By Drew Peterson-Roach
Imagine starting a new life, 7500 miles from home. It’s cold here, and the winters are long, snowy, and dark. You can speak a few basic words—enough to get by—but you can’t quite understand what the people around you are saying. Getting around is tough. The city is big, and everything is so far apart. The buses don’t make sense to you, so even getting to your job or taking your child to the doctor’s office is complicated. You spent the morning trying to get your neighbor to explain your utility bill to you. When you walk around, people look at you suspiciously, and sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in here. Day-to-day life means doing battle with dozens of small confusions and managing unfamiliarity. Sure, you’re glad to be safe here in America, but sometimes you wonder whether coming here was the best decision.
This snapshot is a day in the life of an Anuak refugee, resettled in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The Anuak homeland, Gambela, is on Ethiopia’s western frontier with Sudan. Gambela is a region comprised of several ethnic groups, of which the Anuak and Nuer are the largest. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as Gambela’s substantial resources and fertile farmland drew “highland” migrants to resettle from other parts of Ethiopia, interethnic tension and competition simmered in low-grade hostility and sporadic violence between armed groups. In December 2003 the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) launched an assault against Anuak militants and took control of the Gambelan regional government, in the process killing more than 420 Anuak noncombatants. Since then, according to Human Rights Watch, the military has been engaged in “widespread human rights violations” against the Anuak “indicative of crimes against humanity.” Thousands of Anuak have fled Gambela, setting up refugee camps in towns like Juba and Pochalla in southern Sudan.
Some of these refugees have made their way to the United States, where they face considerable difficulties adjusting to life away from home. Founded in 2003 and incorporated two years later, the Gambella Relief Organization (GRO) serves a population of roughly 2,000 refugee Anuak resettled in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
With a staff of five employees assisted by volunteers from area universities, GRO provides a variety of services to the Anuak refugee community. Chief among them are ESL training and provisioning interpreters. According to Apee Jobi, GRO’s executive director, in the Anuak community “eighty percent do not speak English well.”
Another emphasis for GRO is after-school mentoring programs for Anuak youth.
Of equally importance, the GRO collaborates with other local partners, such as East Side Neighborhood Services, to help direct its members to other services that it does not itself provide.
“The problem is not a lack of resources or services,” says Jobi, “What we are trying to do is become a facilitator of the community and the services that are available here.” GRO’s partners provide assistance with driver training, job placement, immigration, and housing.
GRO first became involved with the IRC’s Project Strengthening Organizations Assisting Refugees (SOAR) in 2007. They have worked with IRC staff on developing a mission statement, program planning, grant writing, and recordkeeping and website development. According to Jobi, “having someone to look at what we are doing from the outside in terms of our methods has been the most helpful aspect of our involvement with Project SOAR.”
In the Fall of 2009, as part of the Graduate Practicum in International Affairs, four graduate students at New School University partnered with the International Rescue Committee and three Minnesota ethnic community based organizations (ECBOs) to complete profiles of these community-based organizations’ work, for their use in outreach and public education
For More Information, Contact:
Gambela Relief Organization
1821 University Avenue West
Suite: 286 -South
St. Paul, MN 55104