Parish offers refuge, home

African family finds new life in church's relocation program

March 26, 2001|By Pepper Ballard | Pepper Ballard,SUN STAFF

Joseph Madut Kuot rubbed his brow, engraved with the marks of his native Dinka tribe in southern Sudan, and recalled the struggles of his wife, Nyanut.

Before she married Joseph Kuot, her village in southern Sudan was raided by rebels, Nyanut was abducted and taken to the western part of the country and ordered to wash clothes and watch over grazing cattle. One day she escaped, hopping trains and hiding in houses far from her own. Eventually, she made her way to Alexandria, Egypt, where she married Joseph Kuot. Then they came to the United States, the first family St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Westminster has taken in, and Ruth Gray, co-chair of the refugee resettlement committee of the church, said they won't be the last.

According to figures supplied by the emergency response ministries refugee program, in 2000, 119 refugees were assisted with resettlement in Maryland. Of those, Kuot's family was the first Sudanese family resettled in the state by the New Windsor branch of Church World Service (CWS), a Christian refugee placement organization.

Sarah Krause, who places refugees for CWS, said she works closely with congregations in Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Frederick counties to develop sponsorship. She said that her chapter is one of 10 volunteer agencies in the country dividing refugees among them according to resources and particular case needs.

The church voted to accept a family after it was suggested by Pastor Leo Maley that a house bought by the church would be ideal for refugees. St. Paul's committed to CWS to accept the family two months after deciding to participate in the refugee program. Once the congregation was notified of the family's acceptance of their church, it researched Sudan and prepared the house for its first residents.

Gray said only names, birth dates and languages spoken by the Kuots were given to the congregation before the family's arrival.

"They're really awed that we would accept them unseen," Gray said.

But Lloyd Helt, Gray's husband, lawyer and former mayor of Sykesville, said that before Kuot and his family arrived in the United States, they were under the impression that Joseph was 45 years old and Nyanut was 24.

Helt and the congregation found out later that Joseph had changed his age in Sudan to avoid an army draft. "Males over 40 aren't drafted and they wanted to draft him into the army and send him south to kill Christians," Helt said. Joseph Kuot is a Christian and did not want to be involved with the slaughtering of fellow Christians, according to Helt. He said Joseph Kuot is 39.

Krause said the family was a good match for the church because Joseph could speak English fluently. The first refugee proposed to St. Paul's spoke only a Nuer dialect and no one in the area was able to translate. Krause assured that CWS places refugees regardless of whether one congregation rejects sponsorship.

Gray and Helt took leadership of the project and divided responsibilities among the congregation, separating into seven established committees and other willing helpers.

Gray said since the Sudanese family's arrival in late January, all have helped in some way-from helping them shop to building a baby gate for 15-month-old Victoria. "I wish I could have been there to see their reaction to the Giant and to see their reaction to Wal-Mart, but I'm delegating," Gray said. "I'm sharing the wealth."

Joseph Kuot said he feels very welcomed by the church's hospitality and sees nothing but promise in his new home and friends.

"Every person has his own dreams and you have to put it into reality," Joseph said. "What's behind that is God to bless them so they become reality."

The Kuot's struggle was long endured both individually and as a couple in attempts to provide themselves with a better life for themselves and their child.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, has experienced the longest civil war in the globe, which has forced families such as Joseph Kuot's to seek asylum, in the their case to it was in Egypt.

From there it is decided whether other options may be taken. They chose the United States, a resettlement opportunity available to less than 1 percent of the refugee population.

"I told her we had to go to the United States," Joseph Kuot said, after his wife had applied to Canada and Australia as well.

They were first approved by Canada, but they waited for the United States to take them in, Joseph listed the educational opportunities for all of their family as good reason to wait.

Nyanut Kuot arrived in Cairo, her city of asylum, in November 1998. Joseph had fled to Egypt, where he had gotten his bachelor's degree in English and education at the University of Alexandria in 1994 to escape recruitment into the army in Sudan.

They were married in Alexandria in 1999 and in July they registered for resettlement and were approved for entry into the United States on Oct. 16, 2000.

"I find that when I was in Egypt I feared that if I did not keep my passport in my pocket I would be deported to Sudan," Joseph said.

"Now I feel nothing could deport me." He added with a laugh, "Unless of course I broke one of the laws of America."

Krause said that she is impressed with the openness of the congregation and the adaptation the family has made into the community.

Joseph Kuot is working at Charles Klein and Sons Inc., an air-conditioning and heating contracter, where he is training to install and repair units. Nyanut is working to learn English.

"When you sponsor a refugee you save a life," Krause said. "To be a part of that experience is humbling."

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