After his busy mornings of English classes and the occasional driving lesson, Gamal Kuwa almost always settles in for a late afternoon at the New Haven Public Library — a respite from the dreary, lonely downtown boarding room he occupies a few blocks away.
Kuwa, as he is known to friends, often sits at a downstairs table, reading a local paper to help him learn a new language while he waits for one of the computers to be free. Once online, he first checks his Yahoo account for news about the family he left in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and then an Arabic newspaper site for information about the social and political climate in Darfur, his native region.
"In Darfur, you either kill, or they kill you," says Kuwa, a Muslim, who fled with his family to Khartoum after an attack on his village in June 2003. "The government has given [janjaweed militias] guns and said, 'You can do anything you want,' so they make genocide."
As attacks and kidnappings of relief workers in Sudan increased last fall, and Darfurians crossed the borders into Chad at emergency levels to escape the terror of the militia groups — the worst since the conflict started in early 2003 — Kuwa landed at New York's Kennedy International Airport. Upon his arrival in November, he received a white plastic bag containing all of his paperwork from the International Organization for Migration and boarded a van bound for New Haven to join a community of about 30 Sudanese refugees.
In the months since, the 6-foot, 46-year-old electrician has been busy. He has established a temporary home and tried to find a employer willing to hire a foreigner who sometimes struggles with English. He has befriended many of his countrymen, and many of his new friends are people he might not have associated with in Africa, depending on their religion, their ethnicity or the region into which they were born.
The infighting of rebel groups against one another — and the government — has led to an exodus from Darfur and a spillover of violence into neighboring Chad. Aid organizations attempt to operate sprawling and chaotic refugee camps, but a lucky few make it out, including Kuwa and his comrade, Amir Shog, a 29-year-old machinist.
Once here, such groups as New Haven's Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS), working with nine or 10 United Nations and U.S. State Department-affiliated agencies, help to ease that transition. IRIS meets and greets them, finds them a bed, a warm meal, a job and literally, a new life.
"One essential part of being a refugee is that it is not a voluntary situation — no one would choose that path if another one were open," says Linda Bronstein, a case manager for IRIS. "Refugees get thrust into desperate situations and escape them in whatever way they can.
"They face many obstacles, and once they get past the initial ones, like culture shock and the language barrier, most of them still have to face all the problems that the native-born working poor face in the U.S. We do what we can to smooth the way for them — and most of them move forward with hope, resilience, determination and gratitude."
However, for Kuwa and Shog finding a more permanent home is difficult. Most stay in one place a number of years, until the U.N. shuffles them to another safe haven. Both men fall within the U.S Department of State definition of "free cases" — refugees who have come to the U.S. on their own, without a family member or close friend to sponsor or assist them.
Kuwa escaped his village in Darfur, where janjaweed burned his village and killed his brother. "They were throwing babies into the fires," Kuwa says. "You're lucky to flee because you're not going to fight."
He left Khartoum when he could not find work and traveled to Malaysia, his "country of first asylum," and registered with the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, which provided him some temporary help with food rations and a place to live. Kuwa eventually found a job crossing the Indian Ocean's waters as an electrician on a cargo ship.
"I could get to Malaysia with just my passport; I didn't need a visa," explains Kuwa, who met his wife, Manal, a Sudanese citizen who still lives in Khartoum, while she was visiting Kuala Lumpur. "I was lucky. I had a good job. But when you apply to the U.N. you don't have a choice where they send you."
If a refugee cannot return home within a reasonable amount of time or resettle in his or his initial country of asylum (many times due to an overwhelming number of people in similar situations), the U.N. will often refer him or her to the U.S. Resettlement Program. Once he or she passes screening for public health, political circumstances and possible violations of the U.S. Patriot Act, the refugee has sometimes only days to prepare for departure.
After four years in Malaysia, Kuwa had six days to get on a plane for the U.S.
After seven years in Cairo, Shog had a little more than a week to get on a flight to the U.S.
Shog's path to New Haven echoes with familiar losses. When Shog's father — a fighter with a rebel group in the war between Sudan's Christian South and Islamic North died in 1985 during intense fighting — he and his extended family left southern Sudan for Khartoum. As school and work were difficult, Shog headed to Egypt, landing Cairo, where he attended technical school and eventually worked as a machinist. He left his wife and two sons behind in the care of relatives until he could return. He's been in New Haven since January 2007.
""I don't like war; I didn't want to fight in the rebel groups," says Shog, shuffling through the dozens of pictures he brought with him, including studio photos of his sisters, spontaneous shots of his children and shots of his brother's marriage in Australia.
Now living in New Haven with a Cuban family, who moved him from the downstairs apartment into their own home, Shog awakens at 7 a.m. every weekday morning for English class, before second shift work at a local machinist's shop. Kuwa, a Muslim, and Shog, a Christian, have forged an unexpected friendship in New Haven. Kuwa translates for Shog — and cooks dinner, using a hot plate, for his friend on holidays. Shog fills Kuwa in on such things as places to find telephone calling cards for Africa and how to get a driver's license.
"I got mine in Nebraska," he explains to a bewildered Kuwa on a cold January afternoon. "In Nebraska, you can take the test in Arabic; you can't in Connecticut."
Both want to return to Sudan, but in the meantime Shog has found a moderately happy life in New Haven, with friends, some money and a growing African community. "I have come here to make money; I have come to learn things I can show people when I get back."
For now, Kuwa remains in the early phase of transition, missing his friends in Kuala Lumpur, longing for big city life and looking for a permanent job.
"All my life I have struggled — I have worked hard — and now I feel shame. [But] it feels good to struggle," he says.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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