Progress: The Determined Voters

Published 1:37 pm Monday, March 21, 2011

Mary Puk voted on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011. She and other Sudanese refugees drove all the way to Omaha, Neb., to vote. In a blizzard, no less. It was a date that for two years she had been eager to see arrive.

But getting to Omaha to vote was only one example of this woman’s determination. This mother of seven once walked for two weeks from Ethiopia to Kenya, while pregnant, to reach migration officials, who helped her get papers to emigrate to the United States.

Left to right are Rebecca Deaw, Mary Puk and Nyamuoch Puk. -- Photo by Tim Engstrom/Graphic by Stacey Bahr

Two years ago, Mary first heard an independence referendum for war-ravaged South Sudan had been scheduled. She was in a classroom, and she broke out crying. Hope overwhelmed her, she said.

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“A lot of people died for this,” she said.

Mary Puk, Rebecca Deaw and Nyamuoch Puk are part of the small-but-tightknit South Sudanese population in Albert Lea and take English-as-a-second-language classes at Adult Basic Education in the Brookside Education Center on Richway Drive.

In Omaha, they cast their ballot in favor of making their homeland a new country. The reason, they say, is having an independent South Sudan will prevent more wars. The north and the south fought a 21-year civil war that ended with a peace agreement in January 2005. That more or less was a continuation of a 17-year civil war that ended in 1972.

The reasons for the wars are complex, but the root cause goes back to colonial times. In short, southern Sudan is more like Uganda and Kenya and northern Sudan is more like Arabic-speaking Egypt. Northern Sudanese are Muslims and southern Sudanese are generally Christians or Animists. People in the poor and agrarian south have been shut out of the Khartoum government, though beneath their very feet are valuable oil fields.

The weeklong referendum resulted in a vote for independence, so South Sudan is slated to become a country on July 11, 2011. Mary, Rebecca and Nyamuoch, nevertheless, speak in terms of “if,” rather than “when.”

They are from Sudan but have spent much of their lives living outside the country. It is fitting they take ESL classes because southern Sudan is one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet. Dinka is the most spoken language, but around Juba, the capital for the south, a local form of Arabic is spoken.

“Many people ask if I speak Arabic. I am from Sudan but don’t live in Sudan because of the war. I don’t speak Arabic,” Rebecca said.

All three women lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia. They know what war is like and have a hard time describing any of it to anyone. It brings tears. Mary said when she was a child in 1984 soldiers came to her family’s house and killed her brother. Nyamuoch spent much of her youth as a “lost girl,” meaning she had become displaced from parents. The term generally applies to lost boys (a famous documentary film is called “Lost Boys of Sudan”), because when villages were attacked the girls were usually killed, taken as slaves or not permitted by elders to leave in search of a better life. Now, as a young woman, she works at piecing aspects of life together.

Rebecca could not speak about the violence, but she speaks strongly about the need for South Sudan independence. She said the South Sudanese people are independent by nature, as witnessed by the determination to reach Omaha. They have had to live at times with no food or water. They have had to survive without doctors, hospitals and medicine.

Her father died from typhoid fever in 1992 while Rebecca was pregnant. She said he declined in health in two days, then died. She knew many people who died from typhoid fever. When she came to America, she was amazed to see the cure was merely a tablet — an antibiotic.

“The cure for typhoid is easy,” she said.

They all said they are thankful to the American people for their generosity and for accepting Sudanese refugees into the country. They appreciate Diane Hill, the coordinator for Adult Basic Education. And they very much appreciate that the United Way of Freeborn County pays for the child care that allows them the free time to take English classes.

The journey from Ethiopia to Kenya had peril; Mary said many people die near the border. She wanted to come to the United States because it was a better place to raise her children. She stepped foot in America in 1994.

“I just want my children to have a better chance in life,” Mary said.

Hero: Rebecca Deaw

Secret identity: student, English as a second language
Base of operations: Adult Basic Education, Brookside Education Center
Superpowers: loyal friend, great fortitude, peacemaker
Kryptonite: doesn’t like television, except the world news
Affiliations: four children
Origin: Rebecca moved to Albert Lea from New York three months ago. She originally came from Africa to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1995, lived there for one year, then moved to New York. She felt the Sudanese population in New York wasn’t as connected and had a cousin in Albert Lea who described a close Sudanese group. She had tried to go to school when she was in New York, but it was difficult without child care. Here in Albert Lea, a state worker suggested Adult Basic Education and how she would be able to improve her English skills and meanwhile have child care. “The way I look at it, I think it will be good for me,” she said.

Hero: Mary Puk

Secret identity: student, English as a second language; certified nursing assistant, St. John’s Lutheran Home
Base of operations: Adult Basic Education, Brookside Education Center
Superpowers: determined, helpful translator, appreciative
Kryptonite: likes “Rush Hour 2” and CNN
Affiliations: husband, Simon Wur; seven children
Origin: Mary came to the United States from Africa in 1994. She was in Des Moines, Iowa, for nine years. Her cousin and her husband moved to Albert Lea in 2001 to attend Riverland Community College and described Albert Lea as a good place to reside. She moved in 2002. A cousin eventually told her about the English-as-a-second-language program at Adult Basic Education, and how there is child care available for ESL students. She enrolled. Knowledge learned in the class helped her pass certified nursing assistant classes and an exam and gain employment at St. John’s.

Hero: Nyamuoch Puk

Secret identity: student, English as a second language
Base of operations: Adult Basic Education, Brookside Education Center
Superpowers: quiet, reserved
Kryptonite: young, experienced things others her age have not
Affiliations: one child
Origin: Nyamuoch is 21 and came to the United States from Africa as a teenager. She attended high school in Spokane, Wash., and in Phoenix. She came to Albert Lea in July 2010. On the day of the interview for this story back in January, it was her second day in the class for English as a second language.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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