While the war in Iraq makes headlines every day, there is another war going on in a different part of the world that doesn’t cry out for international attention, but is no less bloody and ugly in its revelation of the atrocities that human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.
In Sudan, as in the Middle East, the war is one of ideology, in this case, rebels from the Christian south fighting with forces loyal to the government of the Arab and Islamic faithful in the north. The ongoing civil war has caused the deaths of nearly 2 million people since 1983, according to the United States Committee for Refugees. The fight for control of southern and central Sudan has killed one in five in the southern Sudan, some by warfare, many others, especially children, by war-induced famine. More than 70,000 people have died in the first six months of this year alone, according to the humanitarian agency, and another 350,000 have fled as refugees to other countries.
One of those refugees is Emmanuel Mathiang, who was born in Sudan and grew up as a Christian in the northern region, which is mostly Muslim. He now makes his home in Trenton with his wife, Veronica, and their four children. Once a victim of the violence in his homeland, he still keeps an eye on the war in Sudan from afar, with a wish in his heart to one day return home. “I hope for peace. I hope to take my children to see my country, to see their country, but not this way. It is not the right time,” he says.
One of the many humanitarian groups working to alleviate some of the human misery caused by Sudan’s civil war is Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres. Doctors Without Borders delivers water, medical care, and food to the hundreds of thousands of people in refugee camps. Epidemics of yellow fever, meningitis and malaria pose just as much of a threat as death by bullets. Doctors Without Borders responds to those needs as well with teams of international volunteers working with native Sudanese to bring relief.
And now the organization that gives so much help to others is receiving help of its own. The Piano Teachers Forum of Central Jersey Outreach, an association of area piano teachers, is holding a benefit concert for the Sudan on Saturday, April 29, from 1 to5 p.m., at the Suzanne Patterson Center in Princeton. All of the monies collected will go directly to Doctors Without Borders to help with its humanitarian mission in Sudan. Mathiang is grateful. “I feel like this group is doing such a great job. They are thinking about people they don’t know, have never met, and they are helping them. It is heartbreaking in my country but it touches my heart when I know that people who don’t know anyone in Sudan are helping my countrymen.”
Mathiang knows what devastation the war has brought to his homeland, since he experienced its brutality firsthand. “The war is terrible. You always knew it could be the end of your life. You never knew if it would be your last minute.” He was the second of twelve children born to a father who was an airplane technician and a mother who was a homemaker. He had only been in college for two years when Sudan’s civil war broke out in 1992. “It was a mess. Everyone scattered. We were all of the same country but the war was between religions.”
Raised as a Christian, Mathiang became a teacher with the Catholic church. Says Mathiang: “I was training people. I would travel from state to state telling people how they could use Christianity to benefit their families. The government and the people in the north didn’t like that. They said to me, ‘You’re a nice guy, educated, why don’t you become a Muslim.” He says they offered him money, a house, and a car if he would convert. And when he said no, the nudging turned violent. “They accused me of helping the rebels. They detained me. The first time it was four days, the second time four days, and then the third time, it was two full weeks. They treated me very badly. They fed me only once a day. They wouldn’t let me sleep. They would make me stand up all day, and most of the time, they beat me.”
Mathiang endured his worst ordeals with the government in 1999. Even after being released from detainment, he says the authorities did all they could to prevent him from embracing his religion and sharing it with others. “They made me sign papers that said I would not be allowed to be in a gathering of more than five people and of course, they meant I was not allowed to go to church because that was more than five people. I was not allowed to leave the state without their permission. I had a curfew. I was not allowed to be out of my house after 6 p.m. I had to report to the security office every morning for the first two weeks after my imprisonment. That eventually got reduced to every other day but still, I was not free.”
Finally, the shackles on his freedom to worship and teach became so restraining, the church authority advised Mathiang to take his family and leave the country. The church also feared for their safety as well, and helped them with all the necessary exit papers to leave Sudan. Mathiang took his wife and his children, then aged 10, 8, and 4, and escaped to Egypt, traveling by boat on the River Nile. They settled in Egypt and lived there for the next 15 months. A fourth baby was born.
“But the situation for me was getting worse and worse for me politically,” says Mathiang. “The Sudanese government found out I was in Egypt. So I didn’t feel safe. I went to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and applied for protection under refugee status.” He was sent to the American Embassy for resettlement. “In just two weeks they told me we have prepared to send you to the United States. They told me they had a visa for me. I told them I have no money, and I’m scared. They told me when you get there and get a job, you can pay us back. They bought me tickets and everything.”
Mathiang and his young family left Egypt in July, 2000, and headed to the United States for a new life. The government helped him settle in north Trenton, where adjustment to the language and culture came slowly and with some difficulty. “It was very, very tough. I came here and there were no other Sudanese people. We were the first Sudanese family to come to Trenton.” His English was very limited; the native language of Sudan is called Dinka. Mathiang says he painstakingly taught himself the language of his new country, determined to fit in as soon as possible. “I had an English-Arabic dictionary because I spoke Arabic. Every night I made myself learn 10 to 15 new words in English. I used the skills I had used as a teacher in Sudan to teach myself English.” His children, however, were a different story. “In less than six months my kids spoke English well. For kids, it’s amazing how they can pick up a new language so quickly.”
The young family members who escaped with him to Egypt are growing up. Evelin, now 15, is a sophomore at Trenton High School. Josephine, 13, is in middle school in Trenton, and Karem, 10, is a fourth grader. The baby born in Egypt, Avram, is now six years old, a first-grader at Grand Elementary School.
Mathiang has carved out a new life for himself and a new profession as a patient care assistant at Capital Health System. His wife, Veronica, works at American Standard assembling air conditioners and heaters. He says life has gotten easier in his adopted land with time, especially now that there’s a small community of Sudanese refugees in Trenton. “We have about six or seven families, maybe about a dozen more people, a good number. There’s a large community of Sudanese in Georgia and in Missouri. We meet online, share ideas and things like that, and often talk about what’s going on back home.”
Mathiang says that even though his memories of home are not great, he still misses his country. “I feel like a Sudanese but I also feel like an American now.” Along with a desire to one day see his country again, he also wishes for peace. “I would like to see everybody get along, no killing. I saw a lot of violence. When security is supposed to protect people and then they actually kill people, arrest them, put them in jail, beat them to death, that’s what’s horrible.”
Concert to Benefit Doctors Without Borders, Saturday, April 29, 1 to 5 p.m., Piano Teachers’ Forum, Suzanne Patterson Center, Monument Drive, Princeton. Concert featuring live bands, ensembles, and soloists to benefit Doctors Without Borders working in Darfur, Sudan. Free-will offering. 609-584-7152