Identity in the Melting Pot

by Rebecca Trupin:

The hallways of the Lost Boys Center of Nashville are lined with masks and sculptures created by the Lost Boys, a group of young refugees from Sudan. One of them, James Makuac, showed me a picture he had painted: a line of people, belongings on their heads, walking through the savannah at night under purple trees. The seemingly peaceful scene depicts black African refugees fleeing southern Sudan during the 1987 war.

James Makuac's paintings show Sudanese refugees fleeing by night. (Trupin/TYG)

Among the refugees, an estimated 20,000 young boys were driven from their families and villages. They wandered for years and only half of them, mostly between six and seven years old, finally made it to refugee camps in Kenya. The survivors became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. In 2001, the United States granted asylum to 3,600 of them. 150 came to Nashville, Tennessee, joining a sizeable community of Sudanese who had managed to escape from the fighting earlier. While their lives are out of danger, the story of these refugees is far from finished as they struggle to cope with life in an utterly alien land.

Southern Hospitality

Nashville is home to 8,000 Sudanese immigrants. Other than the Lost Boys, who studied in Kenyan schools, most did not know English before arriving and most are young married couples with an average of four children. Despite these differences, both groups faced similar challenges upon arriving in America.

”It was very difficult,” said Lois Moreno, a volunteer and board member of the Lost Boys Center. The Lost Boys “came here pretty much with no money in their pockets, only the clothes they had on,” she said. The federal government provides 90 days of core services defined by refugee Council USA as ‘food, housing, clothing, employment [assistance], counseling, medical care, and other necessary services’ after which, unless the state or private groups step in, the refugees are on their own.

In response to a lack of sufficient official support, volunteers and refugees have created two centers in Nashville: the Lost Boys Center and the Sudanese Community and Women’s Services Center. Gatluak Ter Thach, who came to the United States from southern Sudan 12 years ago, founded the Sudanese Community Center after immigrants and volunteers began joining the English classes he led for his wife. The Center now provides a host of programs ranging from employment to youth programs and nutrition lessons. The Lost Boys Center offers legal services, an art workshop, event space, and a community gathering place for the Lost Boys, among other services.

In order to cope with the challenges of adapting, the Sudanese community has formed strong bonds of support with people and institutions around them, such as churches. Lois Moreno’s church volunteered to provide five of the Lost Boys with the government-mandated core services and living quarters. Makuac, one of the five, felt welcome the moment he arrived in 2001. “They went to the airport” and picked him up, he said. “They drove us around because we didn’t know how to drive.”

School of Hard Knocks

Despite this outreach, adapting to life in America has been difficult for the refugees. Moreno explained that one of the first disappointments for many was realizing that they “did not have the education to get into college and they were too old for high school.” Some have managed to take night courses while keeping menial jobs in order to earn GED credentials. Finding work can be difficult for refugees competing with better-educated, native English-speakers for positions. For his first three months in Nashville, Thach spent 18 hours a day, six days a week, either working or travelling between his home and his job at the Opryland Hotel. “You didn’t have time to sleep,” he said, “and you didn’t even know the America which you came here for.”

Even after all the effort of taking night classes, securing loans and saving money for college, reaping the benefits of an education can be difficult, said Manyang Jok, president of the Nashville Lost Boys of Sudan. Jok, a Tennessee State University graduate, explained that after an education, one often goes to work “with people that never have gone to college.” There are loans to pay off and “you have this degree but nobody accepted it to give you a job for it.” The Sudanese seem reluctant to blame this trend on racism but Jok says that, despite his education, he is judged for his foreign accent.

Manhood in America

Because Sudanese men are traditionally the breadwinners of the family, unemployment hits them especially hard. Lacking a job, Jok wonders how he “can presume to be a part of this community.” Moreno sympathizes. “They’re proud,” she said of the Sudanese immigrants. “They would rather work and earn their money” than accept handouts.

Life in America has particularly challenged the identity of Sudanese men. James Deng, a tall, soft-spoken man who had come to the Sudanese Center to get help finding employment, explained that in Sudan, the man has primary responsibility and authority over the family. Deng believes that in the United States, the government “supports the woman more than the man,” but that women “cannot lead a family.” Deng and his wife have separated. In Sudan, said Jok, wives do not separate from husbands “no matter how violent” they are, out of duty to their children. Sudanese men want to treat their wives “the same way they treat them in Africa,” he said, but here women can depend on themselves.

The U.S. government also threatens a Sudanese man’s authority over his children, Jok said. Sudanese children learn that, in America, they can call the police if their parents hit them. While this is often termed child abuse in America, in Sudan, “anybody can beat the child if he’s seen that the child is misbehaving.” For Jok, this is the natural way to instill discipline and prevent more serious future misbehavior.

Adaptation and Identity

Not all Sudanese men see the empowerment of their wives as threatening. Thach felt that his wife had to depend on him for too much and “decided to open a class to teach her” English—ultimately helping to establish the Sudanese Center, where women are a particular focus. He attributes most family strife to hardship from the “lack of public services” in the United States and the strain of having to “deal with hunger,” rather than an inherent susceptibility to conflict under the U.S. system.

Thach’s wife, Nyakuma, said that Sudanese women have more freedom in the United States. Nevertheless, most are married, and in such cases Nyakuma believes that women’s freedom is restricted by their duties to their families. “It’s a good thing for the man to work and go to school,” Nyakuma said, but “the woman’s role is to take care of the kids.” She added, “if you can do both, it’s good.” In the United States, Nyakuma said, it is necessary to some extent “to stop your culture and do this culture.”

While safe from much of the physical danger they faced in Sudan, Sudanese men must now cope with challenges to fundamental aspects of their identity. Since he arrived, Makuac has tried to “live as they live here.” Moving to the United States has given him rights and has allowed him to escape the ‘jail’ of the refugee camp. What then of his identity and culture? Makuac has one foot in each of his homes. As he writes a book on his experiences, preserving his heritage and past, he cherishes his new freedoms. And while he wishes for enough money to visit the mother he hasn’t seen since 1987, he dreams of film school at Hollywood. A spirit of community, patience and hope grounds Sudanese immigrants’ identity and gives them strength to bridge two worlds.

Rebecca Trupin ’11 is a Political Science major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at