July 9, 2011

From oppression…to freedom.

As America remembers its story, South Sudan begins its own.

Hundreds of Sudanese here in West Michigan are focused on Sudan this month as South Sudan gains its independence from the north on July 9. The Lord has given West Michigan the privilege of being home to these southern Sudanese young people, refugees from their land of birth. Many have used their time here in the States to gain an education and want to give back to their people.   They are hard working, responsible citizens enriching our communities.

IndpendenceDayforSudan2Sudanese like Deng Alier and Maketh Deng made treks to Washington D.C. or Chicago on January 9-15 to cast their votes at official polling locations in the referendum for southern independence.   Almost all of the Sudanese living in West Michigan made the effort to vote.   The total vote was over 99% in favor of secession.

What do you know of Sudan, a country in East Africa? Maybe you remember when President Clinton ordered the bombing of a factory near Khartoum in northern Sudan after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in1998. Perhaps you heard of the genocide carried out by the north in the Darfur area of Sudan. You may remember stories of the Lost Boys of southern Sudan, homeless after fleeing devastation in Sudan during the ongoing war there. You may have heard of people taken captive during the long years of war and forced into slavery by those in the north. Decades of war ended with a Peace Agreement signed in 2005, the referendum vote this January, and official independence for southern Sudan this month.

Sudan has been geographically and demographically split for centuries, but on July 9 that split will be internationally recognized when South Sudan gains its independence.   Northern Sudan, home to Arab Muslims, is desert and grasslands, whereas southern Sudan is lush, with jungles and a large swamp area at the base of the White Nile, called the Sud. The south has a number of different tribes and is mainly Christian.   Sudan’s independence from British and Egyptian rule in 1956 began a decades’ long conflict between two very diverse areas and peoples with the north as the aggressor.

Who are the southern Sudanese among us? Deng Alier is one example. He left Sudan in 1988 and spent twelve years in refugee camps before he was accepted to come to the states as a refugee in 2001 when he was eighteen years old. He considers himself fortunate that America opened its doors to him. More than that, he knows that God gave him this opportunity. He has had the chance to mature physically and academically in the past ten years. He ponders questions. Why was he chosen to come? How can he use his opportunities? What can he give back to the people of South Sudan?

Deng graduated with his Masters in Educational Ministries from Grand Rapids Theological College on May 6, having received a B.A. prior to that from Western Michigan University.   He has been back to southern Sudan once to do a teaching residency at Gideon Theological College. Seeing the appreciation for what he was able to bring to the people through education motivated him to graduate and prepare to go back. It had been twenty years since he had been in Sudan. Now he is seeking the best way to return and help establish his country and give back to his people. He has no regrets. He will use what has happened in his life—through war, flight, living in refugee camps, and the opportunity to come to the States—to help others. He knows this is why God allowed it. His outlook is similar to Joseph’s in the Bible: he knows that what was meant for evil, God means for good.

Most southern Sudanese refugees want to return and help their people, or at least support their people there. Five from this area have returned already this year. Maketh Deng quietly shared, “You only have one home in your life.” He has one class to complete at Ferris State University, then wants to take the knowledge he has gained and use it for a reason, to help his country of origin.

There is one area in Sudan that is in dispute. The Abyei area in central Sudan, rich in oil resources, is neutral as yet, neither belonging to the north or the south until further negotiations. It is important to note that Abyei is the Dinka name for a certain type of tree. It is neither an Arabic word nor an Arabic area. The Dinka tribe, a large tribe in southern Sudan, live in that area and farther south. The northern Sudanese did not plant that tree, so to speak, and have no claim there other than their desire for oil.

The southern Sudanese community of West Michigan will gather here in Grand Rapids on July 9 to celebrate the independence of their homeland and remember the heroes of a defensive war for freedom, men who were willing to risk their lives for their people. The peoples of the south resisted sharia law and Arab pressure, holding onto their way of life, their dignity, and their beliefs despite devastation from bombs, soldiers, and other types of pressure. During those years, schools, churches, and leaders were targeted by the north in order to weaken the people by taking away their knowledge of their history, faith, and morale. July 9 is a day for the southern Sudanese to look ahead to the future and honor the heroes of the past.

The modern missionary effort reached southern Sudan in the late 1800’s. The Sudanese always knew that God was the Creator and acknowledged God first before worshiping devils.   When missionaries brought the Word of God to southern Sudan, the Sudanese gained the understanding they needed of how to have a relationship with God and of His relationship to them as well as theirs to others. Though the people of the south became mainly Christian, their faith has grown and is stronger through the hardships of decades of war.

The South Sudanese know that independence will not be easy. There will be no surprises. They know that building a country will take time, as will recovery from the years of destruction.   The biggest need is for security and then progress can be made with roads and infrastructure. The people will need to grow in what it means to be at peace.   Since the southern Sudanese are not interested in holding onto resentment, they simply wish to move forward and rebuild.

These people among us carry personal stories of devastation, endurance, and courage. They also hold within them the spirit of their country of origin. Things did not happen the way they wanted in their lives; however, they have found strength to overcome and help others, thankful for what they have been given.

Deng Alier encourages the people of West Michigan to pray for better days for the people of South Sudan.   Prayer is a powerful way to support the southern Sudanese. Will you pray?


For further contact with the Sudanese community of West Michigan: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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