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Sudan refugee forgives but can never forget

1/16/2006 6:28am

by Stephen Franklin

Chicago Tribune

The women who come to Anne's small, windowless office in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood often feel fretful about beginning a new life in the U.S. To ease their anxieties, she often tells them this:

``I'm from Sudan. I'm a refugee, too. And what you went through may be different, but it feels the same way.''

Anne shares those words with women who come to the immigration agency where she works. It is her way of putting newly arrived immigrants at ease. But she reveals only so much about herself.

Revealing more, she thinks, distracts from helping the women who come to the agency. She wants to forget what happened to her and get on with her new life. But forgetting is difficult. The memories of her life before coming here are too painful.

Just as Anne's life was shattered by the two-decades-old civil war that has left more than 2 million Sudanese dead, women are often the victims of the world's many conflicts.

At least half a million women were raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Up to 50,000 were raped during the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, the United Nations reports. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that women make up more than half of the world's refugees and displaced persons.

``Increasingly, the battlefields are fought on women's backs, and it is done not just to humiliate them, but to humiliate their men, too,'' said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. In the recent fighting in Darfur, Sudan, for example, women were raped, abused and captured, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Indeed, many of the women who visit Anne's office have been victims of war or famine. Anne's own problems began 10 years ago when she was 18 years old. Her father, a government official in Khartoum, Sudan, left for work one day and disappeared. Rumor was that he had been singled out because he was a Christian at a time of Muslim-Christian conflict, she said.

``I stayed in my house for one month after my father disappeared. I didn't talk, and they had to force me to eat. I really withdrew within myself,'' she recalls.

Because she still fears for the safety of relatives in Sudan, she asked that only her first name be used here.

She married soon after, and for the first time since her father vanished, she felt happy again. Then one day her husband was gone, too. Despite her mother's warnings, Anne quizzed government intelligence officials about his whereabouts. But they said nothing.

A few days later masked government agents took Anne, who was five months pregnant, and her family to prison. The conditions were harsh. She had to sleep on the floor of the cell and her captors fed her twice a week.

``Men would come to my cell every few days and they would hurt me,'' she said, providing no other details about what they did to her.

Two months after arriving in the prison, she collapsed from hunger and heat exhaustion. Prison officials, thinking she was dead, put her on a truck and dumped her in the desert nearby. A truck driver discovered her and took her to a Christian hospital, where she gave birth to her daughter.

``I woke up and I found out that I had a baby,'' she said. ``It was just so hurtful. You don't experience how it is to have your kid.''

When she recovered from the birth she realized she had lost everything. ``The feeling was anger and not wanting to live. That feeling stayed with me for a long time,'' she said.

With the aid of some nuns, she was smuggled to Egypt, where after nine months the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees sent her to the U.S. Arriving in Phoenix, she found work as a hotel maid. A few months later, Anne and her daughter came to Chicago and moved in with a Sudanese woman whom she had met in Cairo.

But when the living arrangement didn't work out, Anne and her daughter landed on the street. She asked an Egyptian-born grocer for help, and he recommended the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries in Uptown.

The agency found a home for Anne and her daughter with a University of Chicago professor, who had lived in Egypt and spoke Arabic, her second language next to her tribal language.

The family's hospitality toward Anne and her daughter restored Anne's faith in humanity, she said, and moved her to commit herself to helping other refugee women.

Four years ago, Anne found a job and started classes at Truman College. Alone with her daughter and struggling to make her way, she would stand in front of a mirror and tell herself not to quit. Or she would hold photographs of the family she lost in Sudan, reminding herself of what they meant to her.

Anne now works at the immigration agency that once helped her. In September, she became a U.S. citizen. Having received an associate's degree from Truman College, she started part-time classes at North Park University this fall.

She dreams of working to champion the cause of other African women, helping them heal from the many scars inflicted by the turmoil they have endured. She wants to calm the fury that boils in her toward those who hurt her.

``I know that in order to be free and happy, I have to forgive and I need to forgive them and pray for them so they won't do the same thing to others,'' she said. ``I can forgive. But I cannot forget.''

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