SEATTLE (WOMENSENEWS)–On most mornings, Veronica Abbas and her 3-year-old daughter, Grace, are up by 6 a.m.
As a single mother, Abbas performs the morning duties alone. She cares for Grace and heats a quick breakfast–usually East African chapatti, a doughy flat bread with South Asian origins–left over from the previous night’s dinner. By 7 a.m., they are on their way to a day care center in south Seattle, where Abbas works as a teacher’s assistant.
"A lot of my friends don’t have this kind of chance," she says. "They don’t speak enough English and have no writing skills. So they go and live with their boyfriends because they can’t find jobs easily and are afraid they will be teased by younger kids in high school."
At 24, Abbas has lived long enough to witness the greater part of the violent clashes in Sudan. She is a "Lost Girl" of Sudan–a genocide survivor–and was a part of the first group of female refugees granted U.S. asylum in 1999.
Her sad assessment of other Lost Girls was echoed in a 2003 congressional report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which found the young women’s young male refugee counterparts–who outnumber them roughly by 38 to 1–faring much better. Sudanese "Lost Boys" were making substantial strides in achieving independence, the report found, with employment rates 18 percent higher than among male U.S. counterparts. Lost Girls, by contrast, lag U.S. female counterparts by 25 percent.
"Many come straight from the village to the United States. The transition is very hard on them," says Julia Duany, a Sudanese activist and author of " Making Peace and Nurturing Life: a Memoir of an African Woman About a Struggle and Hope," a memoir published in 2003 on the sociopolitical experience of southern Sudanese women. "The women are suffering because they don’t leave their apartments and they don’t speak English. Many are having children every year and that compounds the problem. These women need to develop a functional literacy, so they can read bus schedules and the names of products and prices in stores."
Girls and female teens who lost both parents–and sometimes those who had not–were either placed in African foster homes, pushed into marriages with dowries or used as domestic servants. Many of these arrangements involved payments to guardians. As a result, far more male than female refugees found themselves in a position to meet aid workers who could help them gain referrals for resettlement overseas.
2 Million Killed in Conflict
Since the onset of the conflicts between the Sudanese government-backed militia and southern Sudanese rebel groups in 1983, more than 2 million have died and at least 1 million Sudanese have become internally displaced persons.
Today about 4,000 Lost Boys and Girls live in the United States–a minuscule portion of the country’s overall refugee population. They live in 38 U.S. cities, generally those with the strongest resources for refugee communities, including Seattle, Boston and Chicago.
Unlike the Lost Boys–named after Peter Pan’s troop of orphans–who lived and traveled in parentless clusters, the Lost Girls were generally kept close to families and guardians who managed to survive. That makes the "Lost" somewhat of a misnomer in their case.
The much smaller cohort of girls and female teens who made their way to the United States was generally entrusted to male relatives, brothers or cousins, who agreed to "protect" them overseas. Since relatively conservative social standards in Sudan consider education beyond the primary level a male opportunity and prioritize marriage for girls, many female refugees who came to the United States from Sudan are facing tremendous difficulties in adjusting to American life. Male refugees are backed by the cultural expectation that they can, and will, survive any hardship. Female refugees are left with the cultural legacy of dedicating their lives to their families.
In the early 1990s a U.S. relief volunteer helped smuggle Abbas, her mother, sister and four of her brothers across the Kenyan border and into the Kakuma refugee camp. In 1999, Abbas, three of her brothers and her sister were referred by a relief worker for resettlement in the United States. Weary from constant travel, Abbas’ mother decided to stay behind but, once approved, Abbas and her siblings made the trip.
Traditional Reticence of Women
Abbas is now part of a small group of young Sudanese women in the United States who are overcoming what Abbas describes as the traditional reticence of girls and women in Sudan.
"In our culture, freedom is not for girls," says Abbas. "Girls are polite and keep quiet. It is hard to have a good life when you think you don’t have a voice."
Not only are Abbas and others beginning to speak openly in the United States, they are talking about something that goes far beyond polite conversation: the horrors they experienced in Sudan.
Two years ago at a mini-conference held for Lost Girls in Arizona, Abbas gave vivid accounts of some events she had witnessed in southern Sudan.
"We’d have to run out and hide in the bushes . . . and come back at 8 o’clock at night because the bombs hit people and cut people’s heads off. I saw a person whose head was cut off and only the body was running."
Connecting With Other Refugees
In 2000, Abbas met two young female refugees; Harriet Poni Dumba, 27, and Agnes Oswaha, 29; both Seattle residents.
Dumba and Oswaha had met in 1998 through a network of Sudanese friends in Seattle. They had just formed the Southern Sudanese Women’s Association, based in Seattle, to create an opportunity for female refugees to gather, meet others like themselves and discuss their challenges and fears.
"Agnes and I just sat down, talking about women’s issues, how things there need to change, and then we were like, well, if we want to change things back home, we need to start by ourselves, here," said Dumba. "We wanted to encourage self-sufficiency."
Abbas joined the group right away. With a $10,000 grant from Seattle’s Women’s Funding Alliance, the Southern Sudanese Women’s Association offers free counseling and educational programs to Sudanese minors in foster care programs, Sudanese women and single Sudanese parents with minor children. Since 2000 it has served 500 individuals and families in the Seattle area.
They also encourage dialogue on the situation of women and girls who remain in Sudan. Meetings have covered topics ranging from obtaining aid for women in Sudan to sending advocates who can help transform beliefs that may lead to more suffering among female victims of the conflicts.
"Things back home are complicated," added Oswaha. "The norm is to treat girls and women like possessions, but now, we hope to show that there can be another way."
Toyin Adeyemi is an independent journalist based in New York City.
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For more information:
"Diary of a Lost Girl: The autobiography of Kola Boof":
"Women Refugees: The Lost Girls of Sudan":
"Refugee Information: Sudanese Unaccompanied Women":
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