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New Pilgrims, Familiar Dreams

Sudanese Refugees Thankful, Though Life Remains a Struggle

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page VA08

Francis Ayoub has no idea what Thanksgiving is. He has never tasted turkey. Someone mentioned the other day that Thanksgiving is a time for families to get together. That would be nice. But for him, it's a Thursday, a workday. He will be at the Doubletree Hotel in Tysons Corner today stacking piles of sheets and towels in linen closets and emptying trash.

Ayoub, 22, is a refugee from Sudan who came to the United States with little more than his wife and child last January. He isn't from the horrific Darfur region, where the Arab Janjaweed militia has been killing, raping and burning villages of black Fur tribesman. Ayoub is a member of the Madi clan from southern Sudan, where famine and a bitter civil war between north and south has raged without end for 21 years -- most of his life.


Awadia Lazarus, her husband, Francis Ayoub, and their year-old son, Tony, enter their Arlington apartment. Lazarus and Ayoub escaped from war-torn Sudan and are struggling to get by in America. (Photos Len Spoden For The Washington Post)

_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
Violence Fractures Cease-Fire In Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
Violence in Darfur Inspires Surge In Student Activism (The Washington Post, Nov 23, 2004)
Rebel Attacks Raise Tensions in Darfur (The Washington Post, Nov 21, 2004)
In Sudan, a Sense of Abandonment (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 2004)
U.S. Urges Aid to Spur Peace in Sudan (The Washington Post, Nov 15, 2004)

He sits in an overheated classroom at Arlington's Kenmore Middle School late one recent Thursday night, struggling over English grammar with classmates from Peru, Ethiopia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Somalia and Russia. Ayoub thumbs his Wortabet's Arabic-English pocket dictionary and carefully writes on his work sheet: "Roger never irons his shirts, but he's ironing them today because . . . "

An announcement comes over the public address system telling them that the 350 or so students in the Arlington Employment and Education Program will have evening classes Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

Ayoub practices Christianity, a religion followed by just 5 percent of the population in largely Islamic Sudan. So he knows Christmas and Easter and "the first of the year." His first memorable experience of an American holiday was Veterans Day, because that's what his timecard at work showed.

"Does anyone know what Thanksgiving is?" teacher Stan Rothouse asks the class.

Silence. A woman takes a corner of the purple hijab over her head and covers her mouth.

Ayoub offers that when he fled Sudan for Egypt, where he waited four years to be reunited with his family in the United States, people sometimes went to church to pray.

"What do we do here on Thanksgiving?"

"Eat," says one student.

"Work," say several others.

"Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?"

"No," say most. "Never."

Rothouse tries to explain. He tells them it's a day for family, for giving thanks to God. But beyond that, even Rothouse becomes a bit flustered. "I have a vague idea about this," he says, asking a visitor for help in explaining how this last Thursday in November, with its feast of turkey and cranberry sauce, yams and pumpkin pie and long, lazy afternoons of watching football, has become so burned into the American consciousness.


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