A Voice for the Girls of Sudan

In 1998, Agnes Oswaha fled Sudan with nothing but her purse and her life.

She ended up in Seattle, Washington where she was granted asylum in 1999. But even today, ten years later, Oswaha has nightmares about the ongoing genocides in her home country. She has lost brothers, sisters, cousins angrandparents in Sudan. In October 2004, her little sister Esther, a medical student, was lit on fire near the family’s house in Khartoum. Although Esther survived, she is still living with the physical pain, deformity and paralyzing fear of being attacked again by those who hate her because of her ethnic and religious background.

According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, more than 2 million Sudanese—one out of every five—have been killed and over four million displaced since 1983. The civil war rages between the predominantly northern Arab Muslim population and the southern region’s Christian population. Raised as a Christian in Khartoum, the predominantly Arab capital city, Oswaha faced severe discrimination. “For the first 20 years of my life, I lived as a southern Sudanese Christian minority in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. In Khartoum, Arab-Muslims are the majority and hold the positions of power. Growing up, I faced educational and social obstacles as a young Christian female in a predominantly Muslim nation. There is a saying that my mother, my reservoir of strength, always used,” she says. “When two elephants fight, the grass underneath suffers the most.”  It is an apt depiction of the suffering faced by those caught in Sudan’s genocide.

With the conflicts in Sudan continuing to rage, much media attention has been given to the “Lost Boys” through documentaries, books, and newspaper reports. But very little is ever said about the Lost Girls, who often faces struggles even more difficult. Girls and female teens who lost both parents–and sometimes those who had not–were either placed in African foster homes, pushed into marriages with dowries or used as domestic servants. Many of these arrangements involved payments to guardians. As a result, far more male than female refugees found themselves in a position to meet aid workers who could help them gain referrals for resettlement overseas.

A 2003 congressional report by the Office of Refugee Resettlement found the young women’s male refugee counterparts–who outnumber them roughly by 38 to 1–were making substantial strides in achieving independence, with employment rates 18 percent higher than among male U.S. counterparts. Lost Girls, by contrast, lag U.S. female counterparts by 25 percent. “Our children in southern Sudan and Darfur are suffering the most,” says Oswaha. “They, along with their mothers, have been victims of crossfire, land mines, rape, slavery and human-created famine.”

Oswaha now has two degrees from the University of Washington: a Bachelor of Arts degree in Law, Society and Justice and a second Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. She intends to concentrate on helping other immigrants and victims of injustice, and currently works as a legal advocate in the citizenship unit at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project – the same organization through which she obtained asylum. Oswaha and Harriet Dumba, another Sudanese refugee who was separated from her parents at age five, helped found the Southern Sudanese Women’s Association in 2000, which provides assistance to Sudanese women through a variety of programs that include job training, assistance with local housing, and education about HIV/AIDS.

Oswaha and Dumba also founded Hearts of Angels for Health-Sudan Initiative (HAH-S), a nonprofit organization focused both on improving health and empowering Sudanese women and men to overcome their traumatic pasts and learn new skills in conflict resolution.

“My personal experiences of persecution and living in a war-torn environment put me in close contact with the needs and challenges of people around the world facing various injustices,” Oswaha says. “As long as violence, persecution and discrimination continue in Sudan and beyond, I will continue to fight for social justice and human rights amongst the most marginalized and too often forgotten in our world.

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