Dot Bol, 38, tested positive for COVID-19 on April 28. Her 11-year-old daughter fell ill with the virus a few days later. Dot is a mother of three and a refugee from South Sudan. Being infected and feeling sick was scary, but seeing her daughter’s illness was devastating.
“When James found out that I was sick, he called me immediately to offer help,” Dot said.
James Aguek is the president of Abyei Community of Iowa and of the national organization, Abyei-Ngok Community Association in the U.S. This ethnic, community-based group assists South Sudanese refugees, and refugees in general.
“I applied for unemployment, but it didn’t go through, so I called James and asked for help,” Dot said. “In two weeks, I received my check.”
Her daughter became extremely ill with the virus and it took a mental and emotional toll on her. Throughout it all, James checked on the family regularly and assisted in any way he could.
Bol arrived in the U.S. when she was 10. She has since learned a lot and when it comes to navigating the system, and she has more of an advantage than others.
“I was lucky when I arrived,” Dot said. “I spoke English and I knew the system, and it was [still] so difficult to get the help I needed. Imagine how hard it is for the people that don’t speak the language?”
There are many obstacles refugees from South Sudan face when they arrive in Iowa, from language to culture, but the pandemic has added a new set of circumstances that can complicate issues further and cause devastation.
Most community-based or governmental agencies are not equipped to meet the needs of refugees, making ethnic agencies like Abyei even more important.
I spoke to Abyei’s Iowa president, James Aguek, who arrived in the U.S. in 2000 and has been serving his community for many years, first in Orlando, Florida, and now in Iowa.
“One of the purposes of our organization is to integrate the newly arrived refugees to the U.S culture and bridge the gap,” he said. “We also try to educate the younger generations about their rich culture, but our main purpose is to educate our people to be the custodians of the opportunity and become as productive as possible.”
Currently the organization is helping with the immediate needs related to COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, Abyei also focused on assisting South Sudanese youth find success in academics, athletics, music and other important areas. As I visited with James, I noticed three young, very tall, beautiful young ladies on their laptops in the conference room.
Nya Christmas Puok, 22, is a biology student at William Penn University. She is one of seven siblings.
“I heard wonderful things about this organization (Abyei) from a friend, so I visited once, and I have been coming here every single day since,” she told me.
Nya likes it there because she can do her homework in a quiet space that has free internet and there are volunteers that can help her with any questions she may have. Nya also helps other members of her community.
“We are the bridge between the community and the resources they need,” she said.
I also met Awal Ajak, 22, from Sudan. She studied political science at the University of Missouri Kansas City and now is working on her master’s degree in international relations in Texas. Ajak said that she has always been interested in helping her community and that is the reason she volunteers for the organization.
Nya and Awal are reaching out to local organizations, politicians, partners, and possible donors. Currently, these college graduates are planning to help younger kids with their virtual classes and homework.
A big problem for students and their parents during the pandemic is that since many schools are going virtual, they may not have internet access at home. It is not unusual for several children to live in a small apartment. Parents work long hours and, in many cases, do not speak English and therefore are unable to provide the added academic support kids need.
Ashol Aguek, 22, has a communications degree from the University of Iowa. She is the daughter of Abyei’s Iowa president and grew up watching her father’s spirit of service, something she inherited.
One of the biggest obstacles Ashol has observed during the pandemic is the lack of information, access to resources and benefits for her community.
“Many people do not know about those resources, like after the derecho storm. Refugees didn’t know they could have some relief,” she said.
Abyei not only provides the information but assists refugees apply for those programs. Most importantly, the organization meets the language needs of the community, which sometimes means multiple languages.
Many refugees have lost their jobs due to the economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic and have been unable to find another job.
In talking to these smart, caring and driven young Sudanese refuges and learning about the great work they do to help their community, we can be filled with hope.
In Iowa there are many well-intentioned individuals who want to help refugees, yet they leave them out of the decision-making process, funding conversations and boardrooms. It is best to be intentional and genuine about including true representation of who you want to help and to hear directly about their needs and struggles.
These organizations are in desperate need of funding but also need community support, leadership development and mentorship to become independently successful to continue their much-needed work.
“If immigrants and refugees do well, the state of Iowa will do well, and the United States of America will do well,” said James Aguek. “So, we will continue our work to accomplish the mission of better our communities.”
I could not agree more.
By Claudia Thrane
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