For South Sudanese, triumph
After waiting for decades, 100 celebrate at City Hall
Soon after arriving in Boston from an African refugee camp in 2001, Achier Mou learned what to do when he heard the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner’’: Face the flag and press his right hand over his heart.
Yesterday morning on City Hall Plaza, 6,639 miles away from independence day celebrations in Juba, South Sudan, Mou listened with his palm on his chest as the American national anthem played, as he has done dozens of times since he and other war-displaced Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan were brought to Massachusetts.
Neither he nor the other members of Boston’s South Sudanese community moved when the music ended. Hands stayed over hearts as South Sudan’s freshly composed national anthem played four times over loudspeakers. Then they watched their new flag slowly rise to wave along side the red, white, and blue flag of their adopted country.
And they listened to the music quietly, because nobody yet knew the words.
Mou promised himself he would learn.
“I can’t even express it,’’ he said. “We’ve waited for something for so long. Now we can sit down and figure out what’s best for us, instead of fighting.’’
The ceremony did not remain quiet for long: The flag-waving crowd soon burst into revolutionary songs, dancing, and shouts of “Congratulations South Sudan!’’ The more than 100 South Sudanese gathered at City Hall were proud not only to be celebrating the birth of South Sudan, a moment they have awaited for decades, but also proud to be doing it in the sunlight of a country they had once considered alien and frightening.
The festivities, so long in the making, were nearly derailed by a delivery error: The South Sudanese flag, ordered weeks ago, failed to arrive in time. No matter. Local volunteer Ellen Morgan stayed up late Friday night piecing a replacement together.
“To see the new flag up there next to the American flag, it’s incredible,’’ said Ron Moulton, 64, of Cambridge, a foster father to William Aleer Mabil, now 28.
“Incredible,’’ Mabil echoed.
The occasion brought Samuel Kuacliet, 30, to City Hall with a handmade sign that he raised above the heads of the other Lost Boys. In capital letters, it proclaimed: “Thank you America and united nations at large for helping South Sudan achieve independence today!’’
Photographs of his father and uncle, back in Sudan, hung from the back of the sign.
“That’s so they could celebrate too,’’ said Barbara Berke, 56, who served as Kuacliet’s unofficial foster mother for years after he arrived in Brookline, teaching him to drive, to organize his high school homework, and to appreciate American food.
Foster families and other volunteers such as Berke formed a support network around the Sudanese refugees soon after they began arriving, and they celebrated alongside their adoptive children and friends yesterday.
“It’s a big day for all of us,’’ said Moulton. His decision to take in Mabil as a foster son in 2001 led him to found two African aid organizations. “We’re like a big family.’’
The refugees needed all the help they could get.
Acclimating to American culture, language, school, and even the weather was as difficult as anything the Lost Boys and Girls had experienced in Africa, recalled Rebecca Madud, 27, who ran from her village during an attack at age 6 and resettled with a foster family in Natick in 2001.
None of the Sudanese knew English when they arrived, and many were illiterate. Coming from small rural villages and refugee camps, they had never seen grocery stores, snow, or cars.
By now, many have college degrees, jobs, and families. But they have not forgotten their pasts as refugees, or the families they left behind.
Mou was 5 or 6 years old when north Sudanese forces attacked his village, burning down his family’s house and killing some of his relatives. He, like other so-called Lost Boys, got lucky: Out in the fields playing when the attack began, he and other children began running and did not dare stop.
Their journey took them to a series of refugee camps in countries around Sudan, forming a story so compelling that President George W. Bush’s administration started a program to bring some of the Lost Boys and Girls to America. Mou, now 29, is working on a degree at Tufts University and looking for a job.
“It’s kind of hard to relive what happened,’’ he said. “We were looking for safety, but no place was safe.’’
As Maria Ajang listened to the national anthem, whose lyrics speak of South Sudan’s decades-long struggle for recognition, the 29-year-old also found it hard to relive her years in war-torn Sudan. Ajang shed tears for her sister - killed in front of her during an attack on their village - for her parents, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years, and for her years as a child slave in north Sudan.
She recalls being roped to other slaves and kept hidden from her mother, who had come north to search for her.
“I just really want to see my mom,’’ Ajang said, adding that although she knows her parents are alive, it is too expensive to visit Sudan. “But she’s going to be free. It’s wonderful.’’
Vivian Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org