Nyakhat Buol’s family sits together on a couch in their Carroll home.
Nyakhat Buol’s family sits together on a couch in their Carroll home.

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series highlighting Sudanese refugees in Carroll.

April 11, 2018

There’s a man in Carroll who last saw his mother and brother and his war-torn country 20 years ago. All he has left of them is a family photo.

There’s a woman who had to change how she looks and behaves to survive. She is now pursuing a human services degree from Des Moines Area Community College.

There’s a man who feels like he’s targeted by police because of his dark skin. He’s been arrested three times.

And there’s a woman who moved to Carroll to give her children the opportunity for a better life, but she laments the poor choices some of her fellow refugees make.

They are part of the town’s Sudanese community, which includes about 100 people. At one time, the community was more than 200, but a lack of affordable housing is pushing them to Denison.

They come to Carroll to work.

They come for an education for their children and, sometimes, for themselves at Des Moines Area Community College.

They come for affordable housing and government assistance to live.

Many feel like pariahs as they move about town — a town that has historically been very white. The conflicts that arise among them and longtime residents stem from race, different cultures, and poverty, said Ann Reed, a cultural anthropologist at Iowa State University.

“A lot of refugees that come here have nothing, so they start from scratch,” Reed said. “It’s easy to label a group as troublesome and not law-abiding without understanding the challenges that they face. There is no river between us. We share the same space and land, so why are we trying to create these false dichotomies?”

‘THE GOOD PEOPLE’

Nyakhat Buol has watched her people struggle in Carroll.

Buol moved to Carroll in 2009 with her family. They were among the first Sudanese families to come to Carroll and the second black family in town, she said.

She moved to Carroll from Storm Lake, where her family previously lived with her brother. She wanted to leave the meatpacking plant and provide her kids with better opportunities, she said.

Today, she still sees all of the good opportunities in Carroll but is disappointed in some of the Sudanese people living here.

“It really sometimes hurts my feelings when I know my people are going bad in the community,” Buol said. “I want the white community to know us as the good people.”

Buol works for Pella Corp. making window screens. Coworkers helped her move when she found a bigger house for herself and six kids, ranging in age from toddler to teenager.

Her life in Carroll is difficult, she says, when it comes to getting better housing and finding a job — but she is proud of everything she has accomplished.

The only change she hopes to see is in her people, she said.

“Our people now, there’s more going to jail all of the time for drinking and driving with no license, so it’s really hard,” she said.

Buol believes the lack of understanding in cultural differences is creating rifts in the town.

“The culture thing is way different than what Carroll people think,” she said. “The Sudanese, if I don’t like you, and you talk s--- about me, I just go fight you. It’s just the way our culture is. White people can just let it go. In our culture, it’s not like that.”

Buol has become an outsider among her own people at times, she said. Some are jealous of her success.

In order for things to change, she wants to see more Carroll employers working to help Sudanese people and African-Americans get and maintain jobs. This issue is forcing more Sudanese to leave Carroll and move to larger areas like Sioux City, she said.

“I want everybody to get a job and make the community better for others. The community of Carroll can hire anybody, whether you are black or white,” Buol said. “The way people see my Sudanese community is they drunk fight or they drive a car when they are drunk and then they get arrested.”

WHAT THEY FLED

Gabriel Gak Lul has not seen his family since June 22, 1994.

Before that day, Lul lived with his mother, Nyaruey, and his older brother, David, in a village located near the border of what is now South Sudan and Ethiopia. His father died in a fight when Lul was 5 days old.

At the time, Sudan and Ethiopia were both engaged in prolonged civil wars. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of rebel forces, fought against the Ethiopian government while the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fought against the neighboring Sudanese government.

David was a soldier in the SPLA. Lul and his family were forced to move to the Gambella Region in Ethiopia as refugees after conditions in Sudan became too dangerous. Lul knew the area as Region 12, its former name.

The war in Ethiopia began soon after, prompting the United Nations Refugee Agency to move refugees away from the region.

“My mom wanted to stay in Sudan with my brother,” Lul said. “She said if I wanted to go to America, I could go.”

Today, Lul is a resident of Carroll. The only remnant he bears of his family is a photo of his mother and his nieces and nephews. His brother was killed in 2006 in a car crash with government troops.

“The government kills people like animals,” Lul said. “My mom is starving over there with my brother’s kids. They have no place to live and no food.”

Lul moved to Carroll in 2015 to attend Des Moines Area Community College. He wants to return to South Sudan and help those in need. He also is working to connect with his mother, who is difficult to track as she moves among refugee camps.

“The Sudanese need to come together,” Lul said. “I need to go over there to see what’s happening. I want to go back and help anyone who needs help in South Sudan.”

UNDER THE SURFACE

Cindy Johnson has been a pastor to many Sudanese Christians in Carroll, due in part to her church’s proximity to low-income apartment housing near Fairview Elementary School on the city’s northeast side.

“(The Sudanese in Carroll) are very marginalized,” said Johnson, of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church. “I see some every Sunday, and I still speak no (Sudanese languages). It would be polite just to know a couple of phrases.”

Johnson has lived in Carroll for about five years. She grew up in northwest Iowa, near Le Mars. She lived in California for eight years but moved after the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Johnson said that two Sudanese people have officially joined her church, though she has come into contact with many more. She said that the Sudanese people she met who were Christians were subject to hostility due to their religion, among many other things.

“It’s a challenge to address the racism that is under the surface in (Carroll),” Johnson said. “Steve King is our representative, and he’s such a jerk. There’s this layer of people that think he’s doing just fine. But, there is an equal amount of people in this town who are open-minded, less condemning and not as quick to judge.”

TOUGH ROAD AHEAD

In order to survive, Clara Auling hid from the world.

Raised in Khartoum, Sudan, Auling was forced to cover her face, speak differently and lie about who she was.

In 2011, Sudan split in two as the hatred between the Nuer and Dinka tribes continued to burn. To save herself from persecution, Auling learned to speak Arabic to mask her native language, Dinka. She began to pray to a new God and gave up her own identity to save her life.

After years of living in fear, she went to Egypt with her two sisters and brother to meet with United Nations representatives before coming to the United States. Auling, her husband and their newborn daughter landed in the States in 1999.

Their first stop: Tucson, Arizona.

At the time, Auling did not speak English and felt isolated. The family moved after a mere 15 days to Salt Lake City to be closer to friends. Still, her husband couldn’t cope and returned to Sudan, leaving her with two kids.

After 14 years, Auling decided Salt Lake City was not where she wanted to raise her family. She moved her children to Carroll, and after five years here, she still finds herself escaping into her bedroom at night to cry.

Even sometimes I ask myself, why (do) we always have problems — black people?” Auling said. “Even in our own country we cannot get freedom.”

Read part two of this series here.