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Refugee relishes freedom, American style

Thursday, July 05, 2001

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Peter Nyuon didn't notice that the Independence Day celebration yesterday at Point State Park was poorly attended. The empty food booths, the intermittent cold rain, the bedraggled families huddled under trees for shelter -- none of it mattered to the 23-year-old Sudanese immigrant.

He had learned in English class about July 4, 1776, the day the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. He did not learn, he said, about fireworks, parades, pageants and speeches. He learned that the day meant freedom for America.

Sudanese refugee Michael Kuol reaches for the ball during an impromptu volleyball match with David Alier, right, and other refugees during Citiparks' Fourth of July Celebration at Point State Park. Kuol is one of the 26 refugees from southern Sudan who have recently arrived in Pittsburgh after spending years in a Kenyan refugee camp. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Nyuon likes the concept. Freedom, Nyuon said, "is the opportunity of the individual, the opportunity to get something for your own without someone stopping you."

He has only been in Pittsburgh since May 8, one of the 26 "lost boys" of Sudan who have been resettled here since spring through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Their byname describes their years of wanderings as children through Sudan as they sought to escape the same government troops that killed their parents and destroyed their villages.

More than 3,600 young Sudanese men -- and some women -- are being resettled in the U.S. as part of a massive humanitarian effort. Fifty are expected to be resettled here by fall. All have come from the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, where many have lived for as long as nine years.

At Kakuma, a sprawling camp housing close to 70,000 refugees from several surrounding countries, Nyuon and the others each received six pounds of wheat and six pounds of maize every two weeks, plus an occasional cup of lentils. They lived in thatched-roof huts and ate one meal a day.

The Lost Boys

This is the second in an occasional series of stories about the arrival of Sudanese refugees and their adaption to life in Pittsburgh.

Previous installment

The Lost Boys: Displaced Sudanese begin again in U.S.


That, too, was freedom, Nyuon said. The conflict in Sudan has displaced more than 4 million people from their homes, and killed more than 2 million people since 1983. Kakuma provided safety.

"The difference is that Kakuma is not like freedom here," he said. "Kakuma is just the place of refugees."

Wearing a long-sleeve shirt, slacks and dress shoes, he waited under a bridge for the rain to stop. Some of his friends bought hotdogs, french fries and soft drinks with the money they've earned from their jobs.

Most of the Sudanese who arrived before May have full-time or part-time jobs; Nyuon has been on several job interviews but is not working yet. The newest arrivals focus on their English classes, sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

"Almost all of the brothers now in America have a job," Nyuon said. "We got this opportunity from where? We got it from America.

"That is freedom."

He and his friends watched the sparse crowd for a bit, cautiously eyeing U.S. Army personnel in their fatigues and new black berets. Later, they started an impromptu volleyball game, slipping and sliding in the rain-slicked grass. From where Nyuon stood on the sidelines, he also could see people playing bocci and tossing footballs and Frisbees.

"Here, we are now experiencing a lot of entertainment," he said. "Americans are all together. We see Americans as our brothers. Right now, American independence is our independence day all together."

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