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New Pilgrims, Familiar Dreams

He feared returning to visit his mother in the south because if the government troops didn't catch you and kill you for being from the south, the rebels in the south would catch you and kill you for living in the north -- the only place where food and jobs could be found -- and for being a suspected government spy. The last time Geri saw his mother, he said, his eyes misting behind thick, square glasses in the darkened living room, was in 1987, after a two-hour trip that took more than a week because he had to constantly stop and hide.

Ayoub's family finally arrived in the United States in May 1999.


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)

War had already fractured many of their own Sudanese traditions. Growing up in the countryside, Geri remembers a spring festival. When the first fruits ripened, families would gather the freshest produce, cook a big meal and give it away. None of his children, growing up in cities in the north, ever experienced the tradition.

Once in America, a local church gave them a turkey for their first Thanksgiving, Geri remembers, but volunteers had to come to their apartment and show Sarphina how to cook it. Surur says the family does usually gather for a meal on Thanksgiving, though most prefer traditional smoked fish and meats. "We do have turkey," she said. "We just put traditional foods all around it on the table."

While his family struggled to assimilate in America, Ayoub, left behind, was struggling to survive. "We were scattered by war," he said. "This is the life in Sudan. When you are from south, you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow."

With his family gone and a degree from Comboni High School in Khartoum, Ayoub quickly found himself pressed by the government into joining the army. "If I go to fight for the government, I go to fight against the south, against my people," Ayoub explains. "I say no."

He was arrested and thrown in jail for 45 days. He was sure he would die. "Most people, when they are arrested, we never see them again," he said.

His captors said they would free him if he agreed to convert to Islam. Ayoub said yes, and began making his plan to escape. A relative got him a false passport and papers, because Ayoub's name would show up on any list of wanted persons at the border. In 2000, he took a train from Khartoum to the border, then escaped by boat into Egypt.

Ayoub worked as a security guard at a jewelry store and met and married his wife, who had fled Sudan with her brother. After four years, Ayoub was accorded refugee status -- something granted only if one can prove his or her life is in danger -- and was allowed to come to the United States.

Once here, the Diocese of Arlington's Office of Resettlement helped Ayoub and his wife find work and an apartment. With rent costing $1,000 a month, they are barely getting by.

Seyoum Berhe, director of refugee services for the Diocese of Arlington, said the office helps about 900 refugees a year. Many need to be shown how to do things as simple as turning on a stove or flushing a toilet. There is little time to explain something like Thanksgiving.

Most of the time, agency officials have to set refugees straight on what to expect -- that money does not grow on trees here, and that while it may be the land of milk and honey, you have to work to get it to flow.

"Some of them think getting a house is nothing," Berhe said. "Some get to an apartment and ask, 'Where is the phone? Where is the TV? Where is the VCR?' Everybody knows something about America, but it's not always accurate."

Ayoub, too, thought everything would be easy once he got to America. He'd have a house, a car, time to study. "I think I will enjoy my life," he says quietly. "But soon, you see the real thing. You have to work. You have to help yourself."

If it is a hard life now, with little time and little money for fun or family or trips to the park with giggly little Tony, who runs around the apartment in an Adidas T-shirt and stuffed monkey, Ayoub does not let on. "I feel free. I can do whatever I want to do," he says.

So he doesn't know what Thanksgiving is. He will learn.

"I want to see what people do on Thanksgiving so I will know what to do next year. We are Americans now," he says.


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