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Refugees find a haven in Albert Lea

When looking for a new place to live, safety is almost always expected to come with the territory for most people.

For Pal Deng and other South Sudanese refugees, it’s something they’ve only managed to find since coming to the U.S. after fleeing their native country — currently torn apart by war, civil unrest and an unstable government, to name a few.

Deng, 46, grew up in southern Sudan — which in 2011 became the country of South Sudan. Due to a civil war within his home country, Deng fled to an Ethiopian refugee camp when he was a teenager, getting separated from his family in the process. He stayed there until around 1995, when he fled to Kenya after the government in Ethiopia started to become unstable. It took Deng six months to get to Kenya, during which time he was imprisoned twice for his efforts. He was told by others that going near the country was a dangerous risk, as Somali bandits were known for raping, kidnapping or killing those they came across.

“You could be killed and nobody would ask nobody about it,” he said. “It’s a generation of struggling to survive.”

Martha Gony is a South Sudanese refugee that has lived in Albert Lea since 2011. She speaks English, but is looking to become more fluent so she can apply for U.S. citizenship. - Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Martha Gony is a South Sudanese refugee that has lived in Albert Lea since 2011. She speaks English, but is looking to become more fluent so she can apply for U.S. citizenship. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

As he and others were leaving Ethiopia, Deng said they were detained at the Ethiopia-Somalia border. The group was rounded up one night at their campsite and held to verify that they weren’t Somali bandits. Deng said they were held for over a month. After being released, the group hired a local Somali to smuggle them to the Kenyan border. The refugees were then held by Kenyan officials for a week before being let go.

From the Kenyan detention center, Deng and others were turned over to the United Nations, given a refugee ID and placed in a refugee camp. Deng stayed at the camp until 1999, when he came to the U.S. as a refugee after being granted asylum by the U.N. He said he narrowly missed the deadly bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, by days.

Deng eventually settled into Des Moines, Iowa, for about a year, before moving to Omaha, Nebraska, where he said the majority of South Sudanese refugees live in the U.S. At one point, Deng lived in Nashville, Tennessee, to help his cousin acclimate to life in the United States, before returning to Iowa in 2003.

Deng said he returned to Africa for the first time in 2004, during which time he got married. His parents set up an arranged marriage, which he said is typically the custom in his culture. He spent three months in his homeland before returning without his new wife, as he had to be in the country to start the process of bringing her to the U.S. Deng said the sponsoring process became even more complicated after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001.

After becoming a U.S. citizen in 2006, Deng was able to start the process of bringing over his wife and their 1-year-old son she had given birth to. In order to sponsor someone, Deng said he had to be a taxpayer, had to have a certain amount of money in his bank account and had to have lived in the U.S. for at least five years — which is also a requirement to apply for U.S. citizenship.

The majority of church-going South Sudanese refugees in Albert Lea attend services led by the Rev. Simon Dhol at First Presbyterian Church. - Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

The majority of church-going South Sudanese refugees in Albert Lea attend services led by the Rev. Simon Dhol at First Presbyterian Church. – Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

In 2008, Deng was reunited with his wife, Anna Wakow, and their son in Nebraska. They stayed in Lincoln, Nebraska, before moving to Minnesota in 2011, when Deng started going to school.

Deng got his associate degree in liberal arts from South Central College in North Mankato, before moving to Marshall to attend Southwest Minnesota State University. There, Deng went to school during the day and worked at night, while his wife stayed at home to take care of their children since they didn’t have access to day care at the time. Deng got his bachelor’s degree in political science, and the family moved to Albert Lea in 2014.

Deng said he and his wife are both looking for work, as he was recently laid off from his job at Streater. He said whoever finds a job first will work, and the other will take care of their six children.

Martha Gony, also 46, is another South Sudanese refugee living in Albert Lea. She hails from Nasir, South Sudan, as does Deng.

Gony’s journey to the U.S. is somewhat similar to Deng’s, in that she also fled to Ethiopia as a teenager. Gony was then married in Ethiopia, where she stayed for about eight years. For sometime she went back and forth between Ethiopia and Sudan, depending on which areas were more stable at the time. Her husband eventually became ill and died.

In 2006, Gony came to the U.S. as a refugee with her children and lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, until moving to Albert Lea in 2011. She currently works part time cleaning through King Maintenance, but said she is looking for full-time work. She has seven children, three of which live with her. Gony is currently going to classes at Brookside Education Center to improve her English, as she hopes it’ll help her in applying for U.S. citizenship.

Deng and Gony have both faced workforce challenges in Albert Lea, saying they and other refugees have struggled at times to find work, housing and day care services.

Both said despite the challenges they’ve faced, they’re happy to be in Albert Lea. The quiet community and safety they’ve found here makes it a good place to live.

Through the interpretation of Chang Ruach, Gony said bigger cities with more going on aren’t always good for the children of refugees. She has heard that in places like Omaha, children don’t listen to their parents as much and tend to get into more trouble with drugs and crime.

“She doesn’t want her kids there,” Ruach interpreted for Gony. “She wants them to succeed in America.”

Ruach, a success coach for Albert Lea Area Schools, works as a liaison between parents, students and teachers at Sibley Elementary School, Southwest Middle School and Albert Lea High School. He said there are some cases where children may take advantage of the language barrier some of their parents face when it comes to disciplinary discussions, and that is sometimes where Ruach comes in as a facilitator.

Deng and Gony consider Albert Lea to be a clean, safe place to live, and hope to be able to stay in the area. A stronger resource center that helps address the challenges they’ve discussed with others could go a long way with making that happen, they said. They hope to build and strengthen a community here in Albert Lea where they, as well as other refugees, can flourish and contribute.

“It’s really a beautiful place, in many ways,” Deng said. “Albert Lea is a good place to live.”

By the numbers

350 – Estimated number of refugees living in Albert Lea

5 – Combined countries Deng and Gony have lived in

8 months, 1 day – Estimated time Ruach said it takes to obtain U.S. citizenship, depending on how prepared the applicant is for the process

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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