Families face same struggles facing America

Some problems are universal.

When I was a freshman at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, my roommate in the men’s dorm was from a small Illinois town. His father was out of the picture. His mother worked, a lot, to support them. She obviously loved her boy. She just didn’t get to see him much.

I was a latchkey kid myself, but mom and dad had stuck together, so chances were good you’d run into one of them during the day, and certainly at night. This obviously was before cellphones through which my children track me day and night.

My roommate’s house was empty when we went to visit. His mom was working some crazy long hours at a plant in town. She did not have much choice in the matter, and it was par for the course, I was told. About 10 minutes after my roommate made a call, the house was packed with friends, hangers-on and cheap beer. No one drank the five cans left from the six-pack of Red White and Blue. Even misbehaving kids had more taste than that.

It was not an odd night for my roommate or that house. His mom wasn’t even surprised. When I met her, she was tired and overwhelmed, yes; but not surprised.

I thought about him after I met Mr. John Brown Bol. His card says he is a community organizer with the Southern Sudanese of Mower County. We’ve spoken twice in the past few weeks. He’s concerned about his fellow refugees in Austin, from teens being left to their own devices getting into trouble, to grown-ups’ involvement in the deadly political situation back in Africa’s newest country.

South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. Without going too deep into it, the landlocked country has been mired in civil war. Thousands have died and millions of people have been displaced. Austin, Minnesota, has become home to many, including Bol. He hoped I would share some messages from him, such as that refugees who go back and forth to South Sudan to help the murderous government there is a wrong-headed use of the gift given them by the United States. They now live in and learn from a peaceful democracy, and lessons learned here are what they need to bring back to Africa, not willingness to help fight a war, he said.

That message has gotten him some trouble with at least one other refugee, he said.

His other message, which is interwoven with his community activism in town for years now, is to families. It’s a plea to keep marriages together, to accept that practices and roles they were accustomed to – right down to chores – are different here. Breaking up families hurts children. Left more on their own, already dealing with being different than most of the people around them, with a lack of understanding of who they are, leads children to trouble, he said. The repercussions for them could be more serious than their non-refugee peers, however. They could wind up deported, he said.

This is not a new worry for Bol, who has been involved in trying and failing to establish a community center to help the teens and their families deal with these issues while teaching the children who they are. Time and space is set aside for South Sudanese on Fridays at St. Olaf Lutheran Church, he said.

Bol uses social media to try to get messages out to help the children understand their heritage, to help them have pride in who they are. He also is attempting to set up a show on public radio to speak to the South Sudanese community. He’s not heard back from Minnesota Public Radio, he said.

In the years since my roommate quit college at the end of our freshman year, I’ve lost track of him. I’ve met many more people who have lived similar lives. Families struggling paycheck to paycheck, losing time away from their children, it’s what America has become for too many people. Bol’s community escaped a civil war to fall into this struggle. If he finds answers for his community, those too will be universal.

Contact Managing Editor Chris Baldus at chris.baldus@austindailyherald.com.

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