An orphan heads to college

Sudan to Tucson

  • Chan Kuoth fled Sudan as a boy; now he lives in Tucson.

    Kyle Boelte

See end of story for a complete package of refugee stories in this issue.

The Gemstone Cafe at Pima Community College, in Tucson, Ariz., fills up quickly on the first day of the new term. Coolers full of bottled water and Gatorade hum in the background as students in jeans, T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts mill around sleepily.

At a quarter to 9:00, Chan Kuoth, 30, walks into the cafe wearing a tan suit-coat and slacks. Class won't start for a few more minutes, so he sits down and relaxes in a teal-blue plastic chair. Tall and dark-skinned, he smiles as he talks about his life. Six horizontal scars line his forehead -- the marks of his formal initiation into adulthood in a ceremony common back in  his native land.

Kuoth was born in Maiwut, in southeastern Sudan, a country engulfed by civil war for most of the last 50 years.  The wars have disrupted the social order, scattering refugees throughout the world. Long before the fighting in Darfur claimed the international spotlight in 2004, conflicts raged between the North and South, caused by a complex mix of disputes over resources and between ethnicities.

Kuoth fled Sudan in 1992, when he was 13. Like many other young Sudanese boys, he was separated from his parents and learned to survive without them. The second civil war was in its 10th year, and the Northern government was wiping out whole villages in the South. With his older brother, Kuoth made his way by foot to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He spent the next 14 years there, going to high school and then working for international non-governmental organizations. For a time, he was a case manager for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, working with unaccompanied minors. He also served as a peer educator in the camps for the African Humanitarian Aid and Development Agency. In 2006, he was granted admittance into the U.S.

Like many Sudanese refugees, Kuoth sees education as indispensable. With just a semester to go before he graduates from Pima with an associate's degree, Kuoth plans to attend the University of Arizona and earn a bachelor's degree in sociology. Now an intern with the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees, he hopes to eventually work in the resettlement field. For now, he supports himself by working as an aide at a home for the mentally ill.

In the two years that he has been here, Kuoth has embraced American life. "I'm just trying to work hard," he says. And when he finishes school? "I have to go back to helping people who are affected by war (and) conflict, especially refugees."

Right now, though, class is starting. Kuoth stands up, his goal clear in his mind: "To help other people to be independent," he says.

More refugee stories:

Refugees unsettle the West
In Greeley, Colorado, a meatpacking plant observes Muslim traditions such as Ramadan while multicultural refugees adapt to the West's very different landscape and culture.

Editor’s note: The newest Westerners
Immigrants from around the world are changing traditionally white Western communities such as Boise, Idaho.

A hard-fought immigration victory
Valentina Kabinov's family, Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, fought for years to stay in the U.S.

Seeking a vocation in a no-man’s land
Salam Talib, who barely escaped from Iraq with his life, now seeks a new beginning in San Francisco.

A new kind of ministry
Tom Simbo, who faced down gun-toting soldiers in Sierra Leone, now works with other immigrants in Denver, Colo.

Refugees by the numbers
Placing the influx of refugees in the West in context.

More than English
The Emily Griffith School has taught English to immigrants and refugees since its Language Learning Center opened in 1981. Using creativity, games and encouragement, the school also offers an orientation to U.S. culture and workplace protocol.

“I like America”


Multimedia: A unique neighborhood north of Seattle is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them refugees. The neighborhood center is used on Sunday mornings for Russian church, on Fridays for Arabic Muslim services, on weeknights for ESL classes for Somali Bantu.

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