As I stood in front of the long, dusty, metallic brown train, amidst mountains of burlap sacks which South Sudanese had used to wrap their belongings for the long journey from Khartoum to the new Republic of South Sudan, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head to see a face that was familiar if not immediately recognizable. I squinted in the sun for a moment and then it came to me. I took a step back in disbelief. He turned to my puzzled colleague and explained: “I was his teacher.”
The memories flooded back to me. A decade earlier, the man standing in front of me in Wau had been a refugee in Cairo who volunteered his time to interpret for fellow South Sudanese who had fled to Egypt to escape Africa’s longest-running civil war, which scattered millions across Sudan, Africa, and the World. More than interpreters of language, people like N___ were interpreters of culture. By translating for people like me – mostly foreign volunteers who had come to Cairo to provide legal assistance to asylum-seekers – and teaching us about their countries, they bridged not just the language divide but also the cultural divide so that together we could help asylum-seekers navigate the often difficult path to refugee status.
Back then, peace seemed a distant possibility. But now, 10 years later and 1,300 miles away, N____ was back home, standing in front of me in the world’s newest nation, the country he had taught me so much about and on which I would spend the next decade of my life working. After N____ was resettled to Canada, I stayed for a few more months working with refugees before working with South Sudanese in Uganda and South Sudan and then advocating on Sudan and South Sudan in Europe and the US. As was the case with so many other refugees with whom I had been so close in Cairo, we eventually lost touch. The distance, poor communications, and the difficulty of adjusting to a new life on a new continent were all partly to blame, but perhaps the need to leave that part of life behind also played a role. In all honesty, I never expected to see him again.
As we caught up on each other’s lives, it came as no surprise to hear that N____ had continued working to help his countrymen and women in Canada. He had come back to South Sudan a few months earlier to celebrate independence, and was now living in Wau where he had founded an organization to help children affected by the conflict. He might go back to Canada, he told me, but for now he had a lot of work to do back home.
I pointed out the 17-year-old boy I’d just met who had traveled by himself to South Sudan – the country of his origin but to which he’d never been – and now had no idea where to go or how to find his extended family. He promised to speak to the boy and see what he could do. We exchanged cards and embraced one last time, and then he disappeared back into the fray of returnees unloading their belongings from the train.
Read Noah’s blog on the struggles of South Sudanese returning to their new nation.