Shelter from the Storm

Feb. 16-22, 2006
Shelter from the Storm
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Sudanese Refugees Find Homes in Utica Parishes

That’s what St. Francis de Sales parishioner Grace Sunday remembers about her homeland. Fleeing from city to village to other countries and then back again, the Sudanese refugee finally found a home in Utica. During her crisscrossing epic across the southern region of the North African nation, Sunday lost contact with her husband and her family. Only her two children remained with her all along.

The ongoing conflict between the Sudanese government and the rebellion in the south has displaced over four million people. The civil war is often characterized as an extension of a centuries-old struggle between the north and south. When the British Empire controlled the Sudan, it treated the country as two separate nations. The British identified the north as having more in common with Egypt, while the south was considered comparable to other East African nations such as Kenya and Uganda.

The north/south conflict is formed from just two threads in the tapestry of social institutions woven throughout Sudan. While Islam is the country’s official religion, Catholicism is influential in the south. Just as the northern and southern regions have begun to resolve their differences, the Darfur region in eastern Sudan flared up. The government crackdown in Darfur has been characterized as genocide. “Most of the time there’s no peace,” Sunday said, adding that the ordinary Sudanese is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the conflict between the state and the rebels.

“Sometimes you don’t know who is your enemy and who is your friend,” said Sunday, who was arrested by both groups at one time or another. Moreover, there is little enough sanctuary in the bordering nations. At one point, Sunday fled to neighboring Uganda to the south only to find that nation in the throes of its own civil war in which the enigmatic Lord’s Resistance Army hurls itself against the state. Some 12,000 people are victims of that civil war with many more dying from tangential causes.

Sunday describes her arrival in Utica as a revelation of God’s love. “It was a big shock to me and it showed me that God is with me. It was an answer to my prayers,” she said. Sunday noted that after warfare dispersed her family in 1992, she lost contact with them and has been unable to resume relations ever since. She still prays for them daily. Her husband Charles Sokiri was hunted by both the rebels and the government and ultimately committed suicide in one of the many refugee camps. Catholic Charities initially brought her to Pittsburgh but the size of city was a little too much for her. Seeking a smaller community in which to settle, she eventually found Utica. Father Fred Daley told her that she would be welcomed there and the parish paid for her ticket to come north with her family. Sunday and her family now live in the second floor of the parish center with another family and a group of men on the same floor. Sunday quickly adapted to life in Utica and helps teach pre-kindergartners at the Thea Bowman House. “She’s a delightful person. She’s a person of high energy, personality and joy,” said Sandy Wright, Sunday’s supervisor. “She just loves the children. Her eyes glow.”

Father Daley has found the Sudanese staying within his parish to be a source of joy not only for himself but also for his parishioners. “We’ve found a very positive experience with both of the families and with the young men,” he said. “They’re either hard working or they go to school. There’s a lot of concern in them. Suffering has matured them beyond their age. They’ve overcome overwhelming odds and hardship.” Many Sudanese have been welcomed to the Syracuse Diocese. Along with those based in St. Francis De Sales Parish, St. Mary’s houses one family and a group of men.

St. Mary’s parishioner Frank Kelsey has been a Good Samaritan of sorts to the family of Marno Lual, who arrived in Utica in 2000. Kelsey met Lual in the winter of that same year when he saw him standing on a nearby corner in the midst of a horrendous snowstorm. Noting that Lual looked a little bewildered, Kelsey helped him find his way home. Since then, Kelsey has helped Lual’s family get acclimated to life in Utica. Lual also hales from southern Sudan where he was a catechist. His home parish there bears the same name as his adopted parish in Utica. His catechist career carried over to the U.S. and he also works at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona.

Lual fled Sudan primarily because of religious persecution but also because of the constant warfare plaguing the southern region. “There’s always fighting and fighting,” he said, adding that the Islamic government had also attempted to shut down his home parish of St. Mary’s. In 1998, Lual and his wife Josephina migrated north to Egypt and two years later they arrived in Utica. The winters were, at first, a challenge for Lual and his family, but they have since become accustomed to upstate New York’s frosty clime. Lual has had a great deal of help from his new parish, calling Kelsey and Father Richard O’Neill, the pastor at St. Mary, two of his “fathers.”

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