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Free of Sudan, but trapped in Egypt

11/10/2005 8:51pm

Sharon Schmickle, Star Tribune
November 10, 2005


Changkuoth Wal was the lucky cousin. He won United Nations certification as a Sudanese refugee, and he's getting ready to resettle in Minnesota sometime soon.

His cousin, Isaac Thoks, remains trapped in the miserable limbo that is life for millions of Sudanese who fled violence in their homeland and now have no real homes, no legal standing to move on with their lives and little in the way of resources.

"Tens of thousands of them fled north to Egypt and now they are stuck in Cairo where they are trying to make do," said the Rev. Mark Nelson, a Lutheran pastor who returned to Minneapolis last summer after working for two years in Cairo.

Their needs have overwhelmed relief agencies that are trying to address the crisis in Sudan's western Darfur region at the same time they help some of the 4 million people who were displaced by civil war in the country's south.

With money stretched thin, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stopped interviewing displaced Sudanese in Egypt last year, the Associated Press reported.

Wal got in under the wire, meaning he is eligible to resettle in another country. He applied to move to Minnesota where others from his tribe are prepared to sponsor him. While he waits for his paperwork to clear, he is entitled to health care and a living allowance. He is one of more than 20,500 Sudanese refugees in Egypt the UNHCR certified before the interviews stopped.

Thoks, who arrived in Egypt late last year, missed the cutoff.

To understand the consequences, visit the three-room apartment on Cairo's outskirts where Wal and Thoks live with 13 other Sudanese.

They pay the rent with handouts from churches and the rare paycheck they can earn. The kitchen is so tiny that they keep the refrigerator in the windowless living room along with two chairs, a tattered sofa and a coffee table. with a plywood top.

Thoks' wife, Nyaboth, sat in the back room nursing the couple's 1-year-old daughter. Nyaboth has tuberculosis and she is HIV positive.

Thoks insisted that the three of them had to take the risk of running north to Egypt because he is desperate to find treatment for Nyaboth and to learn whether their daughter, Nyagak, also is HIV positive.

There were no medical facilities for the family in southern Sudan, where war raged for two decades between the Muslim Arab-led government in Khartoum and millions of residents who follow Christian or animist beliefs. A formal peace deal signed this year allows the south to move toward autonomy, but first it has to rebuild almost from scratch -- hospitals, schools, roads, everything.

The UNHCR has said the southern Sudanese should prepare to return home. But it also has said southern Sudan won't be ready for them for months if not years.

Thoks said he can't wait that long.

"I must move forward to solve the problem with the HIV," he said. "I know there is a peace process at home, but I can't take my wife and daughter back to a place where there is no medicine for them."

Life in Egypt is no solution to their problems. Nyaboth can get preliminary treatment for tuberculosis, but not for HIV at her stage of the infection. Drug therapies to slow its advance recently have become available at reasonable prices in Egypt, said Amina Alkorey of the UNHCR, but they are reserved for Egyptian nationals, not refugees.

Egypt and Sudan's other neighbors did not invite the crises that have spilled into their countries. They have tolerated the presence of refugees, but they haven't taken responsibility for all the many needs of the Sudanese who have flooded their cities.

The upshot is that the Sudanese often become trapped in the cities where they land, said Richard Allhusen, who coordinates a relief ministry for St. Andrew's Church in Cairo.

"They can't go forward to a Western country," he said. "They can't go backward. They are just stuck here in a country that doesn't want them."

Egyptian schools also have been off-limits for most of the Sudanese children in Cairo, said Alkorey of the UNHCR. The city's schools already are overcrowded, she said. And there is so much friction between Egyptian and Sudanese communities that parents from both cultures worry about potential violence in the schools.

A nasty scar across Wal's left wrist is proof of the potential for violence. It is one reason he was eager to leave for Minnesota. Wal said he was attacked by a gang of Egyptian boys.

"They slapped ... my face while I was walking past them," he said. "Then they hit the back of my head and I fell down."

The boys robbed him of his wallet, identification cards, cash and a mobile phone, he said. "Then one of them pulled out a knife and cut the back of my right shoulder and my left thigh," he said. "I grabbed for the knife and tried to pull it away, but I was cut across my left wrist and into my palm."

No one in a crowd that saw the street fight did anything to stop the incident, he said, and nothing happened after he reported it to police.

Nelson, the Lutheran pastor from Minneapolis, said verbal and physical attacks on the Sudanese refugees are common in Cairo. Workers at St. Andrew's Church, where Nelson served, said they've seen the abuse.

"They get stoned on the streets," the Rev. Lynn Allhusen wrote in last year's annual report of the St. Andrew's Refugee Ministry. "Cars try to hit them when they cross the road. They are called 'monkeys' or asked if their blood is black too, like their skin." The five children who live in Thoks' apartment are forbidden to play outdoors.

St. Andrew's and other Cairo churches have created schools for Sudanese children and literacy classes for the adults, but they say that they can't fill all of the need and that thousands of kids aren't going to school.

Thoks isn't giving up hope of breaking the trap in which his family has landed. The United States won't consider taking him without U.N. refugee status. But the Australian Embassy has accepted his application for asylum.

"I am just waiting to hear what will happen to us," he said.

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