From Sudan to Pittsburgh: A long journey home

Refugees watch changes in Darfur intently but say Pittsburgh has embraced them

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The question is simple: Would you like to return home some day?

The answer is simple, too, but loaded with history and emotion.

"I can't. There is no home," said Ismail Omar, waving his arms indicating his home -- his entire village -- is gone.

Home for Mr. Omar, 54, was the village of Amo in the Darfur, or western, region of Sudan, one of the most war-torn countries on the planet over the last 30 years.

After a 20-year journey by turns treacherous and fortuitous that took him through four countries, he now works in housekeeping at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and lives in a small apartment in Castle Shannon.

He shares it with three other men, including lifelong friend Mohamed Idris, 48; all are refugees from Darfur. In the apartment across the hallway are three more refugees, all seven of them from villages in the northern region of Darfur.

They all came here between May and August 2009, assisted by Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh. Though the region now has several hundred residents from the south region of Sudan, the seven are believed to be the first Darfurians to move as refugees to the Pittsburgh area in recent memory.

Their presence is appreciated by the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, which formed six years ago to raise awareness of the genocide taking place in Darfur.

Before the Darfurians moved here, "we had to ask Darfur residents from Philadelphia to come speak at our rallies," said David Rosenberg, lead organizer for the coalition.

Having them here "helps people understand and makes it real to them," Mr. Rosenberg said. "It doesn't feel so far away anymore."

The men take language classes to improve their English, already pretty good, and search for more work. But Mr. Omar and Mr. Idris keep an eye and ear on their homeland, which is lurching toward peace.

Wednesday marks the end of a three-week-long referendum among residents of south Sudan, and expatriate refugees around the world, including in the United States, to decide if the predominantly Christian south will separate from the predominantly Muslim north.

Often lost in the coverage of that momentous referendum, which is expected to pass easily, is that it does nothing to solve the lingering trouble between the north of Sudan, which is ethnically Arab, and the Darfur region, which is ethnically African.

This past week, Mr. Omar and Mr. Idris sat down in their apartment to talk about their history, and the future of their country.

Both are members of the Fur tribe, the largest tribe in the region of Darfur, which literally means "land of the Fur." Their native tongue is Fur, despite the Sudanese government's effort to stamp it out and make them speak only Arabic.

They spoke in English, and for more complex questions in Arabic translated by a friend.

They met the friend, Benedict Killang, since moving here. He is a leader among the south Sudanese community here. Three weeks ago, Mr. Killang and fellow south Sudanese went to Virginia to vote in the referendum, something not lost on Mr. Idris and Mr. Omar, who say they weren't envious.

"We were happy for him," said Mr. Idris, who works in housekeeping at Rivers Casino. "It will be better that they separate, because since 1955 [when England gave up colonial rule of Sudan] there has only been death. So this will enable them to stay in peace."

As for their hopes for their homeland, like Darfurians around the world, they can't agree on what should happen.

"That is a tough question," Mr. Idris said. "Maybe Darfur and the south will join together, and later rejoin with the north."

Mr. Omar can't fathom that, not after genocide, not after he lost his father and two brothers in the early fighting in 1987.

"I hope for a separate state, like the south will have. This is my hope," he said.

Though international officials, pundits and historians like to debate the real reasons behind the fighting in Darfur, to Mr. Omar and Mr. Idris, there is no disagreement about what was really behind it.

"The government [in the north] wanted to completely destroy our African culture and bring the Arab culture in and use Darfur as the gateway for Arab Islam to get into the whole of Africa," Mr. Idris said.

"My religion is Islam, like it is in the north, and I speak Arabic, like in the north, but my roots are not Arab. I am African," he said. "And since we became an obstacle to what the government wanted, they fought us."

His friend, Mr. Omar, nods in agreement.

The two men have known each other nearly all of their lives. They were both farmers in separate villages in northern Darfur, "about a three- or four-hour walk apart, maybe two by camel," Mr. Idris said.

Mr. Idris first left his village, Einseiro, for the larger town of Kutum in 1985, after fighting broke out near home. When it worsened, he left Sudan and headed to Egypt. He eventually made his way to Iraq in 1998, living for a time in a refugee camp in the desert, "where only the American military helped us, gave us food."

Eventually he got a job in a hotel nearby, staying for a decade before heading to a refugee camp in Romania. From there, in 2009, he finally was approved to come to the United States.

Mr. Omar followed roughly the same path, though he left four years later, in 1989, joining up with Mr. Idris in Egypt and then Iraq and Romania before leaving for the U.S. But he couldn't persuade his mother, who is living in a refugee camp, to apply to leave with him.

"She says she will never move," he said. "She wants to go back to our village and die, even though I tell her it is destroyed."

Mr. Omar also worked in a hotel in Iraq, work that made them appealing hires when they came to the United States.

"Unlike some other refugees we work with, every time I took them somewhere for a job interview, everyone was just amazed," said Kheir Mugwaneza, a refugee case manager for Catholic Charities, which provided financial support when they first arrived with almost no possessions. "They spoke some English. They had more than 10 years experience working in hotels. They would do anything and were eager to work. It wasn't hard to find them jobs."

Catholic Charities found them an apartment just a couple blocks from the T line that runs through the South Hills, and the jobs have given them a base, but life remains a work in progress.

Both worry their limited English will prevent them from getting better jobs: "I want people to understand me with everything I say," Mr. Idris said.

But Western Pennsylvania has been very welcoming, Mr. Omar said, so much so that when he heard from his friend Mr. Idris that New Hampshire, where he was first settled, was not a good fit, he persuaded him to move here.

"It was very, very cold there," Mr. Idris said, and the people there were indifferent.

Mr. Omar described a different life in Western Pennsylvania to him.

"I told him, the citizens of Pittsburgh are good. They like helping others," Mr. Omar said.

A big part of that were the exchanges he began having with Mr. Rosenberg and the people, like Mr. Killang, he met through the south Sudanese community.

Finding the coalition here "was a surprise," Mr. Omar said. "I didn't expect there would be people here worried about Darfur."

"One of the reasons I feel I belong to Pittsburgh and it is my land now is knowing [the coalition] is here," he said.

He told Mr. Idris about the coalition before he came here, too, and it helped persuade him to move.

"I was grateful there were people here who cared," said Mr. Idris, who has come to be a fan of the Steelers.

Of course, they miss their homeland, their families, their food -- "We can't find any millet to make our food like at home," Mr. Idris said -- and their music, kushoke, a drum-based music played for celebrations.

But neither can they see ever returning for anything more than a visit. Even if peace is achieved, too much time and history have passed, and because so many have died, they wouldn't know whom to trust.

"Here," said Mr. Omar, pointing around the table in his apartment at Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Killang and Mr. Idris, "I know he is my friend, and he is my friend and he is my friend. I know that. But there, so many of my friends died.

"I think, now, this is my home."

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579.


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