no money, but they have a rich, cultural package they carry in their hearts and minds,” said Pinyoun.”They are fully equipped to express their culture. No one can take this away.” The Sudanese Community Center is still in need of items such as desks, chairs, used computers and new baby furniture as well as monetary donations. If you are able to help, please contact Antoni Makuor at (315) 447-9003. Arrangements will be made to pick-up furniture.